Barbara M. Thiers, Ph.D., is the Vice President and Patricia K. Holmgren Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, and Curator of Bryophytes at The New York Botanical Garden.
Herbarium specimens are one of the very few tangible sources of information about how plants and fungi lived before industrialization, and during each successive period of technological advance since then. Through creative adaptation of technologies developed to address other questions, researchers today can glean information from herbarium specimens about an organism’s physiology, its reproduction, interaction with pollinators, predators and parasites, and the atmosphere around it, for example, the presence of pollutants in the soil and the chemical composition of the air.
Plants have small openings on the undersides of their leaves called stomates that allow Carbon Dioxide (CO2) to enter the leaf for the process of photosynthesis, and allow Oxygen (O2), a byproduct of photosynthesis, to enter to air. A variety of studies have demonstrated that leaves produce fewer of these stomates when CO2 concentrations in the air rise. Examination of stomates on herbarium specimens confirm other evidence that CO2 levels are rising, and help to correlate this rise with other types of climatic and human-mediated events. Assays of plant tissue from herbarium specimens can also help find previously unidentified sources of pollution. Herbarium specimens have been used to track historical levels of radiation and heavy metals to serve as a baseline for pre-pollution conditions, and to assess the reaction of a species to the presence of these compounds. These techniques were used to study long-term effects of known pollutions events, such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, or can be used to discover previously unknown contamination events.
Stevenson Swanson is the Associate Director of Public Relations at The New York Botanical Garden.
The New York Botanical Garden has received a New York State Environmental Excellence Award for 2019 in recognition of the Botanical Garden’s ongoing commitment to being a leader in the Empire State in reducing energy use and carbon emissions and increasing the sustainability of its operations.
The Garden was one of only four organizations to be honored with the award, which is presented annually by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to recognize outstanding efforts to achieve a more sustainable New York. A statewide review committee selected the winners from an array of competitive applications.
“The New York Botanical Garden is honored to be recognized by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation with this award,” said Carrie Rebora Barratt, Ph.D., CEO and The William C. Steere Sr. President of The New York Botanical Garden. “At a time when plants are under threat as never before, NYBG is proud to be a leader in environmental stewardship and sustainable development on our 250-acre campus in the Bronx and in areas of critical conservation concern throughout our region, across the country, and around the world.”
Samantha Frangos is a Laboratory Technician in the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory of The New York Botanical Garden.
The green plant tree of life is built upon many evolutionary innovations. Plants have come a long way since they began as single-celled organisms one billion years ago. They have transitioned from water to land and managed to become the beautiful, towering, flowering and fruiting beings that are the backbone of life on earth. They have complex life histories—creating vascular systems, waxy cuticles, spores, seeds and flowers. These innovations define key turning points in the history of green plants, and they are what separate the major plant groups: green algae, mosses and liverworts, ferns, gymnosperms and flowering plants.
The One Thousand Plant Transcriptomes Initiative, also known as the 1KP initiative, is a global collaboration of nearly 200 plant scientists, including NYBG’s Dr. Dennis Stevenson. “This long term project integrates field work, herbarium research, and living collections with the latest in laboratory and information sciences as an international collaboration,” Dr Stevenson said. For almost 10 years, this group has been attempting to sequence the genes of one thousand plants, spanning every plant family on the tree of life. The publication of these sequences, 1,147 in total, brings science significantly closer to understanding how the tree of life works in the plant kingdom. By examining the similarities and differences in genes, we can more fully understand how plants created evolutionarily significant transitions. For example: we can use this data to understand how conifers, which disperse their seeds in cones, are related to flowering plants, which disperse their seeds in fruit and only appeared in the fossil record about 200 million years ago.
Stephen Sinon is the William B. O’Connor Curator of Special Collections, Research and Archives, in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden.
Dr. Alexander P. Anderson (1862–1943) was a plant physiologist and the inventor of the process for making puffed cereals. His interest in starch grains began as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota studying agriculture. Encouraged by his instructors, Anderson earned a master’s degree in plant physiology in 1895. He then traveled to Munich, Germany to study with leading botanists, earning his doctorate degree in plant physiology in 1897. After completing his studies, Anderson accepted a teaching and research position at Clemson Agricultural College (Clemson University today) where he taught from 1897 to 1901.
