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

Interesting Plant Stories

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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An Edison Odyssey: NYBG’s Herbarium Collection Joins a New Exhibit in Florida

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on March 21, 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.


The Edison Estate at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers, Florida. Photo courtesy of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates.
The Edison Estate at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers, Florida. Photo courtesy of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates.

Edison and Rubber: A Scientific Quest, a new permanent exhibit at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida, is a multi-faceted exploration of inventor Thomas Edison’s major final research project on domestic rubber. Both the exhibit and the 20-plus-acre site present a fascinating blend of history, science, botany, and innovation. The New York Botanical Garden, which is historically connected to the Estates through Edison’s rubber research, has gladly joined this interactive exhibit with a display of recently discovered herbarium materials.

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Living Fossils: A Scientist’s Fascination with Cycads

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

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


Palms of the World Gallery cycadCycads, an ancient group of cone-producing tropical plants, are sometimes called “living fossils” because they have existed for more than 200 million years–since before the time of the dinosaurs. Yet despite surviving mass extinctions, continental drift, ice ages, and other challenges, cycads are in trouble today.

Some cycads such as the sago palm are popular commerical plants, but in the wild, habitat destruction and poaching are now pushing many species in this group to the brink. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has said that 53 percent of the approximately 300 species of cycads are imperiled.

One of the world’s leading experts on this intriguing group of plants is Dennis Wm. Stevenson, Ph.D., Vice President for Botanical Research and Cullman Curator at The New York Botanical Garden. Dr. Stevenson’s cycad research has taken him to every continent, including Antarctica, and he has discovered and described many new species.

Recently, Matt Candeias of the blog and podcast “In Defense of Plants” talked to Dr. Stevenson about his decades-long fascination with cycads, which began during his years as a graduate student at the University of California-Davis. You can hear their conversation here.

Flowers in the Gallery: A Melding of Art, Botany, and Politics

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories, Learning Experiences on February 29, 2016 by Jenifer Willis

Taryn Simon Art
Bratislava Declaration. Bratislava, Slovakia, August 3, 1968.

Chelsea’s powerhouse Gagosian Gallery is not the most likely place you’d find pressed herbarium specimens.

But that’s exactly what you’ll see there as part of the gallery’s current show by multidisciplinary artist Taryn Simon.

In “Paperwork and the Will of Capital,” Simon recreates and photographs the elaborate centerpieces that sat between powerful men as they signed agreements designed to change the world. Preparing the exhibition, Simon worked with Daniel Atha, NYBG botanist and Conservation Program Manager, and Sheranza Alli, NYBG Senior Museum Preparator and Herbarium Aid, who teach a Plant Collection and Preservation Workshop at the Garden. 

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Great Big Story: World Flora Online in the Spotlight

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 29, 2015 by Stevenson Swanson

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


Enid A. Haupt ConservatoryIt’s a great big story, all right.

CNN’s new online video unit, called Great Big Story, recently reported on The New York Botanical Garden’s work on World Flora Online, a worldwide effort to produce a single, scientifically verified database of information about all of the world’s plant species—an estimated 350,000 of them.

The video captures the activity in the Mounting Room and Digital Imaging Lab of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium as specimens are carefully glued to acid-free paper and then photographed in ultra-high resolution before they are filed in the Steere Herbarium.

There are also stunning images of rain forest and desert plants in the Botanical Garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. The variety and beauty of the plants drive home the point made by Dr. Barbara Thiers, the Garden’s Vice President for Science Administration and Director of the Herbarium.

“Plants are endlessly fascinating,” she says in the video. “We have to know what they are and how they differ from one another in order to understand what kind of measures need to be taken to protect them.”