Molecular systematics studies, new species descriptions, developmental genetics of seeds, land plant phylogenomics, the description of a 125 million year old tree fern fossil–this, and more, is the research of the scientists at The New York Botanical Garden.
Traditional Knowledge of Textile Dyeing Plants: A Case Study in the Chin Ethnic Group of Western Myanmar
Traditional knowledge of the plants used for textile dyeing is disappearing due to the popularity of synthetic dyes. Recently, natural products made from plants have gained global interest. Thus, preserving traditional knowledge of textile dyeing plants is crucial.
The Chin people are one of the founding groups of the Union of Myanmar. The communities we interviewed used a total of 32 plant species for textile dyeing from 29 genera in 24 families. Chromolaena odorata, Lithocarpus fenestratus, and L. pachyphyllus were the most important dye species. The main colors used for traditional Chin clothing are black, green, and red. One common response described dyes that were red in color. It is produced from leaves derived from tree species collected from the wild. The trees are also used for firewood ash, it functions as a mordant to fix the dye to the fabrics. One of the threats to this traditional plant knowledge is the increasing destruction of plant habitats by shifting cultivation and subsistence farming. These practices have reduced the availability of local textile dye plants. The study of traditional textile dyeing will help re-establish the use of natural dyes, encourage the cultural integrity of the indigenous people, and serve as an example for other communities to preserve their traditional knowledge of plant textile dyes.
(Ethnobotany, December 2, 2022
NYBG Contact: Kate Armstrong)
Four New Species of (Harringtonia): Unravelling the Laurel Wilt Fungal Genus
Laurel Wilt disease is caused by a symbiosis between the fungus Harringtonia lauricola, (formerly Raffaelea lauricola) and ambrosia and bark beetles who are manipulated by the fungus into inhabiting wood, constructing galleries, introducing fungal inoculum into the tree host, and then feeding on the fungus as larvae.
Four new species of Harringtonia associated with beetles from Belize and Florida, USA are documented. Harringtonia is the fungal genus that hosts the causal agent of laurel wilt. Arthropods were among the first animals to colonize and exploit terrestrial ecosystems roughly 480 million years ago. Trees have evolved mechanisms to defend themselves against insects and fungi, mainly by producing specialized chemicals, resins and latexes. Only a few of the fungus-carrying beetle lineages are able to colonize living, healthy trees in their natural habitat. Several of these beetles and fungi have become invasive species by colonizing naïve trees which have not evolved defenses against these unusual pathogens, such as the avocado tree. Many trees within the Lauraceae family are food crops. Understanding these fungi is crucial to developing strategies to mitigate potential exotic pest fungal species and their effects on plant foods and ecosystems.
(Journal of Fungi, June 8, 2022
NYBG Contact: Joao Araujo)
Evolutionary History of the Trans-pacifically disjunct tropical tree genus Ormosia (Fabaceae)
Ormosia is one of several, divergent lineages of legumes that bear “mimetic” seeds. They are extremely hard and brightly colored—red, orange, or bicolored red/orange and black. The seeds provide little nutritive value and contain toxic alkaloids but are widely used for jewelry and handcrafts.
Modern classifications of Ormosia are not grounded on well-substantiated phylogenetic hypotheses and have been limited to just portions of the geographical range of the genus. Here, we present the most comprehensively sampled molecular phylogeny of Ormosia to date, based on analysis of both nuclear and plastid DNA sequences from 82 species of the genus. We reject the hypothesis that the inter-hemispheric disjunction in Ormosia resulted from fragmentation of a more continuous “Boreotropical” distribution. The lack of an evolutionarily based foundation for systematic studies has hindered taxonomic work on the genus and prevented the testing of biogeographical hypotheses related to the origin of the Old World/New World disjunction and the individual dispersal histories within both areas.
(Science Direct, October 19, 2021
NYBG Contact: Benjamin Torke)
Insight into the Origin and Spread of Invasive Starry Stonewort (Nitellopsis obtusa)
Starry Stonewort (Nitellopsis obtusa) is a species of invasive green algae in the macrophyte family, Characeae. It is estimated that damage caused by aquatic invasive species exceeds $100 million annually and they have contributed directly to the decline of 42% of the threatened and endangered species in the U.S.A.
