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

From the Field

In Search of Fumewort at Garth Woods, We Found Something Better

Posted in From the Field on July 7, 2016 by Science Talk

Laura Booth and Zihao Wang are Forest Interns at The New York Botanical Garden.


Abundant and diverse herbaceous layer in Garth Woods
Abundant and diverse herbaceous layer in Garth Woods

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.

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The Palms of Vietnam: A Doubling of Numbers

Posted in From the Field on June 20, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Vietnam’s mountainous Ha Giang province, near China
Vietnam’s mountainous Ha Giang province, near China

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.”

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Forest Primeval: Trekking Through Myanmar’s Northern Forest Complex

Posted in From the Field, Travelogue on April 11, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Gatthu Myanmar NYBG Science
Setting out, uphill, from Gatthu village on the first day of the trek

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.

The scientists—Kate Armstrong, Ph.D., Myanmar Program Coordinator in the Institute of Systematic Botany, and Damon P. Little, Ph.D., Associate Curator of Bioinformatics in the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics—are part of a major Garden research program to discover and document Myanmar’s botanical diversity, build the country’s capacity to carry out plant research, and promote the sustainable use of its forests.

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Digitizing in the Dominican Republic

Posted in From the Field, Travelogue on April 23, 2015 by Stephen Gottschalk

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.


Stephen Gottschalk field books Science Talk Herbarium
The NYBG team at work in the Dominican Republic

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.

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Sorting Out the Family Trees of Some Vietnamese Trees—Part Two

Posted in From the Field, Travelogue on March 6, 2015 by Douglas Daly

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.


Bursera tonkinensis_habitat1. Forest on steep slope of karst mountain in Cuc Phuong National Park.
Bursera tonkinensis habitat. Forest on steep slope of karst mountain in Cuc Phuong National Park.

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.

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A World Within an Island: Exploring the Many Habitats of Central Cuba, Part Two

Posted in From the Field, Travelogue on December 30, 2014 by Benjamin Torke

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.


Julio León Yoira Rivera Queralta Behaimia cubensis
Julio León and Yoira Rivera Queralta encounter a single individual of the exceptionally rare Cuban endemic tree, Behaimia cubensis

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.

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From the Field: A Botany Lesson in Vanuatu

Posted in From the Field on December 11, 2014 by Stevenson Swanson

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


VanuatuOf 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.

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Exploring the Mountains of Eastern Cuba, Part 2

Posted in From the Field on May 30, 2014 by Fabian Michelangeli

Fabian A. Michelangeli, Ph.D., is an Associate Curator of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research focuses in part on the evolution, identification, and classification of neotropical plants.


Miconia victorini
Miconia victorini

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.

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Understanding the Past and Predicting the Future of a Biological Hotspot

Posted in From the Field on March 17, 2014 by Fabian Michelangeli

Fabián A. Michelangeli, Ph.D., is an Associate Curator of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research focuses in part on the evolution, identification, and classification of neotropical plants.


Canopy of Atlantic Forest in Espiritu Santo. Less than 11 percent of the original forest remains.
Canopy of Atlantic Forest in Espiritu Santo. Less than 11 percent of the original forest remains.

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.

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From the Field: Bill Buck in Cape Horn 2014, Part 3

Posted in From the Field on March 7, 2014 by Bill Buck

William R. Buck, Ph.D., is the Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. For the last three years, Dr. Buck, a moss specialist, and a team of colleagues have journeyed to the Cape Horn region at the southern tip of South America, an area rich in moss species.


January 11, 2014; Isla Hoste, Caleta Coloane, Chile (55°06’S, 69°49’W)

The author collecting on Isla Hoste
The author collecting on Isla Hoste

Yesterday the engines started at 5 a.m., and we began our trip back to Isla Stewart, heading for the eastern end this time. Although the engines wound to life early, it is never quiet on the ship, thanks to the generator. It is always running, supplying power to the dryers we use to preserve specimens. Nevertheless, there is a significant boost in decibels once the main power plant starts up.

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