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

New Plant Discoveries

Unwelcome Import: New Invasive Plant Found at NYBG and in Manhattan

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on May 12, 2017 by Daniel Atha

Daniel Atha is the Director of Conservation Outreach for NYBG’s Center for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of Italian arum
Italian arum (Arum italicum)

Italian arum (Arum italicum) is a European species popular with gardeners because it is shade-tolerant, deer-resistant, and sports lush foliage through the winter months when little else is green. Now, however, it appears to have escaped from cultivation and established itself as an invasive plant in several natural areas in New York City, including The New York Botanical Garden—the latest in a series of invasive plant species that are threatening our native species. 

A low, herbaceous plant related to our native jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Italian arum forms dense patches and spreads by underground tubers and by seeds encased in bright red fruits attractive to birds. The plants produce several compounds toxic to mammals, including saponins, calcium oxalate, alkaloids, and others. It has become a dangerous pest in the Pacific Northwest and is classified as a Class C noxious weed in Washington State. On Lopez Island, Washington, conservationists have been trying to eliminate a two-acre infestation with little success. The species has shown remarkable resistance to herbicide treatment, and repeated cutting has had no effect.

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The Pumpkin Ash: An Update on a Rare New York Tree

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on November 21, 2016 by Daniel Atha

Daniel Atha is Director of Conservation Outreach for the Center for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Jim Coelho with pumpkin ash near the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House. (Photos by Daniel Atha)
Jim Coelho with pumpkin ash near the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House. (Photos by Daniel Atha)

I previously reported on the discovery of pumpkin ash trees in Central Park, expanding the known range of the species into Manhattan. Now, recent discoveries have expanded the range of the species in the Bronx as well, bringing the number of known populations of this rare tree in New York to five (four in the Bronx and one in Manhattan).

In 1903, Nathaniel Britton, co-founder of The New York Botanical Garden and one of the most influential botanists of the 20th Century, collected a specimen of a “wild” ash tree in what was then the Botanical Garden’s “North Meadow” (the site is now in the Bronx River Forest section of Bronx Park). Britton named the tree Fraxinus michauxii for André and François Michaux, a father-and-son team of 19th-century French botanists sent to catalog the arboreal treasures of North America. Taxonomists now consider Britton’s tree only a minor variant of Fraxinus profunda (the pumpkin ash) and not worthy of species distinction. The tree from which he collected the specimen is now gone, but its descendants are alive and well in the region, as we are discovering.

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A Surprising Find in Central Park

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on August 5, 2016 by Daniel Atha

Daniel Atha is the Conservation Program Manager at The New York Botanical Garden. He leads the Botanical Garden’s collaboration with the Central Park Conservancy on the Central Park Flora project.


Pumpkin ash tree recently discovered in Central Park
Pumpkin ash tree recently discovered in Central Park (Photos: Ken Chaya)

In the middle of Central Park, in the heart of North America’s largest metropolis, one of the rarest trees in New York has begun to set fruit, making it possible to determine its true identity. Working with arborists from the Central Park Conservancy, botanists from The New York Botanical Garden recently confirmed the occurrence of two pumpkin ash trees (Fraxinus profunda), a species that is endangered in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and was only recently added to the New York flora.

As part of the Central Park Flora project—a three-year endeavor to document the wild flora of Central Park—the team has discovered white ash (Fraxinus americana), European ash (Fraxinus excelsior), two varieties of green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica var. pennsylvanica and Fraxinus pennsylvanica var. subintegerrima) and now pumpkin ash growing wild in Central Park.

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Welcome to the Family

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on October 2, 2015 by Douglas Daly

Douglas C. Daly, Ph.D., is the Director of the Institute of Systematic Botany and the B. A. Krukoff Curator of Amazonian Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Among his research activities, he is a specialist in the Burseraceae (frankincense and myrrh) family of plants.