A new cost-effective method has been developed to uncover and understand the way in which Nitellopsis obtusa had moved across landscapes. These methods and analyses are applicable to invasive and native plant and algae species, and allow for efficient genotyping of diverse quality samples, including 100-year-old herbarium specimens. The data generated by this new method indicates that Starry Stonewort was introduced into North America from Western Europe. A single nucleotide transversion in the plastid genome separates a group of five samples from Michigan and Wisconsin that either resulted from introductions of two closely related genotypes or a mutation that had occurred in the invasive range.
(Springer, July 16, 2021
NYBG Contact: Kenneth Karol)
The Herbarium 2021 Half-Earth Challenge Dataset and Machine Learning Competition
The Herbarium Half-Earth Challenge is an annual competition to create software that can accurately and consistently identify plant taxa. Plant specimens are preserved on herbarium sheets after they had been thoroughly dried and pressed. However, collecting physical specimens requires a costly increase in space. For many institutions it is impractical or difficult for expansions to occur.
By digitizing herbaria this problem and several others can be averted, and the information becomes accessible to a broader audience. Herbaria around the world contain specimens that can be over 100 years old and many specimens old and new are unidentified. In many herbariums there is a lack of staff and expertise to identify these new species. The Half-Earth dataset is the largest most diverse dataset of herbarium specimen images to date. Here we present the results of the 2021 Fine-Grained Visual Categorization competition. The best computer models created were able to identify a plant species 85% of the time.
(Frontiers, February 1, 2022
NYBG Contact: Damon Little)
Monograph of Ceratozamia (Zamiaceae, Cycadales): an endangered genus
Ceratozamia is monophyletic with a fossil record dating to the lower Oligocene—the third epoch of the Tertiary period. Ceratozamia (Zamiaceae, Cycadales) is a member of one of the most endangered seed plant groups. They grow in mountainous areas at high elevations through Mexico and Mesoamerica. Some species can grow as tall as up to 2,100 meters, almost 7,000 ft!
A modern taxonomic treatment of Ceratozamia is presented. Based on fieldwork combined with very detailed study of herbarium specimens from and in Mexico and Central America, detailed morphological descriptions of the 36 species of Ceratozamia are provided. This new revision includes a dichotomous key for identification of all species, and is based on and incorporates the previous morphological, molecular, and biogeographic data published for Ceratozamia. Explorations in Mexico during the past three decades have uncovered new species of Ceratozamia, rapidly increasing its known diversity. This monograph is an invaluable tool in today’s era of habitat destruction and illegal collecting. It will allow for proper species identification that will lead to informed conservation assessments and actions.
(PhytoKeys, September 21, 2022
NYBG Contact: Dennis Stevenson)
Dynamic Genome Evolution in a Model Fern
Ferns do not reproduce using the same flower-fruit-seed life cycle as other plants do. They produce spores which later grow into gametophytes. Ferns also contain massive amounts of DNA and an exceptionally large number of chromosomes. For the first time, the complete genome of the homosporous ferns Ceratopteris (Ceratopteris richardii) and flying spider monkey tree fern (Alsophilia spinulosa) has been revealed.
Analysis of the Ceratopteris richardii fern has brought us closer to understanding why ferns retain more DNA than other plants. Normally, excessive gene baggage is discarded by other lifeforms as evolution takes place, and they keep the genome that is most helpful and metabolically easier to maintain. Homosporous ferns have been doing the opposite. Researchers have found that Ceratopteris has been accumulating genetic debris over millions of years, and there is an unexpected diversity within the genome. The unveiling of these large genomes has also revealed that ferns have acquired the genes that enable them to produce anti-herbivore toxins from bacteria. It remains unclear how organisms who are millions of years apart have managed to influence the genetic makeup of these homosporous ferns.
(Nature Plants, September 1, 2022
NYBG Contact: Barbara Ambrose)
Rare New Species of Beaksedge Discovered in Southeastern North America
Rynchospora stiletto grows in sunny wet areas rich in calcium but otherwise nutrient-poor. The species is classified as ‘Vulnerable’ in conservation status due to its very small area of occupancy in a total of seven specific regions.
