Interesting Plant Stories Archives - Science Talk Archive

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

Interesting Plant Stories

[Sic]kening Plant Names: Intentional Orthographic Variants

Posted inInteresting Plant Stories onJanuary 21, 2020 by Kristine Paulus

Kristine Paulus is the Plant Records Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of a plant labelPlant recorders (people who keep records of plants) are frequently assumed to know all the names of every plant. While we may not actually have every plant name committed to memory, we do ensure that plants in the collection are referred to by their proper names. That is to say, the current taxonomically correct and accepted scientific name. So who gets to name plants? There is no authority over the common names—those vernacular nicknames that vary from one geographic region to another. While they can be memorably descriptive, common names can be confusing. Calling an Abutilon a flowering “maple” just doesn’t make sense. Scientific names, however, are the universally accepted names of plants.

The revered manual that dictates exactly how plants can be named is The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (affectionately known to recorders as simply The Code). Once a plant name is published, that is its name (unless further research leads to reclassification). Numerous authoritative sources compile valid plant names, such as Kew’s Plants of the World Online and the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group, allowing plant recorders to check the names and make sure they are accessioned and labeled correctly.

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Dispelling a Seasonal Myth: For Humans, The Poinsettia is Not a Toxic Plant

Posted inInteresting Plant Stories onDecember 12, 2019 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. Lewis S. Nelson, M.D., is Professor and Chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine and Chief of the Division of Medical Toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, NJ.


Photo of a poinsettiaThe appearance of the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means to many people that the holiday season is upon us. The showy bracts that surround the flowers are most often red but can be many other colors, ranging from pale green and white to orange or pink, as well as mixtures of those colors. But pity the poor poinsettia—there are those who mistakenly believe that the leaves and bracts of this beautiful plant are toxic when ingested.

How did this belief arise? In 1944, the book, Poisonous Plants of Hawaii (H.L. Arnold, Tongg Publishing Company, Honolulu) stated that the “milky juice and the leaves are poisonous.” This assertion was based on a case in which a two-year old child of a U.S. Army officer at Fort Shafter in Honolulu died from eating a poinsettia leaf in 1919. The book furthermore suggested that poinsettia leaves and sap cause “intense emesis and catharsis and delirium before death.”

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Living Fossils: Applying Advances in Genome Sequencing to Decode the Genomes of Ancient Plants

Posted inInteresting Plant Stories onSeptember 26, 2019 by Samantha Frangos

Samantha Frangos is a Research Technician in NYBG’s Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory.


A photo of a ginkgo leaf
Ginkgo biloba ‘Pendula’

The concept of a “living fossil” was first proposed by Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species in 1859. The term “living fossil” is used to describe species that have managed to remain physically identical over the course of millennia and are still alive today. As these species have survived a wide range of extreme environmental conditions, including several mass extinctions, they beg the question:  how have the living fossils been able to persist over millions of years? Scientists at The New York Botanical Garden believe the answer may be found in the living fossils of the plant kingdom. Most of these “living fossil” plant species are in the cone-bearing, non-flowering group of plants, called gymnosperms. Gymnosperms have very large and complex genomes, some being almost seven times the size of a human genome. Decoding the genomes of these species may give us some clues as to understanding their resilience over time. 

The most widely recognized living fossil of the plant kingdom is Ginkgo biloba. It is easily recognizable by its distinct fan shape leaves that resemble those of the maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris), giving it the common name of maidenhair tree. Ginkgo has remained unchanged for over 280 million years, surviving several glaciation events, fluctuations of carbon dioxide concentration and temperature, and mass extinctions. Because of its resilience, it is often seen lining city streets, including the streets that border The New York Botanical Garden.

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The Specimens of Sitio Roberto Burle Marx

Posted inInteresting Plant Stories onJune 11, 2019 by Matt Newman

Sitio Roberto Burle Marx, the eponymously named home of the iconic Brazilian landscape architect, was a haven of native Brazilian plants, from tropical bromeliads and philodendrons to orchids, legume trees, and more—many that he discovered himself. Discover just a few of the Brazilian specimens from the NYBG Herbarium that called the Sitio home, some even named for Burle Marx, in the latest from The Hand Lens.

Ctenanthe burle-marxii

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Roses of the Herbarium

Posted inInteresting Plant Stories onMay 31, 2019 by Matt Newman

From the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden to our Steere Herbarium, Rosa ‘Home Run’ transitions between two forms of beauty. Swipe through to see the preserved form of this vivid red rose, as well as other roses from among the 7.8 million cataloged specimens in our Herbarium which have a profound influence on our understanding of biodiversity, as we approach the spectacle of the Rose Garden’s peak spring bloom in 2019.

Rosa
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Plants from Mt. Elbert: Life on the Rocky Mountains’ Highest Peak

Posted inInteresting Plant Stories onMarch 26, 2019 by Sarah Dutton

Sarah Dutton is the Lead Digitizer for the Southern Rockies Digitization Project at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium.


Mt Elbert and its visible tree line.
Mt Elbert and its visible tree line. Photo credit: David Herrera

The New York Botanical Garden is currently digitizing all of its herbarium specimens from the Southern Rocky Mountains, a major subregion of the Rockies that runs from southern Wyoming through Colorado to northern New Mexico and eastern Utah.

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Continuing a Monumental Project, the Third Installment of NYBG’s New Manual of Northeastern Plants is Available from NYBG Press

Posted inInteresting Plant Stories onNovember 2, 2018 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Associate Director of Public Relations for The New York Botanical Garden.


Western_Prairie_Fringed_Orchid
Western prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera praeclara)

With their exotic flowers and lush foliage, orchids are often considered the quintessential tropical plant, but as a recent publication from NYBG Press demonstrates, they are also native to the northeastern United States. Orchids (or Orchidaceae, their scientific name) are among the 27 plant families that are now available in the third installment of treatments released as part of the New Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada by Robert F. C. Naczi, Ph.D., NYBG’s Arthur J. Cronquist Curator of North American Botany, and Collaborators. The family treatments have been published as individual, downloadable PDFs that can be viewed on a variety of devices such as a desktop computer, tablet, or smartphone.

In the region covered by the New Manual, there are 84 species of orchids, according to the treatment by Matthew C. Pace, Ph.D., Assistant Curator of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden, and John V. Freudenstein, Ph.D., Professor of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at The Ohio State University.

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

Posted inInteresting Plant Stories onSeptember 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.

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Searching for Schefflera in the Ecuadorian Rain Forest

Posted inInteresting Plant Stories onApril 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.

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