Stephen Sinon is the William B. O’Connor Curator of Special Collections, Research and Archives at The New York Botanical Garden.
John Torrey is considered one of the most important botanists in the early development of scientific botany, horticulture, and agriculture in 19th-century America. He corresponded with hundreds of scientists, educators, explorers, and natural historians throughout America and Europe, and his wide network of correspondents enabled him to collect, describe, and classify plant specimens from around the world; when comparing Torrey’s accurate records with herbarium specimens and current data, a clear picture arises as to changes in the flora of these regions since his time, due to climate change, urbanization, and other factors. While Torrey’s correspondence contains important information on his botanical work, the documents are also a valuable resource to scholars, students, and members of the public studying American history, including North American expeditions, westward expansion, and the evolution of American science in the 19th century.
The LuEsther T. Mertz Library and Archives of The New York Botanical Garden has embarked on a project to make the John Torrey Papers available online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The project began in 2016 with grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Some 10,000 sheets of Torrey’s correspondence—consisting primarily of letters received by him from over 350 individuals—were digitized, then made available for crowd-sourced transcription. Interested volunteers can currently register to transcribe letters in the collection which will then be made available to scholars alongside the digital images.
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.
On August 31, 1906, a small Norwegian ship, the Gjøa, edged toward the coast of Nome, Alaska, in the darkness of night. The ship’s captain and five crewmembers were thrilled when a brilliant search light beckoned to them from the shore, and Nome’s residents greeted them with enthusiastic cheers and a chorus of the Norwegian anthem. It was a tremendous moment: the 70-foot-long Gjøa had just completed the first successful voyage of a single ship and expedition through the treacherous Northwest Passage, the sailing route joining the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans along the top of North America, through the complex maze of the Arctic Archipelago.
Daniel Atha is the Director of Conservation Outreach for the Center for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.
The New York Botanical Garden has been a leader in the development of modern methods for the study of phenology, the seasonal changes that plants and animals undergo every year. Beginning in the early 2000s, staff and volunteer citizen scientists have been monitoring changes in leaf, flower, and fruiting times throughout the year and from year to year. The methods and data developed at NYBG were eventually incorporated into the National Phenology Network’s national program, which today includes hundreds of partners and thousands of observers in all 50 states.
The NYBG’s legacy goes back even further—in fact, almost to the founding of the nation. While many of the founding fathers were still alive (and many had homes in and around New York City), a young medical graduate, John Torrey, was roaming the wilds of Manhattan, Brooklyn and nearby New Jersey, documenting pitcher plants, lady slipper orchids, white cedar swamps and many other botanical rarities now found only far to the north in colder, less disturbed habitats. As a scientist and natural historian, Torrey was meticulous about his methods, and he endeavored to broaden the impact of his work by including new and helpful information such as detailed locations and precise flowering times of the plants he found. In 1899, John Torrey’s herbarium and papers passed from Columbia University (where he was a curator) to The New York Botanical Garden.
I have recounted the story of Torrey’s phenological record of plants in and around early 19th century New York for the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), a consortium of research libraries dedicated to digitizing the literature of biodiversity and making it accessible in a global “biodiversity commons.” A digitized copy of his record, which he called Calendarium Florae for the Vicinity of New York, was recently added to the library’s online resources. You can read the BHL post here.
It is 1879, and for months you have been living aboard a creaking wooden steamship trapped in miles of shifting Arctic sea ice. When you venture above deck, the air is icy as you gaze across the polar landscape. Among your companions are several officers, 21 crewmen, six other European scientists of various disciplines, and a few hundred indigenous Chukchi people who live nearby.
Such was the experience of Dr. Frans Reinhold Kjellman, a botanist aboard the SS Vega during the Swedish Vega Expedition. The New York Botanical Garden’s project to digitize the algae collection in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium has uncovered two algal specimens that Dr. Kjellman collected during this expedition, providing glimpses into a little-known but fascinating story of 19th century science and exploration.