Anderson came to work at the NYBG Laboratories in 1901 through the encouragement of Dr. Daniel Trembly MacDougal, who was at the time Director of Laboratories at NYBG. When offered a position as Curator of the Herbarium of Columbia University with the use of the Laboratories at The New York Botanical Garden, he resigned his teaching position in South Carolina and moved to New York. His work on starch granules continued at the laboratories at NYBG.
The Amazon Rain Forest still holds many mysteries for botanists. Dr. Douglas Daly and his Brazilian collaborators are in the Jacundá National Forest of Brazil’s Rondônia state to collect plant specimens and investigate the extent of damage from recent fires. Today’s efforts uncovered a species of tree that Dr. Daly and his team had never seen before, and could even be new to science. Follow along with Dr. Daly’s ongoing expedition here.
Samantha Frangos is a Research Technician in NYBG’s Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory.
The concept of a “living fossil” was first proposed by Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species in 1859. The term “living fossil” is used to describe species that have managed to remain physically identical over the course of millennia and are still alive today. As these species have survived a wide range of extreme environmental conditions, including several mass extinctions, they beg the question: how have the living fossils been able to persist over millions of years? Scientists at The New York Botanical Garden believe the answer may be found in the living fossils of the plant kingdom. Most of these “living fossil” plant species are in the cone-bearing, non-flowering group of plants, called gymnosperms. Gymnosperms have very large and complex genomes, some being almost seven times the size of a human genome. Decoding the genomes of these species may give us some clues as to understanding their resilience over time.
The most widely recognized living fossil of the plant kingdom is Ginkgo biloba. It is easily recognizable by its distinct fan shape leaves that resemble those of the maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris), giving it the common name of maidenhair tree. Ginkgo has remained unchanged for over 280 million years, surviving several glaciation events, fluctuations of carbon dioxide concentration and temperature, and mass extinctions. Because of its resilience, it is often seen lining city streets, including the streets that border The New York Botanical Garden.
Douglas Daly, Ph.D., is the B.A. Krukoff Curator of Amazonian Botany and the Director of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden.
“Destruction [of forests] represents an attack on humanity, an affront to the sources of life, and an assured means of destroying future generations.”
—Roberto Burle Marx, “Garden and Ecology,” 1969
The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical forest, spanning nine South American countries and housing 10 percent of the world’s living plant and animal species. Its trees absorb about 25 percent of carbon emissions taken in collectively by all forests on Earth, replacing harmful CO2 with the oxygen we breathe. Recent reports indicate the number of fires blazing in the Amazon in late August 2019 is the highest on record, representing an 83 percent increase over the number of fires at the same time last year.
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.
Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.
The recent report about the fires in the Brazilian Amazon compels us to reflect on how painful the Amazonian fires would have been to Roberto Burle Marx (1904–94), one of Brazil’s earliest and most important advocates for the rain forest and the subject of our current major exhibition, Brazilian Modern: The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx.
A renowned landscape architect, Burle Marx was also a passionate, outspoken conservationist. His writings on environmental topics in Brazil—powerful when written a half-century ago—have a renewed, relevant resonance in 2019. For example, in Burle Marx: Homenagem à Natureza¹, he is quoted as saying, “You have to understand that it is my obligation to oppose everything that I consider an ecological crime … the sacrifice of nature is irreversible.” In 1969, he wrote: “This destruction [of forests] represents an attack on humanity, an affront to the sources of life, and an assured means of destroying future generations.”² A more powerful, fitting response to the news of the Amazonian fires could not be penned today.
Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.
The federal government recently announced plans to significantly weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the most important legislation ever enacted to protect threatened plants and animals in the United States. There are currently 947 plant species and 1,471 animal species listed through the ESA. The new rules, which will take effect next month, will curtail future listings and potentially reverse a half-century of salvation in the wild. An article in The New York Times outlines the plans; most of the response and commentary has focused on animals—for instance, Carl Safina’s compelling opinion piece with statistics about triumphant saves of condors, alligators, grey wolves, and pelicans since the act became law in 1973.
However, the new rules also have grave implications for plants.