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

Nuggets from the Archives

Ellen Hutchins: Ireland’s First Female Botanist

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on January 2, 2015 by Sarah Dutton

Sarah Dutton is a project coordinator in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where she is working on a project to digitize the Steere Herbarium’s collection of algae.


Hutchins Specimen

I recently happened across the oldest specimen that I have ever seen in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. It was collected in August 1807 in Bantry Bay, Ireland, by a woman named “Miss Hutchins.” While digitizing lichen, bryophyte, and algal specimens over the last two years, I have become familiar with Miss Hutchins’ name. Her specimens appear to be some of the oldest in these collections, all dating from the very early 1800s. I finally decided to investigate: who was this Miss Hutchins?

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A Unique and Lovely Little Fungal Collection

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on April 7, 2014 by Ellen Bloch

Ellen Diane Bloch is the Collections Manager of the Cryptogamic Herbarium, part of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. The Cryptogamic Herbarium includes the fungi collection.


Eaton's Fungal Collection
The fungal collection of Elizabeth Eaton Morse

One of my favorite discoveries in the 30 years that I have worked in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is an odd and beautiful collection of fungi. Packed away in a charming box from Hink’s Department Store in Berkeley, California, is an assortment of nearly 40 specimens collected in Mount Desert Island, Maine, in 1935. How did these dried fungal specimens from Maine come to be placed in a box from a California retailer and then end up at The New York Botanical Garden?

To answer that question, it helps to know that the fungi were collected by Elizabeth Eaton Morse, who devoted much of her life to collecting and studying fungi. Born in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1864, Morse taught elementary school for several years before entering Wellesley College, where she graduated with a diploma from the School of Art in 1891. After decades of teaching and supervising in Massachusetts and New York City schools, Morse returned to Wellesley College, receiving a B.A. with a major in botany in 1926.

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Over Deserts and Mountains: A Botanist’s Love

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on March 26, 2014 by Amy Weiss

Amy Weiss is a curatorial assistant in The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where she catalogues and preserves plant specimens from around the world. 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.


Mt. Lemmon as seen from Oracle, AZ
Mt. Lemmon as seen from Oracle, AZ

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.

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In Search of the Flowers of the Amazon

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on March 19, 2014 by Stella Sylva

Stella Sylva is an Administrative Curator of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden. 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.


Margaret Mee smelling the night-flowering Strophocactus
Margaret Mee smelling the night-flowering moonflower

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.

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The Amazing Feat of Jeanne Baret

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on March 12, 2014 by Elizabeth Kiernan

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.


An engraving of Jeanne Baret which portrays her in loose-fitting clothing. (Credit: Leemage/Getty Images/Universal Images Gr.)
An engraving of Jeanne Baret portrays her in loose-fitting clothing. (Credit: Leemage/Getty Images/Universal Images Gr.)

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.

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America’s First Female Botanist

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on March 5, 2014 by Nicole Tarnowsky

Nicole Tarnowsky is Administrative Curator of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden. 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.


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.

Entry in Colden’s manuscript describing the new species Gardenia. Reproduced with the permission of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum.
Entry in Colden’s manuscript describing the new species Gardenia. Reproduced with the permission of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

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.

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Rusby’s Economic Museum

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on February 24, 2014 by Amy Weiss

Amy Weiss is a curatorial assistant in The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where she catalogues and preserves plant specimens from around the world.


Collection 1295, indigo dye
Collection 1295, indigo dye

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.

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More Than Peanuts: George Washington Carver’s Fungi Fascination

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on February 11, 2014 by Barbara Thiers

Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., is the Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and Vice President for Science Administration at The New York Botanical Garden. In honor of Black History Month, she reveals a little-known aspect of botanist-inventor George Washington Carver’s work and his connection with the Botanical Garden.


George Washington Carver (1910)

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.

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Testing the Waters

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on December 27, 2013 by Matt Newman

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.


Norway maple leaf pack
Norway maple leaf pack

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.

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A Piece of Botanical History Given a New Life

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on December 20, 2013 by Lansing Moore

Jurica's Posters

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.

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