Science Talk

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

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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Edit-a-thon Update: Expanding Access to Information about Important Women in Plant Science

Posted in Events on June 6, 2017 by Esther Jackson

Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office. She spends much of her time assisting researchers, providing instruction related to library resources, and collaborating with NYBG staff on various projects related to Garden initiatives and events.

Photo of editathon“Plants and People” was the theme of a Wikipedia edit-a-thon that The New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library hosted in January. Editors and organizers focused on creating and enhancing Wikipedia articles about women in science, specifically biographical articles of female ethnobotanists, plant taxonomists, and plant collectors. For this event, the special collections of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library were used extensively, allowing for analog biographical information about important women in science to be shared with the world through Wikipedia.

This was the second edit-a-thon at NYBG during the past year, and organizers benefited from the expertise and assistance of expert Wikipedia editors from the Wikimedia NYC  chapter. Wikimedia, the foundation that supports the work of Wikipedia and its sister projects worldwide, posted a story about the event, including a video, on its blog.

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Saving the Plants of the World: Celebrating International Day for Biological Diversity

Posted in Applied Science on May 22, 2017 by Lawrence Kelly

Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., is Associate Vice President for Science Administration and Director of Graduate Studies at The New York Botanical Garden.

Photo of Saving the Plants of the WorldEvery year on May 22, The New York Botanical Garden joins the global community in celebrating International Day for Biological Diversity. Established in 1993 by the United Nations, this day recognizes international cooperation and commitment to take global action to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss. It is also an outstanding opportunity to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues, especially, for us here at NYBG, the issues facing the plant kingdom.

It is no exaggeration to say that without plants, life on Earth would be impossible. Plants provide food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and the raw materials to meet most human needs. Plants make the air we breathe, they create the rain that waters the world, and they are essential for healthy ecosystems. The beauty of plants nurtures our souls and inspires our imaginations. Yet the plant diversity that sustains us is imperiled today as never before in human history. One-third of Earth’s nearly 400,000 plant species are at risk of extinction.

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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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A Project as Big as the West: Wrapping Up More Than 80 Years of Intermountain Plant Research

Posted in Books: Past and Present on May 2, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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

Intermountain Flora
Tony King (American, b. 1944); Bristlecone 8, 2009
[Pinus longaeva, Intermountain bristlecone pine]
Oil on linen
in Intermountain Flora, Volume Seven
For almost all of their professional careers, Drs. Noel and Patricia Holmgren have explored the vast region between the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains—an area the size of Texas encompassing all or parts of seven states—to discover and document its plant life. Their work, and that of their many collaborators, is contained in Intermountain Flora, a monumental, multi-volume work published over the course of 45 years, beginning in 1972.

The New York Botanical Garden Press recently published the last volume in the series, Intermountain Flora, Volume Seven—Potpourri: Keys, History, Authors, Artists, Collectors, Beardtongues, Glossary, Indices. This 312-page supplement is both a history and a guide to the series, which provides authoritative, scientific treatments of nearly 4,000 plant species found in the Intermountain West.

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Roaming the Wilds of Early 19th-Century Manhattan and Beyond—and Taking Notes

Posted in Nuggets from the Archives on April 19, 2017 by Daniel Atha

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

Photo of John Torrey's Portrait
Portrait of John Torrey by David Huntington, 1857. From the collection of Princeton University. Image from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library/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.