Science Talk

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

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.

Transplants: Saving the Denizens of a Threatened Coastal Ecosystem

Posted in Uncategorized on April 7, 2017 by Matt Newman

Jessica L. Allen is completing her Ph.D. at the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program at The New York Botanical Garden. James C. Lendemer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Lichens are their primary research interest.

Cape Hatteras, North Carolina
Wetlands and dunes in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina (Photo by Dr. James Lendemer)
Lichen transplant methods use a variety of artificial surfaces
Lichen transplant methods use a variety of artificial surfaces

In a previous post, we reported on the discovery of an overlooked biodiversity hotspot located in the vast coastal swamps of eastern North Carolina. While the area was already renowned for its wildness, we discovered that it hosts more lichen species than anywhere else in the Mid-Atlantic. Unfortunately, the factors that likely preserved the wilderness into the present day—endless low-lying swamps are difficult to drain and log—mean that it is now imperiled by rising sea levels associated with climate change. In an area where the elevation is measures in inches, minute increases in sea level mean the difference between old-growth, lichen-rich forests and marshes or open water where lichens cannot survive.

Read More

125 Years of Science and Conservation at NYBG

Posted in Book on March 16, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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

BrittoniaBy their nature, scientists tend to be forward-looking sorts. As they explore their field of research, one question leads to another question, which, inevitably, leads to yet another question. But a recent issue of Brittonia, a quarterly journal of botanical research published by NYBG Press, casts a backward glance at 125 years of science and conservation at The New York Botanical Garden.

Research has played a major role at The New York Botanical Garden since its founding—by a husband-wife team of plant scientists—in 1891. As Lawrence M. Kelly, Ph.D., the editor of this special issue, writes in an introductory essay, the Botanical Garden’s scientific programs are aimed at describing, documenting, understanding, and preserving plant diversity.

Read More

Celebrating One of the World’s Greatest Plant Research Collections

Posted in Videos and Lectures on March 6, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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

HerbariumIt’s been called a “national treasure” by the National Science Foundation, but The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is hardly a familiar feature of the NYBG landscape for most visitors.

In fact, if they were told that the Steere Herbarium is the second largest research collection of its kind in the world, they might well reply, “What in the World is a Herbarium?”

As it happens, that’s the name of a new NYBG exhibition that showcases the central role that the Herbarium plays in the critically important plant research that takes place behind the scenes every day at NYBG.

Read More

Look Who’s Minding Our Planet

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

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

In Look Who’s Minding Our Planet, filmmaker Sara Lukinson explores the visionary partnership between philanthropist Lewis Cullman and The New York Botanical Garden, which has resulted in a world-class plant research program. The scientists in NYBG’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics delve into the evolution of plants, study their genetic make-up, and work to unravel their complex interrelationships.

As this compelling short documentary shows, they are also training the next generation of plant researchers, all with the goal of understanding and preserving the world’s plant life, which makes the rest of life on Earth possible.

A Catchy Phrase, But is It True?

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on February 10, 2017 by Esther Jackson

Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at The New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office. Richard Abbott, Ph.D., is a botanist at the Botanical Garden, where he works primarily on updating the Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada.

Acer pseudoplatanus Frank Vincentz
Acer pseudoplatanus by Frank Vincentz

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny doesn’t exactly flow off the tongue unless you are familiar with scientific terminology. However, what appears to be a somewhat intimidating phrase is actually marvelously succinct and elegant.

Ontogeny is “the development or course of development, especially of an individual organism.” This could refer to the development of a plant from embryo to seed to seedling to mature, reproductive plant. Or it could refer to an animal growing from an embryo into an infant and then into an adult. 

Phylogeny is “the evolutionary history of a genetically related group of organisms, as distinguished from the development of the individual organism.” Sometimes these relationships are illustrated as trees of information, with groups of closely related organisms called clades. Studying and depicting shared evolutionary history is known as cladistics. Have you seen Darwin’s tree of life

If so, then you understand the basic idea of phylogeny. It’s all about the study of relationships.

Recapitulate means “to repeat the principal stages or phases.” For most, this is perhaps the most recognizable word of the trio. Actually, it is the namesake of recapitulation theory.

Read More

After 248 Years, Still Fresh as a Daisy

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on February 3, 2017 by Stevenson Swanson

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

Capt Cook SpecimenPress. Dry. Mount.

That’s the basic process for turning a plant into a research specimen that will last indefinitely, and it’s stayed the same for hundreds of years for a good reason: It works.

As proof, here’s a member of the daisy family that botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander clipped in January 1769 in Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. They were part of the scientific team aboard the HMS Endeavour on Captain James Cook’s first voyage around the world. This 248-year-old specimen, still holding onto its leaves and retaining most of its color, is now part of the collection of 7.8 million preserved plants in NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, the second largest in the world.

Read More

NYBG Facts: Cinchona

Posted in Videos and Lectures on January 6, 2017 by Matt Newman

Deep in the Haupt Conservatory‘s upland rain forest house stands an unassuming tree with a rich history—one that involves one of the most significant medical discoveries of the last century. From the forests of South America to the ships of the British Navy, and even your favorite cocktail, the cinchona’s been making waves for decades.

Find out more about this eminently useful tree in our latest series, NYBG Facts!

Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon 2017

Posted in Events on December 28, 2016 by Esther Jackson

Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at The New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office.


On Wednesday, January 25, 2017, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., the LuEsther T. Mertz Library will host a Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon focused on creating and enhancing articles for Women in Science.  Specifically, we will be highlighting female scientists.

This NYBG Edit-A-Thon is a part of a week of Wikipedia editing events hosted by the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries (CBHL).  Other participating institutions include Mt. Cuba Center and the University of New Mexico.  The theme for this series of Edit-A-Thons is “Plants and People.”  At NYBG, library staff has elected to focus on creating biographical Wikipedia articles for women who work within several areas of botany—ethnobotany, taxonomy, and plant collecting.

Read More

Top 10: The Best Popular-Science Books of 2016

Posted in Books: Past and Present on December 22, 2016 by Esther Jackson

Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at the New York Botanical Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office.

Many exciting science books were published in 2016, including an enormous number of more specialized botanical texts. But of all the excellent titles intended for a general audience, a few stood out in particular for me. Here are my favorite popular-science books of the year.

Botanicum (Welcome to the Museum)Art & Art History

Botanicum (Welcome to the Museum) catches the eye immediately, its cover adorned with botanical illustrations.  Illustrator Katie Scott has breathed contemporary life into her botanical illustrations with an art nouveau-like aesthetic that manages to recall historic botanical illustration styles. Author Kathy Willis has divided the text into “galleries,” titled The first plants; Trees; Palms and cycads; Herbaceous plants; Grasses, cattails, sedges, and rushes; Orchids and bromeliads; and Adapting to environments. This is a beautiful book for casual plant lovers as well as those who are already passionate about botany and botanical art.

Read More