Human Life Depends on Plants
Without plants, life on Earth would be impossible. Yet the plant diversity that sustains us is imperiled today as never before in human history. NYBG is responding to the biodiversity crisis by conducting cutting-edge research on plants and their habitats and by taking institutional action to protect them, securing a healthy future for our planet and our children.
Protecting and Sustaining Biodiversity
Very few organizations that focus on plant research do as much to conserve plant life as The New York Botanical Garden. To carry out their critical work, our 200-member scientific staff call upon the Garden’s unparalleled combination of resources at our 250-acre campus in the Bronx: the Herbarium, whose 7.8 million preserved specimens make it the second largest in the world; the Library, the world’s largest collection of research material about plant science and horticulture; and the Plant Research Laboratory, a state-of-the-art facility for investigating plants at the molecular level.
Our field research is conducted as far away as Amazonia, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific islands, and as close as New York City. For example, in Myanmar our scientists are studying the largest remaining tract of primary forest in Southeast Asia. In Cuba we are identifying the most critically endangered species to inform conservation and sustainable development policies. And in New York City, we are documenting how immigrants from the Caribbean use traditional plant-based medicine.
The New York Botanical Garden’s scientific programs contribute to three elements of effective conservation:
Whether journeying to remote areas of Earth to identify new species, working in the lab to understand how plant life evolved, or studying how indigenous people use plants, we seek to build humankind’s knowledge about plants.
- Documenting Plant Life. An adequate understanding of global plant diversity is a fundamental prerequisite for the conservation and sustainable use of the species that make up all ecosystems. This understanding is generated through field exploration, collections research, inventories and floras, and the integration of this work with laboratory research that examines the biological and genetic mechanisms of plants as they relate to biodiversity and climate change.
- Deciphering the Tree of Life. NYBG scientists are part of a global scientific effort to assemble the evolutionary Tree of Life for all plants on Earth, past and present. At the center of this effort is the Garden’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Program for Molecular Systematics, whose researchers study plant DNA to decipher the often complicated evolutionary relationships among plant species. NYBG’s Plant Genomics Program focuses on exploring and understanding the genes responsible for critical evolutionary innovations—such as leaves or flowers—on the plant portion of the Tree of Life.
- Understanding Plant Uses. NYBG’s economic botany program examines the complex relationships among plants, people, and culture, with an emphasis on ethnobotany (how people of a particular group or location use plants), ecology, sustainable management, and medicinal plants. Garden scientists focus not only on useful plants that are global resources with great economic impact, but also on species used regionally by indigenous people and local communities. This understanding of plants and people at local, regional, and global levels is critical to finding solutions for conserving the plant resources on which the well-being of humankind depends.
Engaging and Training
By involving local communities in understanding and valuing their ecosystems, educating graduate students, and making our research widely available, NYBG leverages its expertise and advances international capacity-building efforts here and abroad.
- Fostering Sustainable Practices. Garden scientists conserve tropical forests by working with local communities to develop management plans for using the forest sustainably. Such projects have a capacity-building component that incorporates both training and the collection of baseline data. These projects are conducted in managed forests to conserve their biodiversity, and the data collection, management planning, and monitoring activities are conducted by the local people. Areas of study include some of the largest remaining tropical forests in the world, such as Amazonia and in Myanmar.
- Training the Next Generation. Through the Commodore Matthew Perry Graduate Studies Program, NYBG trains Ph.D. and Master’s students as well as advanced undergraduates in diverse academic disciplines, ranging from systematics and ethnobotany to agroforestry and genomics. Students receive their degrees through joint programs with the City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, Fordham University, New York University, and Yale University. The Program prepares students to assume leadership positions at academic, research, and conservation organizations around the world.
- Providing Data for Conservation Action. Since the Garden’s founding, making the results of our plant research available to the scientific community and the public at large has been central to our mission. The New York Botanical Garden Press publishes books and journals to put information in the hands of those engaged in exploring, understanding, and conserving plants and fungi. An ambitious program of digitizing our Herbarium collection has already made 3 million specimens available online through the C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium. And the Garden is one of the four lead institutions in developing the World Flora Online, which will provide free access to scientifically reliable information about an estimated 400,000 plant species by 2020.
Defending the Planet
NYBG researchers work with colleagues around the world at conservation and research institutions, other NGOs, and government agencies to identify plants and habitats most at risk, in order to implement strategies to save them.
- Assessing Global Threats. The lack of a comprehensive list of the world’s threatened plant species is one of the greatest impediments to strategically protecting the world’s flora. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has assessed the conservation status of less than 5% of the world’s plant species. To address this shortfall, NYBG has developed a streamlined method to conduct plant conservation assessments using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis of data derived from herbarium specimens.
- Setting Goals for Conservation. Building on 125 years of research and exploration in North and South America and the Caribbean, NYBG plans to complete preliminary conservation assessments for all species of plants of the Western Hemisphere. These assessments will be used by international agencies such as the IUCN and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which prohibits the illegal trafficking of endangered species.
- Advising on Policy and Practice. In Brazil NYBG scientists are advising government forestry officials as they study how to sustainably use the resources of the vast Amazonian rain forest. In Myanmar our scientists are helping that impoverished yet rapidly developing country establish best practices for studying and conserving its pristine forests. And the Garden’s newly established Center for Conservation Strategy is spearheading an effort to compile an ecological flora of New York City that will be a vital resource for conservation planning, environmental education, and research about urban ecosystems.