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

Interesting Plant Stories

Indian Pipes: The Parasitic Plants in Bloom at The New York Botanical Garden

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 4, 2018 by Science Talk

Ashley Keesling is a graduate student at The Ohio State University who recently conducted a research visit to The New York Botanical Garden.


Indian pipes at Clear Creek Metro Park in Hocking County, Ohio
Indian pipes at Clear Creek Metro Park in Hocking County, Ohio

Intriguing and ethereal, Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are often mistaken for fungi because of their pale, otherworldly appearance. Also known as ghost plants, they typically occur in well-established forests and are often thought of as indicators of healthy ecosystems—not the kind of plant you might think would grow in a dense urban area. However, pockets of preserved forests in New York City, such as the old-growth Thain Family Forest at The New York Botanical Garden, can allow species to flourish in unexpected places.

I came to the heart of the Bronx recently to hunt for Indian pipes in the Thain Forest as part of the research I am conducting for my master’s thesis at The Ohio State University.

These fascinating parasitic plants have been the subject of much interest over the years, including research by an early 20th Century NYBG scientist. Indian pipes are unusual in that they do not photosynthesize. Instead, they are mycoheterotrophic, meaning they obtain nutrients by parasitizing a type of fungi that associate with plant roots. These mycorrhizal fungi help the plants take up water and nutrients that might otherwise be inaccessible to the plants. In exchange, the plants provide the fungi with sugars created from the process of photosynthesis. Indian pipes take advantage of the relationship between another plant and its associated fungus and “steal” sugars from the fungus. This three-part symbiosis allows Indian pipes to ultimately get their nutrients from a photosynthetic plant through the means of a mycorrhizal fungi.

Read More

Searching for Schefflera in the Ecuadorian Rain Forest

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on April 5, 2018 by Sarah Hardy

Sarah Hardy is a laboratory technician at the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory and a former intern at the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, both at The New York Botanical Garden.


Colberg
Student Eva Colberg presses a specimen at Sumak Kawsay field station.

One of the most pressing challenges in botany today is inspiring and training the next generation of systematists, scientists who discover, name, and classify species. In January, an international partnership sought to address this need through a tropical field botany course held in Ecuador for eight graduate students. The program was designed to engage students first-hand with the exciting (and sometimes trying) nature of field collection that is foundational to systematics.

The course was organized by Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., Director and Curator of the Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics at The New York Botanical Garden; Porter P. Lowry II, Ph.D., and M. Marcela Mora, Ph.D., of the Missouri Botanical Garden; and David A. Neill, Ph.D., of Universidad Estatal Amazónica (UEA) in Ecuador with help from Efrén Merino. Of the eight students, four were from the United States and four from Ecuador. They came together at the UEA field station called Centro de Investigación Posgrado y Conservación Amazónica (CIPCA) to learn the logistics of botanical field work, using the genus Schefflera (in the Araliaceae family) as an example. The students brought with them a variety of backgrounds and interests, including plant-insect interactions, lichenology, and conservation, but were eager to get their feet wet in tropical field botany.

Read More

Plants as Calendars

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 13, 2018 by Science Talk

Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is Vice President for Botanical Science and Director and Philecology Curator of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden, and Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of the Botanical Garden’s Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics.


Melanthera biflora Balick Final
Melanthera biflora, known as intop asiej in Aneityum. When it flowers, local people know that sea turtles are very fat and ready to be hunted.

For most of us, calendars rule our lives. They allow us to organize our days, remind us of future appointments, and importantly, help us to carve out a space when we can take a break from the frenetic pace of life. Increasingly, they are stored on our computers or mobile phones, but this modern tool developed and evolved over a long period of human history.

Before the introduction of the Western calendar, people in Vanuatu reckoned time through their own observations of the natural world. Especially important were certain species of “calendar plants,” whose flowering or fruiting provided an indication of the change of seasons and cues for certain activities, such as gardening, hunting, and fishing. The use of plants as a guide for human activities is of great interest to us. During the past two years, we have been privileged to work with a team of people focused on understanding the diversity, distribution, uses, linguistics and conservation of the Vanuatu flora. Our work on the Tafean islands of Tanna and Aneityum involves collecting plants, mapping plant distributions, and gathering information on the local names of these plants and how people use them.

Read More

Hunting for Hamilton’s Sweetgums

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on February 27, 2018 by Victoria Johnson

Victoria Johnson is an associate professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York. Her biography of the botanist and doctor David Hosack—the attending physician at the Hamilton-Burr duel—will be published in June 2018 by Liveright, a division of W. W. Norton & Co. It is titled American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic.


Hamilton Grange National Memorial with newly planted American Sweetgum.

Alexander Hamilton considered himself a poor gardener.

In December 1802, he conveyed this fact to a friend in the most pointed way he knew how—via a political dig at President Thomas Jefferson, his longtime rival. Hamilton quipped that horticulture was a pursuit “for which I am as little fitted as Jefferson to guide the helm of the U[nited] States.”

When Hamilton wrote these words, he was facing an entirely novel challenge: laying out the grounds of his new country house in northern Manhattan. The Grange, as he called it, was a boxy yellow mansion on a parcel of about 35 acres he had purchased in 1800. From its piazzas, Alexander and Eliza could catch glimpses of the Hudson, East, and Harlem Rivers.

Read More

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know—about Lichens

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 7, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Tell Me Something I Don't Know
Dr. James Lendemer (standing) tells host Stephen J. Dubner (seated, center) and co-hosts A. J. Jacobs (left) and Sas Goldberg (right) something they didn’t know about lichens.

Readers with an interest in economics and listeners to public radio know Stephen J. Dubner as one half of the writing team behind the best-selling 2005 economics-for-everyman book Freakonomics and as the host of the program Freakonomics Radio.

