Science Talk

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

Majestic But Endangered: The Uncertain Future of a Mainstay of Northeastern Forests Will Be the Focus of NYBG’s Saving the American Ash Summit

Posted in Events on October 6, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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

Photo of a white ash treeFrom anchoring the ecosystems of many North American forests to providing the wood commonly used in baseball bats, the American ash tree is a majestic and important part of this continent’s woodlands. Now, however, it faces a mortal crisis as an invasive beetle spreads from the Upper Midwest into the northeastern United States and Canada, leaving millions of dead ash trees in its wake.

Nearly 100 percent of ashes infested with ash borers die. The threat is so grave that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently added six North American ash species to its widely respected Red List of threatened species. It declared five of the six critically endangered, a category that is one step from extinction.

On Friday, October 13, 2017, The New York Botanical Garden will bring together four experts to discuss the natural and cultural history of the ash and the peril it faces in Saving the American Ash Summit. The summit will be held from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Ross Hall at the Botanical Garden.

In addition to examining the threats to the American ash, the summit will address how homeowners, nature enthusiasts, and stewards of natural areas can work to save these beloved trees.

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No Longer a Best Guess: NYBG Scientists Help Produce the First Comprehensive Catalog of Amazonian Plants

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 22, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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

Rain forest in the Brazilian state of Acre
Rain forest in the Brazilian state of Acre

Representing a major advance in understanding and conserving the plant life of one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots, an international team of scientists—including four researchers from The New York Botanical Garden—has created the first scientifically vetted list of known plant species in the Amazon Basin.

Based on documented plant specimens held in research collections worldwide and verified by specialists in tropical plants, the team cataloged 14,003 species of seed plants in the Amazon Basin, including 6,727 species of trees. Their research paper, which has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is available here.

Until now, the number of plant species that live in the Amazon Basin has been hotly debated, with estimates ranging from the tens to the hundreds of thousands. But those numbers have been based on ecological models or unverified species lists. This study assembles comprehensive species information based on plant specimens identified by specialists.

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NYBG’s Urban Naturalist Program: Become a Steward of Your Urban Environment

Posted in Learning Experiences on September 5, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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

Several Urban Naturalist students working on a sandy shore.Even in this teeming metropolis, nature is all around us. You just have to look for it. But it helps to know what you’re looking for and what you’re seeing when you’ve found it.

That’s where The New York Botanical Garden’s Urban Naturalist Program comes in.

Called “life-changing” by students who took the course this spring, the fall Urban Naturalist Program will equip you with the observation, interpretation and documentation skills necessary to become a citizen scientist and an effective environmental steward. Led by Mike Feller, our team of expert naturalists, including Ken Chaya and Nancy Slowik, will use the Botanical Garden’s grounds and select New York City parks as living labs to investigate the interrelationships between species and discover how our urban environment sustains those ecosystems.

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A Virtual First: NYBG’s Citizen Scientists Document the Botanical History of the Northeast Online

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on August 25, 2017 by Charles Zimmerman

Charles Zimmerman is the Herbarium Collections and Outreach Administrator for the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo of a specimen
This chestnut specimen, collected by NYBG founder Nathaniel Britton in 1901, was part of the virtual volunteer project.

The William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is especially proud to report the successful completion of Phase I of our largest citizen-supported initiative to date, which makes much historic data for vascular plants of northeastern North America freely available online for the first time. Following the October 2016 launch of this WeDigBio worldwide citizen science event, over 190 online participants contributed a total of 7,177 transcriptions, providing new digital records for 300 species from familiar plant families including sunflowers (Asteraceae), blueberries (Ericaceae), oaks (Fagacae) and grasses (Poaceae).

Through an ongoing partnership with Notes from Nature, virtual volunteering for Steere Herbarium projects has quickly become the most accessible platform for citizen engagement in scientific research at The New York Botanical Garden. Using any computer with access to the Internet, curious and enthusiastic volunteers can view digital images of historic preserved plant specimens in our collection. Through self-guided training (and a little practice), participants interpret and transcribe the often handwritten information on a specimen sheet about the context in which a plant was found in the wild, including the name of the scientist who collected the sample, the geographic location, and the date of collection.

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In Search of Invasive Plant Species in the Lower Hudson Region

Posted in Environment on August 10, 2017 by Jessica Arcate Schuler

Jessica Arcate-Schuler is NYBG‘s Director of the Thain Family Forest.

