Every time I walk by the California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) that bloom in the Rock Garden at The New York Botanical Garden, I get a little homesick. I am a California girl, born and raised. As it turns out, I have the botanist Sara Allen Plummer Lemmon to thank for making this poppy the state flower of California and an emblem of home.
Sara Allen Plummer was born in Maine in 1836, schooled in Massachusetts, taught art in New York City, and in 1869 made her way to Santa Barbara, California to improve her health. Upon settling in, she opened up a stationery store and lending library (the first public library in Santa Barbara) and became fascinated by the local flora. She began drawing and collecting specimens of plants, and her store became a cultural hub in town, offering art exhibits, lectures, and readings. Sara met John Gill Lemmon (botanist, teacher, Civil War veteran) in 1876 when he came to California to study and collect the local plants. Their shared interest in botany no doubt played a part in their love affair, and the two were married in 1880.
Margaret Ursula Mee (1909-1988) was an English woman who, in the 1950s, traveled the Amazon’s rivers and explored the forest at a time when women simply did not do those things. She marveled at the richness of the flora in Brazil, and over the next three decades made a total of 15 expeditions, documenting with her brushes and pencils the flora and fauna of the Amazon.
Her formal art training was in ceramics and sculpture, though her botanical paintings were totally different from the three-dimensional art she created. She rendered the strength and beauty of the human form with great energy. By contrast, her paintings of plants are carefully detailed and accurately depict the botanical structures of the highly diverse flora of the Amazon. It was as if she entered the heart of the objects she painted.
Elizabeth Kiernan is a project coordinator for the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden. She is currently working on a program to document the biodiversity of the Amazonian region of South America. Each Wednesday throughout Women’s History Month, Science Talk will celebrate one of the many women of science to have left a mark on botanical history.
Jeanne Baret risked everything for her love of botany and, in doing so, became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. This notable feat was even more remarkable because for much of the voyage, her shipmates did not know she was a woman.
Baret was born in France in 1740. Her working-class parents taught her to identify plants for their healing properties, and she became an expert “herb woman,” a peasant schooled in botanical medicine. Her passion for botany drew her to renowned naturalist Philibert Commerson, who shared her fascination with plants.
Through the recommendation of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised the system for naming species that science still uses today, Commerson was hired as the botanist on Louis de Bougainville’s voyage around the world in search of undiscovered territories, which set sail in 1766.
Commerson wanted Baret to join him in identifying and collecting plant species because of her vast botanical knowledge, but at this time women were strictly prohibited from sailing aboard French ships. Baret and Commerson devised a plan so that she could join the expedition as Commerson’s field assistant: disguise Jeanne as “Jean” by wrapping bandages around her chest and dressing her in loose-fitting clothing to hide her gender.
Highly respected among her male peers in the 18th century, Jane Colden received great accolades and is generally recognized as the first female American botanist. Yet she went largely unnoticed by the greater scientific community for well over a century after her death.
Born in New York City in 1724, she grew up in the Hudson Valley on the estate of her father, Cadwallader Colden, who was a lieutenant governor of New York. The area was then called Coldenham, but we would recognize it as a region just west of Newburgh in Orange County, New York.
As one of the first scientists to be associated with The New York Botanical Garden, Henry Hurd Rusby started the botanical garden’s long history of research in economic botany, the study of how people use plants. Appointed Honorary Curator of the Economic Collections in 1898 (a position for which he volunteered and which he held until his death), Rusby acquired useful plants and plant-derived products through donation, exchange, and field excursions for the garden’s Economic Museum.
These specimens were arranged first by use, then by phylogeny (their evolutionary relationships), and were put on display at the turn of the 20th century on the main floor of the newly built museum building, which is now called the Library Building. The collection occupied more than 200 glass cases. Rusby placed great emphasis on ensuring that each item in the museum have the correct origin and scientific name. That’s standard practice today, but at the time many specimens lacked these important pieces of information.
