Science Talk

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

The Botany Bill: Proposed Legislation Highlights Importance of Native Plants on Federal Lands

Posted in Environment on March 1, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of Dr. Rob Naczi
Dr. Rob Naczi in the field doing research for The New Manual of Vascular Plants.

Proposed legislation has been introduced in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives with the rather formidable title “Botanical Sciences and Native Plant Materials Research, Restoration, and Promotion Act.” Informally, it is known as “the Botany Bill.” If enacted, the Botany Bill could greatly support the safeguarding and promoting of native plants on federal lands and the increase the number of botanists who are dedicated to studying and protecting those plant species. NYBG is one of dozens of organizations that have endorsed the Botany Bill.

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The Lichens Are Coming—Back!

Posted in Environment on February 19, 2019 by Becky Thorp

Becky Thorp is the Senior Plant Recorder at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of lichen
Flavoparmelia caperata

Do you like to breathe? If yes, then I have excellent news for you: lichens are easier to find in the New York metropolitan area today than they have been for decades, and this is an indicator of improved air quality.

Lichens are composed of a symbiotic relationship between photosynthetic algae or cyanobacteria, which create food from sunlight, and a fungus, which provides shelter. They can be found growing on the surfaces of tree trunks, rocks, lean soil, tombstones, and other surfaces on every continent and in every type of terrestrial ecosystem on earth. Able to withstand extreme variations of moisture and temperature, lichens have even survived long periods in outer space. What they can’t survive is air pollution here on earth, especially in the form of soot or sulfur dioxide, because they absorb nutrients directly from the atmosphere. Given this fact, it comes as no surprise that while they thrived in the New York area in the early 19th century, the number of local lichen species declined sharply in the 20th century with the growth of industry and population.

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Mitigating Global Warming: A Botanical Approach, Part 2

Posted in Environment on February 1, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


View of the Tapajos river
View overlooking the Tapajós River in Amazonia National Park. This botanically diverse area is slated to be impacted by hydroelectric development.

My recent post on Science Talk focused on the importance of planning and executing a coordinated, worldwide scaling-up of ecosystem restoration efforts in order to maximize the potential role of plants in mitigating global warming. At least as important as ecosystem restoration is the need to safeguard the quantity and quality of existing intact ecosystems. Indeed, in a recent report, larger trees were shown to be more efficient at capturing carbon than smaller trees, so mature trees in healthy ecosystems are essential to the efficacy of a botanical approach to mitigating global warming. Another recent report, suggesting that as the climate warms, plants will absorb less carbon dioxide, reinforces the urgency of restoring ecosystems and protecting natural areas.

NYBG scientists are helping to safeguard protected natural areas by documenting their plant diversity and sharing that information with land managers and policymakers. For example, Associate Curator Benjamin Torke, Ph.D., is leading one such research project in Brazil’s Tapajós National Forest and nearby Amazonia National Park, discussed in a previous post on Science Talk and profiled in greater depth here. NYBG has “boots on the ground” in six Areas of Botanical Concern (ABCs), which are regions where conservation action is urgent and NYBG is well positioned to have a major influence on conservation outcomes: North America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Pacific islands, the Atlantic Coastal Forest of Brazil, and Amazonia.

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Mitigating Global Warming: A Botanical Approach, Part 1

Posted in Books: Past and Present on January 7, 2019 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of the cover of Biodiversity and Climate ChangeThe convergence of two global environmental challenges—the growing number of endangered plant and animal species and the increasing impact of climate change—is the subject of an essential book that is being published on January 8, Biodiversity and Climate Change: Transforming the Biosphere. Edited by NYBG Trustee & Gold Medal Winner Thomas E. Lovejoy and Lee Hannah, it is a timely, seminal compilation of 28 articles written by renowned experts on diverse aspects of the complex interactions between these urgent problems. The publication “serves as a comprehensive account of this greatest of threats to humanity’s future,” writes eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson, a Distinguished Counsellor to the NYBG Board, in the book’s foreword. “It will serve both as a textbook and a call to action.”

“A call to action” on climate change was a central theme of my recent post on Science Talk, but there’s much more to say about this subject. Among the many recommendations for action in Biodiversity and Climate Change are ones that botanical gardens are uniquely positioned to lead, in what could be termed a botanical approach to mitigating global warming. The approach involves using the natural power of plants to capture a major greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.

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Michael Balick on The Scientist Podcast

Posted in Applied Science on December 27, 2018 by Matt Newman

Photo of Michael Balick

It’s around this time of year that we often think about family, and keeping traditions alive. Michael Balick, Vice President for Botanical Science and Director of the Institute of Economic Botany, talks about maintaining longstanding family traditions using ethnobotany, collaboration, and chewing on ginseng with scientist and podcaster Toshiki Nakashige on The Scientist Podcast.

Give it a listen!

Climate Change Action, Post-Poland’s COP24

Posted in Environment on December 21, 2018 by Brian Boom

Brian M. Boom, Ph.D., is Vice President for Conservation Strategy; Director, NYBG Press and Science Outreach; and Bassett Maguire Curator of Botany at NYBG.


We at NYBG welcome the positive news out of the climate change talks (COP24) in Poland over the past weekend of the agreement reached by the international community—more than 190 countries—to a set of rules for implementing the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. 