Invasives map
Map courtesy of

Since 2013, NYBG has partnered with the Lower Hudson Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (LHPRISM) to identify, monitor, manage, and educate about invasive species in our region, which includes Manhattan, Bronx, Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Rockland and the eastern parts of Sullivan and Ulster Counties (map image credit:

An invasive species is defined as a species that is non-native to the ecosystem under consideration and causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. Did you know that there are 146 invasive plant species that threaten the Lower Hudson Region’s ecosystems?

This season, NYBG hosted a citizen science training for the LHPRISM 2017 BlockBuster Survey that taught volunteers how to identify and monitor for 27 of the terrestrial plant species that have limited data in New York’s online mapping program called iMapInvasives and are regional candidates for eradication and containment. In one day, 22 volunteers learned how to identify each plant species, how to sample following the survey protocol, and use an app to collect the data. What makes this survey effort unique, is the extensive regional searching for presence and absence of each of the 27 terrestrial plant species. Each volunteer or team was assigned a three-mile by three-mile grid in which they have until mid September to search for the invasive species of interest.

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Under-explored and Under Threat: Documenting Plant Life along Brazil’s Tapajós River

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on August 1, 2017 by Julia Beros

Julia Beros has worked or interned at The New York Botanical Garden for more than two years, including at the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory and the Ruth Rea Howell Family Garden. In May, she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College.

On the Tapajós river
Dr. Benjamin Torke, in a boat on the Tapajós River, studies a plant specimen.

It’s hardly a secret that the Amazon rain forest, the largest expanse of tropical rain forest on earth, houses great biodiversity and that environmental degradation from climate change and human enterprise is a massive and looming threat throughout the region. The most critically threatened areas also happen to be the least studied and inventoried, but they are estimated to have the highest biodiversity within the Amazon rain forest. NYBG scientist Benjamin Torke, Ph.D., is working to fill in the gaps in our understanding of the rich plant life in one such area in the state of Pará in the southeastern part of the Brazilian Amazon.

Recently, environmental degradation has threatened the potential for capturing and sharing this knowledge. In the southeastern regions of the Amazon, many of the detrimental effects of climate change are heightened by expanding human development. Ranching, logging, soy bean farming, mining, and settlement all contribute to the loss of natural habitat. The construction of a highway that bifurcates the forest has simultaneously created isolated regions of biodiversity and increased the rate of forest degradation. The potential loss of biodiversity is almost visible from satellite images in which beige hatched lines scratch across the dense green rain forest.

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The Plant is in the Mail

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on July 20, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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

Photo of a shipping labelWhen your local library doesn’t have a copy of that latest best-seller that you’ve been dying to read, it can usually request the title from another library. Something very similar happens when plant researchers are looking for preserved specimens in their field of study: they can request loans of these invaluable resources from research repositories across the globe.

NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium sends an average of 20,000 specimens out on loan every year. Even now, as millions of ultra high-resolution digital images of plant specimens are becoming readily available online in The New York Botanical Garden’s C. V. Starr Virtual Herbarium, there are still many times when nothing short of the physical specimen will do.

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A Taste for Adventure: Botanical Collections From a Polar Chef and Explorer

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on June 29, 2017 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.

Amundsen Map
Map of the Gjøa’s Northwest Passage voyage, 1903–6. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.

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.

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NYBG’s Before the Green is Gone: 2017 Sustainability Summit and Dinner

Posted in Events on June 23, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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

Photo of Before the Green is Gone
Maureen Chilton, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, The New York Botanical Garden; and Diane Katzin, NYBG Trustee and sustainability advocate

The New York Botanical Garden’s first Before the Green is Gone: Sustainability Summit and Dinner was held at multiple sites around the Botanical Garden on Wednesday, June 14. The event was held not only to honor those who have played central roles in sustainability initiatives at the Garden and around the world but also to advance public discussion of issues at the heart of building a more sustainable world.

Three concurrent sessions on critical sustainability subjects—water, forestry, and energy—featured experts from the worlds of business, research, advocacy, and philanthropy. Held at active conservation sites around the Garden, the information-packed sessions offered speakers the opportunity to share challenges and discuss practical solutions to these important issues.

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An Inside Look at NYBG’s Time Capsule of Plants

Posted in Videos and Lectures on June 21, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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

Photo of an herbarium specimenIn a new video about The New York Botanical Garden’s world-class herbarium, Assistant Curator Matthew Pace, Ph.D., likens the herbarium to a time capsule that “allows you to go basically anywhere in the world, back in time, and also extrapolate into the future.”

The 7.8 million preserved plant specimens in NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium—the second-largest in the world—capture what the ecosystem of a region was like at a specific point in time. By knowing the environmental conditions that allow a plant species to thrive, it’s possible to make predictions about how it will react in the future.

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