1015-Daly-blog_Rio-Japiim-2007_1200x900
During this 2007 expedition on Brazil’s Rio Japiim, researchers collected a plant that was recently identified as a new discovery for that country.

trunk-1200x800Brazil, welcome to the Lepidobotryaceae.

The story of how this oddball plant family was found in Brazil for the first time is a perfect example of what could be called turbo-botany. It combines a tightly connected international network of taxonomic specialists, agile and constantly refreshed databases, a globally comprehensive herbarium, and digital imaging—all hinging on collecting plants in the field and getting the specimens in front of experienced eyes.

The plant at the center of this story was collected during a rapid flora survey of an area that was being considered for conservation as a state reserve in northwestern Acre, a state in western Brazil. Acre was the main geographic focus of my research for 25 years, in collaboration with colleagues at the Federal University of Acre. The project culminated in an analytical catalogue of 4,000 species, the first of its kind in that region. Just as important, it provided training for quite a few young Brazilian botanists.

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Honoring a Musical Legend of the Southern Appalachians

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on May 27, 2015 by Science Talk

Jessica L. Allen is a graduate student in the Commodore Mathew Perry Graduate Studies Program, and James C. Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Institute of Systematic Botany, both at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens are their primary research interest.


Japewiella dollypartoniana lichen Dolly Parton
Japewiella dollypartoniana

Atop Hangover Mountain in the Unicoi Mountains along the North Carolina-Tennessee border, we recently discovered a population of lichens that were in fruit and were excited to realize that they were a new species. Another native gem had been added to the flora of North America.

But what to name the new species?  As we contemplated that question, we sat down to eat our lunch and take in the sweeping views of the nearby Smokies.

When most people think of native plants and animals, images of familiar flowers and songbirds probably come to mind. But largely overlooked are the thousands of lichen species that make their homes in our own backyards. Lichens are fungi that have evolved unique relationships with algae for the purpose of obtaining nutrition.

Indeed fungi that have adopted this lifestyle play crucial roles in keeping our natural landscapes healthy. They also form spectacular growths on trees, rocks and soil from the highest mountains to the lowest and harshest deserts. Scientists at The New York Botanical Garden have discovered new species of lichens throughout eastern North America steadily over the last 50 years, with no end in sight.

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Four “Flavors” of New Plant Species, Part Four

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on February 13, 2015 by Benjamin Torke

Benjamin M. Torke, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. His specialty is legumes, a large plant family that includes not only beans and peanuts but also hundreds of rain forest tree species.


Rare. Restricted. Remote. Those are three characteristics, or “flavors,” of the new species that plant scientists discover and describe every year. Breaking our pattern, the fourth and final flavor in this series does not begin with an “r.” Some new species are cryptic.

The most recent comprehensive taxonomic treatment of Swartzia was written by the late Dr. Richard Cowan, curator of legumes at The New York Botanical Garden during the 1950s. In that seminal work, Cowan brought order to chaos. Previous authors had given numerous scientific names to the same species. Cowan recognized one name for each species and classified the other names as synonyms. In at least one case, however, it appears that he may have gone a bit too far.

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Four “Flavors” of New Plant Species, Part Three

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on February 6, 2015 by Benjamin Torke

Benjamin M. Torke, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. His specialty is legumes, a large plant family that includes not only beans and peanuts but also hundreds of rain forest tree species.


Swartzia "sparouinensis"
Swartzia “sparouinensis”
(Photo: H. Richard)

So far in this series about the most common characteristics of new plant species, we’ve seen that some are rare and some are restricted. Another “flavor” of new species is that they can be remote.

A couple of years ago, Hélène Richard, a researcher at the National Forest Office of French Guiana in northern South America, sent me an email with a few blurry photos of a small tree. She wrote that she thought it was a species of Swartzia and asked if I might be able to identify it.