The tale begins with Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, a Finnish-Swedish scientist and explorer, who had led many successful Arctic expeditions by the time he proposed the Vega Expedition. This time, he planned to circumnavigate the Eurasian continent via the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Strait, or “North East Passage,” to prove that this was a viable route between Europe and the Pacific. The scientists on board the Vega were prepared to gather data about the geography, hydrography, meteorology, and natural history of the Arctic, much of which was still unexplored by Europeans at the time. Kjellman, who had accompanied Nordenskiöld on three previous voyages, was an authority on Arctic algae.
The SS Vega departed Sweden on June 22, 1878. On September 3, the ship began to encounter sea ice. The explorers continued, hugging the coast and searching for a clear way through the increasing ice. However, by the end of September, the ice thickening in front them could no longer be broken by the ship’s hull. They had reached Kolyutschin Bay, the last bay before the Bering Strait, but a belt of ice less than 7 miles wide barred their passage. In his book, The Voyage of the Vega round Asia and Europe, Nordenskiöld expresses regret over time that could have been saved along the journey. He believed that had the ship arrived at Kolyutschin Bay just a few hours earlier, they would have been able to continue. To rub salt in the wound, Nordenskiöld later learned that an American whaler had been anchored only a couple of miles away in open water on the same day the Vega was frozen in.
Samantha D’Acunto is the Reference Librarian at The New York Botanical Garden‘s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she regularly assists researchers on projects ranging from the history of science to botany, art, and landscape history. Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at the Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office.
The LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden welcomed Wikipedia editors from the New York City area recently for a five-hour session of research, writing, and editing dedicated to creating and enhancing articles about botanists who have made significant collections of plant specimens in New York State.
For several years, Mertz Library staff members have discussed the idea of creating Wikipedia pages for botanists as a way of making use of the rich information contained in one of the library’s unique special collections known as the Vertical File. Among other things, the Vertical File holds especially interesting biographical materials such as photographs, newspaper articles, magazine clippings, brochures, and other ephemera about botanists, horticulturists, and agriculturalists. Many of the individuals represented in the Vertical File were at one time affiliated with the Botanical Garden or were professionally active in the state of New York. Therefore, hosting an edit-a-thon focused on creating Wikipedia articles for botanists who have made significant collections in the state of New York seemed like a logical choice.
In December 1901, Nathaniel Lord Britton, the New York Botanical Garden’s Director, reportedly (and understandably) appeared to be a little worried when a succession of blasts, sounding like gunshots, erupted from a third-floor lab in what is now the Library building. Thankfully, nothing was amiss. Botanist Alexander Pierce Anderson was immersed in a successful experiment that would not only prove a scientific theory but also transform breakfast for millions of people.
With suitable precautions, Anderson had used a hammer to crack open hermetically sealed and heated glass tubes, each containing corn starch, wheat flour, and, later, rice and other grains. All of the starch particles in the tubes had exploded, proving the theory, proposed by plant physiologist Dr. Heinrich Meyer, that a starch granule contains a miniscule amount of condensed water within its nucleus.
A recent Science Talk post told the story of the Staten Island origins of our founder, Nathaniel Lord Britton, who came from a long line of Staten Islanders. Remarkably, the Britton house, which was built in about 1670 and expanded twice in the 18th century, is still standing.
Nathaniel Lord Britton, the botanist who founded The New York Botanical Garden with his wife, Elizabeth, is so closely associated with this institution in the Bronx that it can come as a surprise to learn that he was a native son of the New York City borough that is most distant from here—Staten Island.
SILive, the Web site of the Staten Island Advance, provided a reminder of Britton’s roots in a recent piece that summarized the eminent botanist’s life and accomplishments.
Born in the New Dorp section of Staten Island in 1859, young Britton developed an interest in botany while growing up in what was then a bucolic setting. The Brittons were a long-established family there: an earlier Nathaniel Britton—whose wife’s name was, coincidentally, also Elizabeth—bought a fieldstone cottage in New Dorp in 1695.
