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

Books: Past and Present

Recent Book Traces Evolution of Plant Form

Posted in Books: Past and Present on November 25, 2013 by Barbara Ambrose

Barbara A. Ambrose, Ph.D., is the Cullman Assistant Curator in Plant Genomics at The New York Botanical Garden. Among other things, she is currently researching the genetic basis for the evolution of leaves in certain fern species.


How did plant life evolve on Earth to form hundreds of thousands of species with a vast diversity of shapes and structures? The explosive growth of DNA sequencing and the dramatic expansion of our ability to analyze huge quantities of sequencing data are making it possible to address fundamental questions about plant evolution more authoritatively than ever before.

The Evolution of Plant Form

The Evolution of Plant Form brings together for the first time in a single book the plant scientists who study morphology—the forms and structures of plants, such as leaves and flowers—and molecular geneticists. The classical morphologists know the interesting questions in plant morphology, and the molecular geneticists have the tools to address those questions.

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Elizabeth Britton: Real-Life Inspiration for a Fictional Heroine

Posted in Books: Past and Present on November 11, 2013 by Sarah Dutton

Sarah Dutton works in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where, among other things, she is working on a project to digitize the Steere Herbarium’s collection of bryophytes, the plant group that Elizabeth Knight Britton studied.


The Signature of All ThingsAlma Whitaker, the heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel The Signature of All Things, is a 19th century woman who’s ahead of her time. Her wanderings in the forests around her father’s Philadelphia estate lead to a fascination with the mosses she discovers there, and by becoming one of the world’s leading moss experts, she breaks free of the restrictive roles that confined most women of the period.

It’s not as fanciful as it may sound. Gilbert, the author of the bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, has said in interviews that one of her inspirations for Alma was Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton (1857-1934), who was a teacher, curator, and leading American expert on bryophytes, the important plant group that includes mosses.

She was also instrumental in the founding of The New York Botanical Garden. After she and her husband, Nathaniel Lord Britton, visited England’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1888, the couple proposed that a similar institution be created in New York. She continued to be heavily involved, raising funds for the Botanical Garden and planning gardens and buildings with her husband, who was the Garden’s first Director in Chief.

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Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot

Posted in Books: Past and Present on October 28, 2013 by Shannon Asencio

Shannon Asencio, who works at the Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, is the Project Coordinator for the Macrofungi Collection Consortium. This Garden-led project, involving institutions across the country, will result in a publicly accessible database and digitized images of several hundred thousand specimens of mushrooms and related fungi.


Professor Sir Peter CraneWhen I heard that Professor Sir Peter Crane was going to be giving a talk about the ginkgo tree, I jumped at the opportunity to attend. A noted botanist and conservationist, Professor Crane recently delivered an impassioned speech about this fascinating and, in many respects, enigmatic plant, which is the subject of his new book, Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot.

He described his book as a scientific and cultural history that was inspired by the ginkgo at London’s Kew Gardens, which was planted in 1760. He told the audience at Sotheby’s auction house in Manhattan that he used to stop and admire the tree frequently when he was the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Professor Crane, whose work includes studies of plant fossils, conservation, and human uses of plants, is currently the Dean and Professor of Botany at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and he is also a Distinguished Counsellor to the Board of The New York Botanical Garden.

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