George Washington Carver may be best remembered for his domestication and promotion of the peanut, but the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium contains evidence of another of his contributions—documenting fungal diseases of plants, which, among other things, is an important cause of crop loss on farms.
Carver was born to slave parents on a farm near Diamond Grove, Missouri, around 1864. Although his boyhood was full of struggle against poverty, racism, and illness, his powerful intellect and insatiable curiosity helped him to persevere with his studies. He entered Simpson College in Iowa and then transferred to Iowa State University, becoming the first African-American student to be enrolled there.
After graduation, Carver was appointed assistant botanist at the Iowa State University Experiment Station. His research program in crop diseases brought him to the attention of Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In 1896, Washington became head of the agricultural and dairy department at Tuskegee, where he remained for the rest of his long career. He died in 1943.
A recent graduate from Pelham Memorial High School, Owen Robinson worked as a volunteer Forest Intern at the NYBG in the summer of 2012. He has since begun as a freshman at the University of Virginia, where he hopes to continue his pursuit of science research as a part of the Echols Scholar Program.
In the summer of 2012 I conducted a project to determine whether or not invasive trees are negatively impacting aquatic macroinvertebrate populations. Aquatic macroinvertebrates are small, invertebrate insects that play essential roles in their ecosystems, acting as an energy bridge between outside plant life and the rest of their aquatic environment. They do this by breaking down tree leaves.
Invasive trees are an established and worsening problem in our region, one that impacts plant biodiversity as well as some mammalian and avian populations. As little research has been dedicated to my particular focus, I wanted to determine whether the leaves from these invasive trees were less beneficial to aquatic macroinvertebrate populations than the leaves of native trees. If this proved the case, there would be reason to work harder against the takeover of invasive plant species.
Visitors to the Adult Education classrooms on Garden grounds may have noticed a recent addition to the walls of the Watson Building in a series of framed, vintage botanical posters. These treasures were discovered in storage while refurbishing the botany lab, and we could not bear to dispose of such a colorful glimpse into the history of botanical science. While the paper had begun to yellow, the ink was flaking, and a few of the posters were beyond saving, Center Art Studio in Manhattan graciously took on the challenge of restoring ten of these double-sided instructional posters as a gift to the NYBG.
Let’s use plain English, which is exactly what the new plant-naming requirements do. As outlined in an op-ed published in the New York Times on January 22, 2012, Dr. Miller, who took part in the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, Australia, where the changes were approved, explains that plants will still be named in Latin, but that they will no longer have to be described in Latin. This laborious process–which has been on the botanical books since 1908–is only the first hurdle each botanist must clear before he may name a new plant species. The next step, the publishing of this description in a printed, paper-based journal, has also been done away with by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature in an effort to speed the naming of plants. Why the hurry? As Dr. Miller says, “as many as one-third of all plant species (may be) at risk of extinction in the next 50 years.” One way to save a plant is to name a plant. From there, scientists–freed from the strictures of Latin–may further investigate the plant and all of its potentialities.
Matthew Pace, an expert with the NYBG through 2011, is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in botany at the University of Wisconsin.
The next time you’re outdoors, take a moment and look around. What plants do you see growing nearby? Have those species always been there? Might there be plants that once grew in that area but are no longer found there? How can we help to protect the plants that we find in a given area? These are questions that many botanists and horticulturalists think about and strive to understand every day. They are central to the issues of conservation and restoration–issues which are also central to the mission of The New York Botanical Garden.
A real-world example of these issues is the case of Anemone quinquefolia and the NYBG. Based on founder Nathaniel Lord Britton’s first list of species originally found on NYBG grounds; field work in the Forest; and herbarium work I had conducted (looking through hundreds of dried plant specimens of species found in the NYC metro-area), I thought Anemone quinquefolia was just one of the 100+ native plant species which have been extirpated since the founding of the Garden (“extirpated” is a word which describes species which were once found in a location, but are no longer found there, a.k.a. local extinction). The last herbarium collections of Anemone quinquefolia were from 1898. Little did I know that I was in for the surprise of the year!