A triple threat, Dubner is also the host of a game show podcast, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, in which a handful of guests with a particular expertise talk to Dubner and his co-hosts about their subject and then the audience votes for its favorite expert. The prize: the satisfaction of winning and a nice commemorative certificate.

In a recent episode, “Farming without Sun or Soil and Manna from Heaven,” NYBG Assistant Curator James Lendemer, Ph.D., talked about his passion—lichens, combinations of a fungus and an alga that play important roles in ecosystems by filtering water and air and by providing habitat and food for wildlife.

As Dr. Lendemer explains, lichens are so sensitive that they are considered an indicator of air quality, but they are also tough enough to survive in outer space.

To listen to the full episode—and it’s worth listening to the end—head here

Reinaldo Aguilar, A Friend of the Plants of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 13, 2017 by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., is a Curator Emeritus at The New York Botanical Garden. He is a specialist in the Brazil nut family.


Reinaldo Aguilar (left) being recognized by Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís for his inventory of the plants of the Osa Peninsula. Photo by Juan J. Jimenez.

In August, renowned botanist Reinaldo Aguilar was honored for his ongoing inventory of the plants of the Osa Peninsula, which juts into the Pacific Ocean in southwestern Costa Rica near the Panama
border. In a ceremony at Corcovado National Park on the peninsula, Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís presented Reinaldo with an award and pointed out how important botanical inventories are for selecting and managing biological preserves on the Osa, a region of high biodiversity.

Reinaldo began documenting plant diversity on the Osa in 1991 and continues to explore for new and interesting plants. Since 2008, Reinaldo has been collaborating with the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium of The New York Botanical Garden and is the lead author of the Vascular Plants of the Osa Peninsula.

Read More

A New Era for Collaboration with Cuba

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on October 25, 2017 by Science Talk

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy and Bassett Maguire Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., is NYBG’s Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and Director of the Caribbean Program.


Photo of Long and Monterrey
Gregory Long, NYBG’s CEO and The William C. Steere Sr. President, and Nora Monterrey, General Director of Cuba’s National Botanical Garden. The two institutions recently signed a new Memorandum of Understanding.

The New York Botanical Garden and Cuba’s National Botanical Garden (Jardín Botánico Nacional, or JBN) have a history of collaboration that spans no less than five decades on numerous specific plant research and conservation initiatives. Science Talk has chronicled some of the more recent ones here, here, and here.

Earlier this month, Nora Monterrey, JBN’s General Director, and Alejandro Palmarola, Head of Conservation Program at JBN, visited NYBG to launch an exciting new era for collaboration between our two institutions. The discussions about this renewed commitment for collaboration began in Havana in July 2015, when one of us (Brian) went to Cuba to meet Nora as the new General Director of JBN and to discuss how our institutions could best join forces on cutting-edge science or conservation projects.

However, in a visionary move, Nora Monterrey proposed to take our collaboration to the next level. Instead of a specific agreement for a specific collaborative project, she envisioned establishing a wide-reaching umbrella agreement, spanning multiple years. This approach, which is laid out in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), will promote all sorts of collaborative initiatives between our institutions–not only science and conservation but also other programmatic areas such as education, horticulture, and exhibitions, as well as support areas, such as marketing, outreach, and sustainable tourism.

Read More

No Longer a Best Guess: NYBG Scientists Help Produce the First Comprehensive Catalog of Amazonian Plants

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 22, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Rain forest in the Brazilian state of Acre
Rain forest in the Brazilian state of Acre

Representing a major advance in understanding and conserving the plant life of one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots, an international team of scientists—including four researchers from The New York Botanical Garden—has created the first scientifically vetted list of known plant species in the Amazon Basin.

Based on documented plant specimens held in research collections worldwide and verified by specialists in tropical plants, the team cataloged 14,003 species of seed plants in the Amazon Basin, including 6,727 species of trees. Their research paper, which has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is available here.

Until now, the number of plant species that live in the Amazon Basin has been hotly debated, with estimates ranging from the tens to the hundreds of thousands. But those numbers have been based on ecological models or unverified species lists. This study assembles comprehensive species information based on plant specimens identified by specialists.

Read More

A Virtual First: NYBG’s Citizen Scientists Document the Botanical History of the Northeast Online

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on August 25, 2017 by Charles Zimmerman

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


Photo of a specimen
This chestnut specimen, collected by NYBG founder Nathaniel Britton in 1901, was part of the virtual volunteer project.

The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is especially proud to report the successful completion of Phase I of our largest citizen-supported initiative to date, which makes much historic data for vascular plants of northeastern North America freely available online for the first time. Following the October 2016 launch of this WeDigBio worldwide citizen science event, over 190 online participants contributed a total of 7,177 transcriptions, providing new digital records for 300 species from familiar plant families including sunflowers (Asteraceae), blueberries (Ericaceae), oaks (Fagacae) and grasses (Poaceae).

Through an ongoing partnership with Notes from Nature, virtual volunteering for Steere Herbarium projects has quickly become the most accessible platform for citizen engagement in scientific research at The New York Botanical Garden. Using any computer with access to the Internet, curious and enthusiastic volunteers can view digital images of historic preserved plant specimens in our collection. Through self-guided training (and a little practice), participants interpret and transcribe the often handwritten information on a specimen sheet about the context in which a plant was found in the wild, including the name of the scientist who collected the sample, the geographic location, and the date of collection.

Read More

Under-explored and Under Threat: Documenting Plant Life along Brazil’s Tapajós 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 Tapajós river
Dr. Benjamin Torke, in a boat on the Tapajós 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.

Read More