Exploring the science of plants, from the field to the lab

Books: Past and Present

Thomas Walter and His Plants

Posted in Books: Past and Present on October 23, 2017 by Esther Jackson

Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office. She spends much of her time assisting researchers, providing instruction related to library resources, and collaborating with NYBG staff on various projects related to Garden initiatives and events.


Ward Front CoverThomas Walter and His Plants: The Life and Work of a Pioneer American Botanista new book from The New York Botanical Garden Press, documents how Walter named, for the first time, many native plants in North America in his Flora Caroliniana, published in 1788. Part history, but mostly scientific, Thomas Walter and His Plants will be of interest to botanists, bibliophiles, and history-of-science enthusiasts.

Flora Caroliniana was the first flora written in America that used Carl Linnaeus’ classification system and binomial nomenclature. In terms of modern taxonomy, this is a very big deal. The way that plants are still named today has its basis in Linnaeus works, specifically his Species Plantarum, published in 1753. After this publication, binomial nomenclature became the standard for naming plants. Very simply, binomial nomenclature is a system of giving plants (and other living things) a Latin name containing two parts—a genus (which is a capitalized noun) and a specific epithet (which is a lower-cased modifying adjective, often descriptive or commemorative). (Read more about taxonomic ranks, including genera and species here.) 

Read More

A Project as Big as the West: Wrapping Up More Than 80 Years of Intermountain Plant Research

Posted in Books: Past and Present on May 2, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager for The New York Botanical Garden.


Intermountain Flora
Tony King (American, b. 1944); Bristlecone 8, 2009
[Pinus longaeva, Intermountain bristlecone pine]
Oil on linen
in Intermountain Flora, Volume Seven
For almost all of their professional careers, Drs. Noel and Patricia Holmgren have explored the vast region between the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains—an area the size of Texas encompassing all or parts of seven states—to discover and document its plant life. Their work, and that of their many collaborators, is contained in Intermountain Flora, a monumental, multi-volume work published over the course of 45 years, beginning in 1972.

The New York Botanical Garden Press recently published the last volume in the series, Intermountain Flora, Volume Seven—Potpourri: Keys, History, Authors, Artists, Collectors, Beardtongues, Glossary, Indices. This 312-page supplement is both a history and a guide to the series, which provides authoritative, scientific treatments of nearly 4,000 plant species found in the Intermountain West.

Read More

Top 10: The Best Popular-Science Books of 2016

Posted in Books: Past and Present on December 22, 2016 by Esther Jackson

Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at the New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office.


Many exciting science books were published in 2016, including an enormous number of more specialized botanical texts. But of all the excellent titles intended for a general audience, a few stood out in particular for me. Here are my favorite popular-science books of the year.

Botanicum (Welcome to the Museum)Art & Art History

Botanicum (Welcome to the Museum) catches the eye immediately, its cover adorned with botanical illustrations.  Illustrator Katie Scott has breathed contemporary life into her botanical illustrations with an art nouveau-like aesthetic that manages to recall historic botanical illustration styles. Author Kathy Willis has divided the text into “galleries,” titled The first plants; Trees; Palms and cycads; Herbaceous plants; Grasses, cattails, sedges, and rushes; Orchids and bromeliads; and Adapting to environments. This is a beautiful book for casual plant lovers as well as those who are already passionate about botany and botanical art.

Read More

The New Wild

Posted in Books: Past and Present on June 13, 2016 by Esther Jackson

Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office. She spends much of her time assisting researchers, providing instruction related to library resources, and collaborating with NYBG staff on various projects related to Garden initiatives and events.


The New WildThe New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation is the latest book from environmental journalist Fred Pearce.

In recent years, invasive species have been on the minds of many people and have been the focus of a variety of organizations working in ecology and biology, including The New York Botanical Garden. As Science Talk readers may know, the Botanical Garden hosted an invasive species summit in November 2015 to address the threat that invasive species represent to biodiversity worldwide. The summit featured discussion about conservation, including ecosystem management, and involved prominent speakers in the fields of invasion biology, restoration ecology, and not-for-profit land management. The New Wild is quite a topical book.

