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

Interesting Plant Stories

Under-explored and Under Threat: Documenting Plant Life along Brazil’s TapajĂłs River

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on August 1, 2017 by Julia Beros

Julia Beros has worked or interned at The New York Botanical Garden for more than two years, including at the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory and the Ruth Rea Howell Family Garden. In May, she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College.


On the TapajĂłs river
Dr. Benjamin Torke, in a boat on the TapajĂłs River, studies a plant specimen.

It’s hardly a secret that the Amazon rain forest, the largest expanse of tropical rain forest on earth, houses great biodiversity and that environmental degradation from climate change and human enterprise is a massive and looming threat throughout the region. The most critically threatened areas also happen to be the least studied and inventoried, but they are estimated to have the highest biodiversity within the Amazon rain forest. NYBG scientist Benjamin Torke, Ph.D., is working to fill in the gaps in our understanding of the rich plant life in one such area in the state of Pará in the southeastern part of the Brazilian Amazon.

Recently, environmental degradation has threatened the potential for capturing and sharing this knowledge. In the southeastern regions of the Amazon, many of the detrimental effects of climate change are heightened by expanding human development. Ranching, logging, soy bean farming, mining, and settlement all contribute to the loss of natural habitat. The construction of a highway that bifurcates the forest has simultaneously created isolated regions of biodiversity and increased the rate of forest degradation. The potential loss of biodiversity is almost visible from satellite images in which beige hatched lines scratch across the dense green rain forest.

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The Plant is in the Mail

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on July 20, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Photo of a shipping labelWhen your local library doesn’t have a copy of that latest best-seller that you’ve been dying to read, it can usually request the title from another library. Something very similar happens when plant researchers are looking for preserved specimens in their field of study: they can request loans of these invaluable resources from research repositories across the globe.

NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium sends an average of 20,000 specimens out on loan every year. Even now, as millions of ultra high-resolution digital images of plant specimens are becoming readily available online in The New York Botanical Garden’s C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium, there are still many times when nothing short of the physical specimen will do.

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A Catchy Phrase, But is It True?

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on February 10, 2017 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. Richard Abbott, Ph.D., is a botanist at the Botanical Garden, where he works primarily on updating the Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada.


Acer pseudoplatanus Frank Vincentz
Acer pseudoplatanus by Frank Vincentz

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny doesn’t exactly flow off the tongue unless you are familiar with scientific terminology. However, what appears to be a somewhat intimidating phrase is actually marvelously succinct and elegant.

Ontogeny is “the development or course of development, especially of an individual organism.” This could refer to the development of a plant from embryo to seed to seedling to mature, reproductive plant. Or it could refer to an animal growing from an embryo into an infant and then into an adult. 

Phylogeny is “the evolutionary history of a genetically related group of organisms, as distinguished from the development of the individual organism.” Sometimes these relationships are illustrated as trees of information, with groups of closely related organisms called clades. Studying and depicting shared evolutionary history is known as cladistics. Have you seen Darwin’s tree of life

If so, then you understand the basic idea of phylogeny. It’s all about the study of relationships.

Recapitulate means “to repeat the principal stages or phases.” For most, this is perhaps the most recognizable word of the trio. Actually, it is the namesake of recapitulation theory.

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After 248 Years, Still Fresh as a Daisy

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on February 3, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Capt Cook SpecimenPress. Dry. Mount.

That’s the basic process for turning a plant into a research specimen that will last indefinitely, and it’s stayed the same for hundreds of years for a good reason: It works.

As proof, here’s a member of the daisy family that botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander clipped in January 1769 in Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. They were part of the scientific team aboard the HMS Endeavour on Captain James Cook’s first voyage around the world. This 248-year-old specimen, still holding onto its leaves and retaining most of its color, is now part of the collection of 7.8 million preserved plants in NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, the second largest in the world.

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A Conversation about Plant Conservation in the Modern Era

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 9, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

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


In Defense of PlantsIn the effort to conserve the planet’s biodiversity, plants tend to be overlooked. People spend much more time and money on “charismatic” species of animals. For instance, 100 percent of the world’s known threatened and endangered animals have been assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the most important global institution when it comes to evaluating such threats. But only assessed about five percent of plants have been assessed.

It’s a scary state of affairs, especially considering that so-called biodiversity hotspots are defined by their vascular flora.

The New York Botanical Garden is working to improve awareness and understanding about the botanical world. That was one of the topics when Matt Candeias of the blog and podcast “In Defense of Plants” interviewed Dr. Brian Boom who, among his other responsibilities at the Botanical Garden, is the Garden’s Vice President for Conservation Strategy.

To listen to their discussion about Dr. Boom’s career and how he became so passionate about plant conservation in the modern world, click here

Stressed Out: How will Vietnam’s Unique Flat-Leaved Pine Respond to Climate Change?