I was pretty familiar with the dozen or so species that were known to occur in French Guiana, an overseas department of France, because I had visited there in 2002 and had studied the genus in the local herbarium and in the field. But the plant in these photos, while certainly a Swartzia, did not look like any of those species, nor did it closely resemble any other described species. I wrote her back right away, informing her that I thought it was new to science. I asked for more details about where the photo had been taken and whether it might be possible to revisit the spot to collect additional material.

She responded that the plant was encountered in dense rain forest during the first, and to date only, botanical expedition to the remote Sparouine Mountains and that it was unlikely that the locality would be revisited soon since the only access was by helicopter! Fortunately, the local herbarium agreed to lend the single specimen that was collected, and I am now working up a description of the species, which I intend to call Swartzia sparouinensis.

Four “Flavors” of New Plant Species, Part Two

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on January 30, 2015 by Benjamin Torke

Benjamin M. Torke, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. His specialty is legumes, a large plant family that includes not only beans and peanuts but also hundreds of rain forest tree species.


As I noted last week, most new species display at least one of the four characteristics, or “flavors.” My research on the tropical tree genus Swartzia has provided examples of each. In addition to rare species—the subject of the first post in this series—some species are restricted.

One subgroup of Swartzia, section Acutifoliae, is very diverse in the Atlantic coastal area of Eastern Brazil. While visiting the herbarium of the National Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro in 2007, I happened upon a specimen of this group from an area of coastal sand dunes in the Brazilian state of Bahia. With its thick leaflets rolled under at the margins, silky sepals, and bushy growth form, the specimen was unlike any of the previously described species. In 2009, I located a similar specimen in the collection at the Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Geneva, Switzerland, that also came from the same area of sand dunes.

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Four “Flavors” of New Plant Species, Part One

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on January 23, 2015 by Benjamin Torke

Benjamin M. Torke, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. His specialty is legumes, a large plant family that includes not only beans and peanuts but also hundreds of rain forest tree species.


Every year, scientists in the Institute of Systematic Botany here at The New York Botanical Garden describe dozens of species of plants and fungi that are new to science. Recent examples come from Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Thailand, Vietnam, New Guinea, Australia, and the United States. These new species range from nearly microscopic lichens to huge forest canopy trees and were discovered in an equally broad range of habitats, ranging from rock outcrops in the Smoky Mountains to tropical rainforests in the Amazon Basin.

Despite the seeming randomness of discovery, most new species display at least one of four characteristics, or what might be called “flavors.” In my own research on the taxonomy of the tropical tree genus Swartzia, I have come across examples of each flavor. I’ll describe them in this series of posts, starting with new species that are rare.

In 2012, a Costa Rican colleague, Dr. Nelson Zamora, and I described a striking new species of Swartzia from the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Several years before that, I had traveled to that small Central American country, partly to collect more specimens of this mysterious plant, which at the time was known from only a few fragmentary collections gathered primarily at two sites separated by about 100 miles. During the course of that trip, we discovered additional populations that bridged the geographical gap, and we concluded that the species ranges throughout the southern two-thirds of the Pacific lowlands of the country. It even occurs in popular tourist destinations such as La Cangreja and Corcovado National Parks. The fact that it had remained hidden for so long from botanists who have spent quite a lot of time in these areas is remarkable.

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Discovering the True Identity of Vietnam’s Hat Palm

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on January 9, 2015 by Andrew Henderson

Andrew Henderson, Ph.D., is the Abess Curator of Palms in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. He has conducted several research field trips to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries to document the palms of the region.


The market in Da Lat, Vietnam: the country’s distinctive conical hats are made from a palm that Vietnamese call la non.
The market in Da Lat, Vietnam: the country’s distinctive conical hats are made from a palm that Vietnamese call la non.

In central Vietnam, the woven hats that many villagers wear are made from a local palm that the Vietnamese call la non. For many years, la non was thought to be a species in the genus Licuala. In the treatment of the palms for the Flore Générale de l’Indo-Chine, for instance, it was referred to as Licuala spinosa.

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