Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden and Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is Vice President for Botanical Science and Director and Philecology Curator of the Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany.
The people of Vanuatu, an island group in the South Pacific Ocean, have a rich cultural history and intense desire to maintain these cultural practices as living traditions, enshrined in the concept of kastom. However, preserving kastom can be a great challenge in a rapidly changing and globalizing world. We initiated a biocultural conservation program in Vanuatu’s southernmost islands, the area known as Tafea Province, aimed at understanding the area’s plant and fungal biodiversity and its local uses, both traditional and modern. This initiative is helping to conserve biodiversity resources and support cultural practices in this remote part of the world.
To begin the project, we held extensive meetings with community members to gauge their interest in participating in the documentation of plants and plant uses. In many areas, we saw signs of rapid erosion of such knowledge, where grandparents knew the traditional information, but their children and even more so their grandchildren had experienced a growing alienation from the natural world, especially as they became more dependent on modern approaches to life.
On a steamy day in late May, a crew of invasive species scouts assembled in the parking lot of the Garth Woods Apartments in Scarsdale, Westchester County. Our mission? To survey Garth Woods, a sliver of intact riparian forest, for Corydalis incisa, also called incised fumewort or purple keman. Much to our excitement, this case of sleuthing had a happy ending: for now, Garth Woods shows no sign of C. incisa, and full to the brim with uncommon native herbs that were a joy to see.
C. incisa, which is native to Asia, is an emerging invasive along the Bronx River; it was first recorded in the New York metropolitan region during the Bronx Park BioBlitz in 2005, and has subsequently been observed along the riverbanks of the Bronx River in The New York Botanical Garden and in several sites in Westchester County.
The last scientific survey of the plants of Vietnam—written by two French botanists in 1937, when it was a French colony—led a team of researchers to expect that they would find about 60 species of palms when they began a research project in that Southeast Asian country in 2007.
To date, they have discovered 113 species, including 41 that are new to science, and an entirely new genus (a group of closely related species).
“Sometimes we can drive up a road and look out the window and see new species,” Andrew Henderson, Ph.D., Abess Curator of Palms at The New York Botanical Garden, told a group of Garden Members during a recent Britton Gallery Talk. “Vietnam was overlooked by biologists for a long time because of war.”
Last fall, when the leaves were turning golden yellow and bright red in The New York Botanical Garden’s old-growth forest, two Botanical Garden scientists were on the other side of the world, trekking through a very different old-growth forest in northern Myanmar.
Stephen Gottschalk, a former Project Coordinator for the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, is now a graduate student in the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program at The New York Botanical Garden.
Though many botanists specialize in Caribbean flora, few have so thoroughly documented the plant life of a single island, especially a large one, as has Thomas Zanoni, Ph.D., who lived and worked in the Dominican Republic for 13 years. His collections number in the tens of thousands and come from nearly every corner of Hispaniola, which comprises the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Last year, my colleagues Stella Sylva and Brandy Watts and I traveled to the Dominican Republic to work on a project at the Dr. Rafael M. Moscoso National Botanical Garden (Jardín Botánico Nacional Dr. Rafael M. Moscoso) in Santo Domingo. Our purpose was to image the field books of Dr. Zanoni.
Making a collection as large as Dr. Zanoni’s digitally available to botanists across the globe is challenging. If one person were to work 40 hours a week typing out the information on each of his specimen labels, the job would likely take more than a year. Of course, that doesn’t include the time it would take to first find each of Dr. Zanoni’s 30,000-plus specimens, which are dispersed throughout not only our 7.4-million-specimen William and Lynda Steere Herbarium but also herbaria in other countries.
Douglas C. Daly, Ph.D., is the Director of the Institute of Systematic Botany and the B. A. Krukoff Curator of Amazonian Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Among his research activities, he is a specialist in the Burseraceae (frankincense and myrrh) family of plants.
In my previous post about a 3,700-mile expedition through nine provinces in Vietnam, I covered some of the interesting species of the Anacardiaceae (or sumac and cashew family) that my four colleagues and I encountered. But that was only one of the two closely related plant families for which we were searching.
Benjamin M. Torke, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. His specialty is legumes, a large plant family that includes not only beans and peanuts but also hundreds of rain forest tree species.
Editor’s Note: President Obama’s recent announcement that the U.S. will normalize its relationship with Cuba has focused attention once again on Cuba, an island nation where scientists from The New York Botanical Garden have conducted expeditions and scientific research for more than a century. In this two-part series, a Botanical Garden scientist describes his recent two-week field trip to Cuba, part of an ongoing effort to discover and document the island’s richly varied plant life.
For the next leg of my August field trip to central Cuba, my colleagues and I traveled to the city of Cienfuegos on the southern coast. In Cienfuegos, we were joined by Julio León of the Botanical Garden of Cienfuegos, an expert on the flora of Cienfuegos Province. Julio took us to several highly productive collecting sites.
One of the most interesting habitats was the transition zone between a karst slope and a coastal mangrove swamp. Here we encountered one of the best finds of the whole trip, an individual of Behaimia cubensis, a very rare Cuban tree which is the only species of its genus. The evolutionary affinities of Behaimia are currently unknown, so I was very excited to collect material that could be used for DNA analysis.
Of all the far-flung places that scientists from The New York Botanical Garden explore, one of the farthest in terms of distance and culture is Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific with a population of about 225,000 people spread over 65 islands and speaking more than 113 indigenous languages.
With its remote location, Vanuatu is home to many plant species that are found only there, making it a treasure trove of biodiversity and an important source of materials for biologists to study. The residents rely on native plants for food, fuel, medicine, and more, but unlike some better-known Pacific islands, Vanuatu’s plant life and the traditional knowledge about how to use those plants have not been adequately studied.
In my last post I recounted how my colleagues and I explored eastern Cuba, collecting different members of the family Melastomataceae. Only a dozen species in this group, which includes plants known as meadow beauties, princess flowers and Johnny berries, are found in the United States, but it is very diverse in the tropics. In Cuba, there are more than 200 species of Melastomataceae, and more than 150 of those are endemic, found only on that island.
Here are some representatives from the Sierra Maestra Mountains that we encountered on our expedition. Most of these species are adapted to the cloud forest conditions of the mountains.
With their rich diversity of species, including many found nowhere else, the Atlantic forests of eastern Brazil constitute one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots. They demonstrate a truly unique set of environmental, geological, and biological conditions. But because of rapid population growth in the region and more than 400 years of continuous deforestation, less than 11 percent of the original forest area still exists.
To understand how the coastal forests developed and what could happen to them in the future, an international team of scientists spanning many disciplines met in Brazil last month to begin work on a new research project that could help in efforts to conserve what remains of these ecological marvels. The goal of the project, which is expected to last five years, is to study the conditions that led to these high levels of biodiversity and localized species and to develop models to predict what may happen to that biodiversity in light of further habitat destruction and climate change.