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

From the Field

Traditional Shelters, Cyclone Houses, and the Temptations of Modern Construction

Posted in From the Field on September 18, 2018 by Science Talk

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of The New York Botanical Garden’s Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, 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.


Marie Ken Matai and Kating Ken Matai demonstrate the elements of traditional roof design (Nusemetu, North Tanna).

In Port-Vila and Luganville—Vanuatu’s two largest cities—most people live in buildings that are made in much the same way as those found in New York, Paris, or Sydney. But across most of Vanuatu, the great majority of people still live in small villages, and it is in these areas that we see the wisdom of traditional approaches to building houses. The advantages of these techniques—and the potential lessons for other areas that suffer increasingly from severe tropical weather—may be especially timely in light of Hurricane Florence, which has buffeted North and South Carolina with high winds and heavy rains.

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Braving the Andes to Discover and Save Earth’s Plants

Posted in From the Field on April 20, 2018 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Michelangeli
Dr. Fabián Michelangeli in Peru’s Yanachanga-Chemillén National Park

In time for Earth Day, a new video shows in vivid detail the daunting conditions that plant scientists at The New York Botanical Garden endure in their effort to understand and conserve the amazing diversity of Earth’s plant life.

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New Jersey Lichens Give Up the Ghost

Posted in From the Field on January 22, 2018 by Science Talk

Jessica Allen, Ph.D., is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research in Birmensdorf, Switzerland. James Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens are their primary research interest.


Lendemer
James Lendemer examining a reindeer lichen transplant

In April 2015, we carefully removed two species of lichens from their original homes at the Rutgers Pinelands Field Station in southern New Jersey, wrapped them in tissue paper, and transported them to the Thain Family Forest at The New York Botanical Garden. Once there, we hung one species, called old man’s beard (Usnea strigosa), in trees, and we nestled the other, known as reindeer lichen (Cladonia subtenuis), on the forest floor. These species used to live in New York City but were extirpated by the early 1900s because of decreasing air quality. Now that air quality is improving in the city, we were curious to test whether or not the species were ready to be brought back.

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“Message Plants” in the Communications Age

Posted in From the Field on November 22, 2017 by Science Talk

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 team learns about plant uses
The team learns about plant uses.

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.

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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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