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

Interesting Plant Stories

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.

Blast from the Past: Plant Specimens From One of America’s Cold War Nuclear Test Sites

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on August 25, 2016 by Colette Berg

Colette Berg, an intern in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden, recently graduated from Fordham University, where she studied environmental science. In January, she will begin a Master’s in Biology program at Southeast Missouri University, focusing on plant ecology.


Operation Crossroads commanding officer Vice Admiral William Blandy and his wife slice into an Operation Crossroads cake following the first Bikini Atoll nuclear tests in 1946.
Operation Crossroads commanding officer Vice Admiral William Blandy and his wife slice into an Operation Crossroads cake following the first Bikini Atoll nuclear tests in 1946.

Every day as an intern at the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, I transcribe the labels on pressed plant specimens so data about the specimens can be made accessible online. As I type out the collector’s name, date of collection, and location, I catch a glimpse of the stories behind the specimens—stories of science and politics and history.

Recently, one particular label caught my eye. In 1946, William Randolph Taylor, a University of Michigan botanist who specialized in algae, traveled to the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific with Operation Crossroads, a military mission to test atomic bombs at the remote Bikini Atoll. Taylor’s 1990 obituary described him as a man who “worked in the years of brass-fitted monocular microscopes” and “entered the sea in long rubber boots while holding a glass-bottomed bucket.” Before the bombs were detonated, Taylor surveyed the vegetation on the island. One can imagine him peering through his bucket in the surf as he collected some of the specimens shown here.

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The Science of Stink

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on July 29, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Corpse FlowerAh, New York in the summer. So many fetid fragrances fill the air. The garbage on the sidewalk, the hot blast of exhaust from a passing bus, the dank odor of the subway—these and even less savory sources best left to the imagination all add their odors to the city’s atmosphere on a hot, humid day.

That makes it all the more remarkable that thousands of New Yorkers have flocked to The New York Botanical Garden to see the corpse flower that is now blooming in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Apart from its size and striking appearance, the plant is notable for its stench, often compared to the smell of rotting flesh, which is the clever ploy it has evolved to attract pollinators.

Perhaps the fact that the plant blooms so infrequently and unpredictably draws most people, but many seem fascinated by the phenomenon that something in nature would smell this bad on purpose.

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The Rock Gnome

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on May 27, 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. Lichens are her primary research interest.


ForestGnomes exist. They’re quite short and green with black caps. The only place to find them is on rocks in the southern Appalachians, and the best place to find them is in western North Carolina.

The gnome I’m describing is actually a lichen (which are combinations of fungi and algae) known as the rock gnome lichen (Cetradonia linearis). It’s one of two fungal species protected by the Endangered Species Act and a member of one of the largest families of lichens, Cladoniaceae.

The rock gnome was one of four fungal species recently added to the Red List, a list of endangered species all over the world that is maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Before these four species were added, only two fungal species were recognized on the Red List. The rock gnome lichen was added to the Red List after a successful meeting at The New York Botanical Garden last summer, during which a group of lichenologists came together to prepare detailed assessments of North American lichens.

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WFO at NYBG: Scientists From Around the World Meet to Advance Work on a Comprehensive Online Plant Database

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on May 6, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

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


World Flora Online New York Botanical GardenAs if assembling a comprehensive, scientifically verified database of more than 350,000 plant species were not a daunting task to begin with, try doing it in only four years. That’s the ambitious goal the scientists working on World Flora Online (WFO) are racing to meet.

When it’s up and running, WFO will provide scientists, conservationists, political leaders, and other policy-makers with information they need to protect one of Earth’s most important resources—its plants.

More than two dozen of the world’s leading plant scientists gathered at The New York Botanical Garden recently to review the progress that has been made on WFO and to plan the way forward so they can meet the goal of completing the database in 2020, which was established in the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international agreement.

As part of a week-long series of meetings at the Botanical Garden, several of the participants spoke about specific aspects of this monumental project during a symposium on Wednesday, April 27, in the Garden’s Ross Hall.

The presentations began with introductory remarks by Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., the Garden’s Vice President for Science Administration and the Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. She noted that the Garden is one of four leading botanical institutions that are working together to coordinate the efforts of scientists and institutions around the world to create this first-of-its-kind online resource.

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Sex, Lies—and Orchids?

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on April 15, 2016 by Stevenson Swanson

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


OrchidOh, those naughty orchids. An insect may think it has found a safe place to lay its eggs or discovered a willing partner for a tryst, but it turns out that nest or member of the opposite sex is really an orchid. Orchids have evolved these deceptive appearances and many other techniques such as alluring aromas and vibrant colors to lure insects to do their bidding, namely to spread their pollen to other orchids so they can produce seeds.

Just in time for the closing weekend of The Orchid Show: Orchidelirium, the public radio program Science Friday has posted a short video on its website that explores the evolutionary adaptations that have allowed some of the most beautiful members of the plant kingdom to flourish. Shot at The New York Botanical Garden and featuring Marc Hachadourian, Director of the Nolen Greenhouses and Curator of Orchids, this video may leave you thinking that we humans are just as susceptible to the allures of orchids as those six-legged pollinators.

NYBG Scientists Help Discover a Promising Anticancer Agent to Fight a Childhood Scourge

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 30, 2016 by Daniel Atha

Daniel Atha is the Conservation Program Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


A chemical agent found in a member of the snapdragon family (Scrophulariaceae) has shown early promise as a potential treatment for a cancer whose victims are overwhelmingly infants and children.

I recently co-authored a paper describing the potency of a chemical extracted from Armenian figwort (Scrophularia orientalis) in killing malignant cells found in neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system. Neuroblastoma is the most common non-brain solid tumor in children and the most common cancer in infancy (NIH NCI, 2016). Almost half of its victims are children under two years of age.

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