Less welcome was the news that the conference’s final communique did not endorse the findings of the Special Report Global Warming of 1.5°C of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but rather only “noted” the publication. The report’s findings pertain to the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and it concluded that we could reach the 1.5°C threshold as early as 2030. Yes, in 12 years! This unfortunate outcome reinforced the rapidly growing realization that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) must play a central role in averting dire climate change outcomes.

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Continuing a Monumental Project, the Third Installment of NYBG’s New Manual of Northeastern Plants is Available from NYBG Press

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on November 2, 2018 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Associate Director of Public Relations for The New York Botanical Garden.


Western_Prairie_Fringed_Orchid
Western prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera praeclara)

With their exotic flowers and lush foliage, orchids are often considered the quintessential tropical plant, but as a recent publication from NYBG Press demonstrates, they are also native to the northeastern United States. Orchids (or Orchidaceae, their scientific name) are among the 27 plant families that are now available in the third installment of treatments released as part of the New Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada by Robert F. C. Naczi, Ph.D., NYBG’s Arthur J. Cronquist Curator of North American Botany, and Collaborators. The family treatments have been published as individual, downloadable PDFs that can be viewed on a variety of devices such as a desktop computer, tablet, or smartphone.

In the region covered by the New Manual, there are 84 species of orchids, according to the treatment by Matthew C. Pace, Ph.D., Assistant Curator of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden, and John V. Freudenstein, Ph.D., Professor of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at The Ohio State University.

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Traditional Shelters, Cyclone Houses, and the Temptations of Modern Construction

Posted in From the Field on September 18, 2018 by Science Talk

Gregory M. Plunkett, Ph.D., is Director and Curator of The New York Botanical Garden’s Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, and Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., is Vice President for Botanical Science and Director and Philecology Curator of the Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany.


Marie Ken Matai and Kating Ken Matai demonstrate the elements of traditional roof design (Nusemetu, North Tanna).

In Port-Vila and Luganville—Vanuatu’s two largest cities—most people live in buildings that are made in much the same way as those found in New York, Paris, or Sydney. But across most of Vanuatu, the great majority of people still live in small villages, and it is in these areas that we see the wisdom of traditional approaches to building houses. The advantages of these techniques—and the potential lessons for other areas that suffer increasingly from severe tropical weather—may be especially timely in light of Hurricane Florence, which has buffeted North and South Carolina with high winds and heavy rains.

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Indian Pipes: The Parasitic Plants in Bloom at The New York Botanical Garden

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on September 4, 2018 by Science Talk

Ashley Keesling is a graduate student at The Ohio State University who recently conducted a research visit to The New York Botanical Garden.


Indian pipes at Clear Creek Metro Park in Hocking County, Ohio
Indian pipes at Clear Creek Metro Park in Hocking County, Ohio

Intriguing and ethereal, Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are often mistaken for fungi because of their pale, otherworldly appearance. Also known as ghost plants, they typically occur in well-established forests and are often thought of as indicators of healthy ecosystems—not the kind of plant you might think would grow in a dense urban area. However, pockets of preserved forests in New York City, such as the old-growth Thain Family Forest at The New York Botanical Garden, can allow species to flourish in unexpected places.

I came to the heart of the Bronx recently to hunt for Indian pipes in the Thain Forest as part of the research I am conducting for my master’s thesis at The Ohio State University.

These fascinating parasitic plants have been the subject of much interest over the years, including research by an early 20th Century NYBG scientist. Indian pipes are unusual in that they do not photosynthesize. Instead, they are mycoheterotrophic, meaning they obtain nutrients by parasitizing a type of fungi that associate with plant roots. These mycorrhizal fungi help the plants take up water and nutrients that might otherwise be inaccessible to the plants. In exchange, the plants provide the fungi with sugars created from the process of photosynthesis. Indian pipes take advantage of the relationship between another plant and its associated fungus and “steal” sugars from the fungus. This three-part symbiosis allows Indian pipes to ultimately get their nutrients from a photosynthetic plant through the means of a mycorrhizal fungi.

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A New NYBG Report Provides the First Authoritative Assessment of NYC’s Plant Life

Posted in Events on August 14, 2018 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Associate Director of Public Relations at The New York Botanical Garden.


BronxAs part of The New York Botanical Garden’s ongoing project to document all of the plant life of New York City, the Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation Strategy recently issued a new report, State of New York City’s Plants 2018, the first in what is envisioned as an annual overview of the status of the city’s spontaneous plant species—that is, native plants and non-native plants that have become established in the five boroughs.

The report, which was released at NYBG’s First Annual EcoFlora Conference, found that 2,029 plant species have been reported in New York City from 1807 to 2018. The most species-rich families are the grasses, daisies, and sedges.

At the other end of the spectrum are rare and endangered plants. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which tracks threatened and endangered plant and animal species, ranks six New York City plant species as critically endangered worldwide, including four species of ash trees, the American chestnut tree, and Bayard’s Adder’s-Mouth orchid. Adding in New York City species that are considered rare, threatened, endangered or extinct by the U. S. government and New York State, some 13 percent of the city’s flora is imperiled or has gone extinct.

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