Read More

In Love with the Lab: A Review of “Lab Girl”

Posted in Books: Past and Present, Personalities in Science on April 26, 2016 by Barbara Thiers

Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and Vice President for Science Administration at The New York Botanical Garden.


Lab Girl By Hope Jahren Knopf
Cover image via Knopf

Hope Jahren, the author of the new memoir Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2016), calls herself a geobiologist. A geologist by training, she mostly studies how soil, water, and climate affect plant growth. After working at a variety of universities, she is currently at the University of Hawaii. In her spare time, she is an active blogger, mostly writing about “interactions between women and men and Academia.”

Lab Girl begins with Hope’s childhood in a small town in southern Minnesota, where her family had lived for generations. Her childhood home life was stable, although her parents were very reserved and Hope received little outward affection from them. Formatively, she spent evenings with her father in his chemistry lab at the local junior college where he taught. From this experience, she developed a love for the order and purposefulness of a laboratory as a venue for discovery and wonder.

The book chronicles Hope’s journey from undergraduate to graduate student, to struggling young professional researcher, and ultimately to successful and acclaimed leader in her field. Many aspects of this story will be familiar, painfully so, to those who began their scientific careers toward the end of the 20th century and also struggled with acceptance by colleagues, the never-ending grind of raising money, institutional politics, and the careful time-management required (especially for women) to balance family and career. Sexism enters the picture, of course, but in describing this, along with the other challenges she has faced, Hope is matter-of-fact and without self-pity. Her creative energy and desire to succeed sometimes outstripped her emotional strength, but she has found a control regimen that seems to keep her balanced.

Read More

The Remarkable Plants of a Pacific Island Nation

Posted in Books: Past and Present on February 26, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean, lies at the crossroads of regional groups of islands with a rich and original assortment of plant life, including species from Australia and Asia that were brought to these volcanic islands by wind, marine currents, and animals.

Comprehensive, accessible information about many of Vanuatu’s most noteworthy plant species is now available in one convenient volume, Remarkable Plants of Vanuatu, by Laurence Ramon and Chanel Sam, which is newly published by The New York Botanical Garden Press and Biotope, a French publisher. The text is in English and French.

Remarkable Plants of Vanuatu is intended to raise awareness of Vanuatu’s plant diversity among the general public and aid conservation efforts in the country, whose residents are largely rural and depend on plants for food, firewood, timber, medicine, and handmade goods.

Read More

Ancient Wisdom, Modern Practices: Three Decades of Studying the Plants and People of Belize

Posted in Books: Past and Present on October 16, 2015 by Michael Balick

Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is Vice President for Botanical Science at The New York Botanical Garden and Director and Philecology Curator of the Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany. For more than 30 years, he has studied the relationship between plants and people, working with traditional cultures in tropical, subtropical, and desert environments around the world.


1015-Messages-from-the-Gods-Cover-800x1190Many scientists who study environmental topics focus on a geographic region, at least for part of their careers. Why? It seems that the longer you work in an area, the more you learn, and the more precise your observations and conclusions can be. And that means that the products of one’s studies, including identifying and establishing conservation areas, can be carried out efficiently.

I first went to Belize in 1987 and established a wonderful partnership with naprapathic physicians Drs. Rosita Arvigo and Gregory Shropshire. Together, we carried out a study that included an inventory of the country’s flora, publication of a primary health care manual based on local knowledge, and a general ethnobotany that documents the useful plants of the region. A few months ago we celebrated the publication of the ethnobotany book, Messages from the Gods: A Guide to the Useful Plants of Belize, published by The New York Botanical Garden and Oxford University Press.