Eventually, Nathaniel Lord Britton and Elizabeth Knight Britton inherited the house, which they owned until 1915, when they deeded it to the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences. It was moved in the 1960s to Historic Richmond Town, a historic town and farm museum, where it remains to this day. Although the Britton Cottage is currently closed to the public, the museum has completed a structure report and hopes to receive city funding to restore it.
By 1915, of course, the Botanical Garden was more than two decades old, leading one to wonder whether the Brittons regularly commuted to the Garden from Staten Island. But no: according to the Garden’s archivist, Stephen Sinon, they occupied the cottage only occasionally, living primarily in a residence on Decatur Avenue in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx, close to the Garden.
Still, the Brittons eventually returned to Staten Island. Dying within a few months of each other in 1934, they are buried in the Moravian Cemetery there.
Ynes Mexia, a Mexican-American botanical collector and explorer who began her career in 1925, became the most accomplished female botanical collector of her time both in terms of the number of plant specimens she collected and the miles she traveled on her expeditions. Although she began in her mid-50s and her career was relatively short, she was able to collect an incredible 145,000 specimens. Of those, 500 were new species, and 50 were named in her honor. The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is fortunate to have many of her specimens.
Mexia was born on May 24, 1870, in Washington, D.C. There are varying accounts of Mexia’s early life, but it is agreed that it was somewhat tumultuous. When she was very young, her parents divorced. Her father returned to his native Mexico, and her mother moved the family to Texas. She was married twice: her first marriage ended abruptly with her husband’s death, and her second marriage ended in divorce. After her divorce, she moved from Mexico City to San Francisco and became involved in social work. She also became an active member of the Sierra Club, which motivated her to attend the University of California, Berkeley.
Her interest in botanical collecting began in 1922 when she joined an expedition led by E. L. Furlong, a Berkeley paleontologist. She enrolled in a course on flowering plants at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, and soon after embarked on her first botanical exploration trip to Mexico with Stanford botanist Roxana Ferris. Once in Mexico, Mexia decided that she could accomplish more on her own and abandoned the group, traveling the country for two years and collecting more than 1,500 specimens. She made three additional expeditions to Mexico and collected throughout South America in remote areas of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. She also collected in Alaska and other areas of the United States.
One of the highlights of her explorations was canoeing the Amazon River from its delta to its source in the Andes, covering nearly 3,000 miles in two and a half years. Her specimens were widely distributed to herbaria throughout the U.S. and Western Europe. In addition to collecting, Mexia wrote articles and gave lectures describing her adventures and travels. She died of lung cancer in 1938.
Credit is due to Nina Floy Bracelin, affectionately known as Bracie, who prepared Mexia’s specimens for herbaria. She worked diligently to label the specimens, sending sets to specialists so their species could be determined and distributing the duplicates. Mexia was said to be more interested in exploration and discovery rather than preparing her specimens, but her legacy lives on through those preserved botanical collections, including those that can be found today in the Steere Herbarium.
Juli Anna Janis worked as an intern with Kenneth G. Karol, Ph.D., Assistant Curator in the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, whose specialty is algae.
There are certain things that one expects to see preserved in an herbarium, and these are primarily of a biological nature: plants, fungi, and algae.
Recently, though, while mounting algae that the University of California Berkeley had given to The New York Botanical Garden, I realized that the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium also collects materials that are accidentally archived. The algae specimens from Berkeley arrived still pressed between sheets of newspaper contemporaneous with the specimens.
I have seen algae pressed in envelopes, grocery lists, and ephemera of all sorts, but these newspapers have been the greatest treasure yet: around fifty pages ranging between 1895 and 1970, complete with illustrations, advertisements, and a few historic headlines. Here is a page from the fashion section of the San Francisco Examiner of 4 March 1928:
In another context, these newspapers would have been the archival objects worth preserving–as valuable artifacts of human culture and history—but in an herbarium, they have survived as the storage medium for precious material of a different sort: Chara and Nitella algae specimens.