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 2, 2016 by Stephanie Schmiege

Stephanie Schmiege, a Ph.D. candidate at the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program of The New York Botanical Garden and at the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology of Columbia University, is researching response of conifers to environmental stress under the direction of Drs. Dennis Stevenson and Kevin Griffin.


Looking out over Vietnam’s Central Highlands from the field station at Bidoup Nui Ba National Park
Looking out over Vietnam’s Central Highlands from the field station at Bidoup Nui Ba National Park
The unique flattened leaf morphology of Pinus krempfii.
The unique flattened leaf morphology of Pinus krempfii.

The Central Highlands of Vietnam are home to the world’s only known flat-leaved pine. Endemic to this area, Pinus krempfii was first discovered by French botanists, who were astounded by its unique leaves and even confused it with species from an entirely different family. Not only is it the only known pine with flat leaves, it is the only pine we know of that successfully survives in dense tropical forests. Scientists think that the flattened leaves may allow Pinus krempfii to absorb more light than most needle-leaved pines, which in turn facilitates its success in the tropics. However, flattened leaves require vulnerable tissues to transport water throughout the leaves. 

This trade-off may leave Pinus krempfii susceptible to changes in climate, particularly drought stress. Climate models for Southeast Asia forecast increasingly long dry periods. How will Pinus krempfii respond to increasing drought stress? Will the unique leaves that have assisted its survival in the tropics prove to be its undoing?

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Audubon’s Final Journey: Botanical Relics Uncovered at NYBG

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 31, 2016 by Lisa Vargues

Lisa Vargues is a Curatorial Assistant at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. Her work includes digitizing plant specimens, historical and new, from around the world for the C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium.


From the 1833 portrait of John James Audubon by Henry Inman. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
From the 1833 portrait of John James Audubon by Henry Inman. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium continues to digitize its 7.8 million preserved plant specimens for online access, one of the exciting aspects of our work is the opportunity to uncover a wide variety of historical treasures. Four specimens in particular recently grabbed my attention. Based on the label data, these pressed plants, suddenly pulled from obscurity, were collected during John James Audubon’s Quadrupeds expedition.

Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, naturalist and painter Audubon moved to France during childhood and permanently to the United States as a young man. Audubon’s name has long been synonymous with beautiful and dramatic paintings of birds in their natural habitats. The 435 life-sized paintings in his published work The Birds of America (1827-38, Havell Edition) continue to be treasured for their iconic style—most notably in 2010, when a first edition of this collection sold at Sotheby’s in London for a record-breaking $11.5 million.

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WeDigBio 2016: Crowdsourcing for Conservation and Climate Change Research

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 20, 2016 by Lansing Moore

Charles Zimmerman is Herbarium Collections and Outreach Administrator for the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden.


WeDigBio 2016CALLING ALL ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDS AND CITIZEN SCIENTISTS!

For centuries, biologists have explored and documented the natural world, collecting the billions of specimens now stored in museums, universities, and field stations worldwide. In the past few years, The New York Botanical Garden and other institutions across the globe have made tremendous strides toward unleashing the treasure trove of information stored in these collections for researchers and the general public.

Now, there is a way you can help!

On Saturday, October 22nd, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium will partner with Fordham University to host a community-based Natural History Collection Bioblitz as part of WeDigBio 2016, a global four-day volunteering event focused on mobilizing biodiversity data from preserved museum specimens to advance scientific research.

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Lichens Hold On Along America’s Vanishing Coast

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 16, 2016 by Jessica Allen

Jessica L. Allen is studying for a Ph.D. as a student in the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program at The New York Botanical Garden. James C. 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.


Alligator River, North Carolina (by Andrei Muroz)
Alligator River, North Carolina (by Andrei Muroz)

The Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain is a close neighbor to some of America’s largest cities, including New York and Philadelphia, but you’d be forgiven if you had never heard of it. This vast, low-lying region extends along the Atlantic coast from southern New Jersey through South Carolina and includes such well-known cities as Charleston and Norfolk and beaches that are enjoyed by millions of visitors every year, such as the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

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From Tree to Shining Tree: The Living Network under the Forest

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 7, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

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


NYBG fall forest foliage

That old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees turns out to be more than just a metaphor.  Standing in the middle of a forest, it’s easy to see each tree as an individual, but in reality, the trees are bound together by a living network that proves beneficial not only for the trees—which get the minerals they need to grow to great heights—but also to the network, which gets a steady supply of nutrients from the trees to keep it alive.

What is this network? That’s the mystery that award-winning science journalist Robert Krulwich sets out to answer in a recent episode of public radio’s Radiolab.

His scientific sleuthing brought him to the Thain Family Forest, the 50-acre old-growth forest at The New York Botanical Garden, where he interviewed Curator of Mycology Roy Halling, Ph.D., the Botanical Garden’s expert on all things fungal. That’s a pretty broad hint about the nature of the network, by the way.

As with all Radiolab stories, the result is an adventure in imaginative reporting and storytelling that revels in the wonders of the world around us. Or, in this case, beneath us.

You can hear the episode here.