In addition to publication of three books, the program produced teaching materials for local students, established a conservation area, developed training programs for plant collectors, investigated the pharmacological potential of the flora, enhanced economic livelihoods, strengthened the local ecotourism industry, and trained graduate students, as well as many other contributions over a 27-year-period.

Drs. Arvigo and Shropshire continue to reside in Belize and are recognized for their many ongoing contributions to that nation. We hope you will enjoy the results of our explorations, undertaken in collaboration with hundreds of people in Belize—a real community effort!

To watch a video of a presentation that Drs. Balick and Arvigo gave at the Botanical Garden about their research in Belize, click above.

Messages from the Gods: A Guide to the Useful Plants of Belize is available here

Booked Up: A Conversation About a New Guide to an Overlooked Group of Organisms

Posted in Books: Past and Present on June 10, 2015 by Lansing Moore

Stevenson Swanson is the Garden’s Science Media Manager.


In this video, two lichenologists sit down to talk about—what else?—lichens. Or rather, a new book about lichens from the NYBG Press, Common Lichens of Northeastern North America.

This field guide “was written for the average person to learn about lichens,” co-author Troy McMullin, Ph.D., tells James Lendemer, Ph.D., Assistant Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. “It was written in non-technical language,” he adds, noting that the book is richly illustrated with photos of all the lichen species covered in the text.

Lichens, composite organisms made up of a fungus and an alga or other photosynthesizing partner, play important roles in ecosystems and are sensitive indicators of environmental quality. And they can be quite beautiful. They have not gotten the respect or attention they deserve, according to Dr. McMullin, and one sign of that neglect is the fact that Common Lichens is the first book of its kind for lichens.

“There hasn’t been a field guide like this,” Dr. McMullin says. “If you wanted a field guide to the birds, you go to a bookstore and there’s all kinds of them, and there’s ones for mushrooms, for trees and insects, but you never see any for lichens.”

Until now. To order Common Lichens of Northeastern North America, ($39, spiral-bound hardcover), go to the NYBG Press or order from Shop in the Garden.

Learning About Lichens: A New Guide to this Important but Overlooked Group From NYBG Press

Posted in Books: Past and Present on April 20, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Garden’s Science Media Manager.


Common Lichens of Northeastern North America from NYBG PressLichens, those often colorful and sometimes exotic-looking organisms found growing on rocks, soil, and the bark of trees, have not gotten the respect they deserve, but a new book from The New York Botanical Garden Press may help change that.

Designed to be a user-friendly reference for non-specialists, Common Lichens of Northeastern North America is a light and easy-to-use field guide that covers the rich lichen flora of northeastern North America. Amateur naturalists, nature interpreters, forestry workers, land surveyors, researchers, and anyone who is interested in learning more about lichens will benefit from this book.

What are lichens, and why are they important?

Straddling the boundary between plants and fungi, lichens are composite organisms formed by the combination of a fungus and a plant-like component—usually an alga or a type of bacteria that contains chlorophyll. They are important to the full functioning of an ecosystem, and their presence or absence is an indicator of the health of that ecosystem.

Read More

That Glorious Forest: An Amazonian Explorer Returns to the Garden

Posted in Books: Past and Present on January 9, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


Sir Ghillean Prance with Victoria amazonica
Sir Ghillean Prance with Victoria amazonica

The New York Botanical Garden recently welcomed our distinguished former head of scientific research, Sir Ghillean Prance, one of the most important explorers of the Amazonian rain forest in modern times, who was back for an all-too-brief visit.

Sir Ghillean, who spent 25 years at the Botanical Garden before leaving in 1988 to become the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was here to celebrate the publication of his new book, That Glorious Forest: Exploring the Plants and Their Indigenous Uses in Amazonia, published by The New York Botanical Garden Press.

In a lifetime devoted to the study and conservation of tropical plants, Sir Ghillean has participated in 39 expeditions to the Amazon, beginning with a 1963 trip to Suriname as a young Garden researcher, which he describes in That Glorious Forest.

Read More