Rynchospora stiletto is generally found in the Ozark Highlands, Interior Plateau, and Ridge and Valley ecoregions of the southeastern U.S.A. It is unique among other species of Rhynchospora by its distinct combination of 1-flowererd spikelets, dark brown scales, and relatively wide fruits. Rynchospora (Cyperaceae) comprises a group of 13 species. Knowledge of phylogeny of Rynchospora is still incomplete. After extensive field work and study to reveal the exact locations of R. stiletto, it remains unclear how many populations had been lost prior to documentation. Six out of seven populations grow in a protected area, though R. stiletto is still at risk of being outcompeted by species with higher nutrient requirements and shade tolerance, particularly where soil and hydrological disturbances have occurred, or will in the future.
(Kew Bulletin, August 16, 2022
NYBG Contact: Robert Naczi)
Analysis of Plant–Plant Interactions Reveals the Presence of Potent Antileukemic Compounds
Some plants exhibit allelopathy, a “chemical defense” where they release compounds into the soil that will inhibit the growth of other plants around them. Allelopathy is used by a plant to take control of the area in which it grows, utilizing the resources of its environment.
Allelopathic activity in plants can be an indication that the chemicals utilized might also be effective in identifying antileukemic compounds that might someday serve as medical therapies. Working with a large group of investigators from the United States and Ecuador, plant extracts were screened for their ability to inhibit or interfere with the development of other plants. A thin-layer chromatography bioautography assay was used to identify a number of antileukemic compounds in the extracts. This approach can easily be implemented in areas of the world with high biodiversity but with less access to advanced facilities and biological assays. These kinds of initial studies are only the beginning of a long and laborious search for effective compounds that might someday be considered for clinical use. Plants will continue to play a major role in the development of new pharmaceutical medicines.
(Molecules, May 4, 2022
NYBG Contact: Mike Balick)
Lectotypification of the Threatened Endemic Apalachian Lichen Alectoria fallacina
Alectoria fallacina is a threatened species of lichen narrowly endemic to the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern North America. Recently we have discovered that a small collection management error by Polish lichenologist Josef Motyka (1900 – 1984) and others is what led to the long-standing uncertainty regarding the clear delineation of A. fallacina.
The lichen currently assumed to be the holotype of Alectoria fallacina was mistakenly placed in the holotype packet by Josef Motyka after the description, while the actual holotype lichen was likely kept in his personal herbarium. This unusual scenario is supported by other cases from the literature pertaining to the types of names published by this author. Based on the fact that the currently accepted holotype of A. fallacina directly conflicts with the protologue, and that all evidence suggests it could not have been derived from the type locality, and conflicts with the known working methods of both the collector (Gunnar Degelius) as well as the describing author (Motyka), the holotype of A. fallacina is treated as effectively lost. Lectotypification preserves the application name of this endangered species, and provides a case study in addressing issues in typification for the multitude of names published by Josef Motyka in the Parmeliaceae. The production of a unique unidentified fatty acid as the main secondary metabolite is what chemically separates A. fallacina from its congeners.
(Taxon, April 25, 2022
NYBG Contact: James Lendemer)
Diversity of Farmers’ Varieties of Faba Bean (Vicia faba L.) in Northeastern and Southwestern Ethiopia
Faba beans are a legume crop famed for their high protein and starch. Vicia faba L. exhibits branching bushels of leaves and clusters of flowers along a robust hollow stem. Its flowers can be white or purple with dark blotches in the center of each petal. Faba pods are long and broad and can develop up to 10 seeds.
Lack of research can lead to a lack of diversity in Ethiopian farming variety faba beans. Seventeen farmers’ varieties of faba had been identified through phenotypic descriptors, and hundreds of structured and semi-structured interviews were conducted across five agroecological zones and cultural areas to understand the local cultural knowledge and reasoning behind farmers and the faba beans they choose to grow. Results reveal that traditional varieties were distributed amongst family members, whereas new varieties were acquired only through local markets. Understanding the diversity of the farming varieties of faba beans will expand the use of the already multipurposed legume.
(Taylor & Francis, April 14, 2022
NYBG Contact: Alex McAlvay)
A Call to Reconceptualize Lichen Symbioses
Lichens are remarkable creatures that grow on rocks, tree bark and soil across the entire planet. They can appear crusty and paint-like, relatively flat and round, leafy, or they can grow in shrubby branching patterns. Lichens are symbiotic associations formed from fungi, algae and bacteria where the fungus is the dominant and consistent partner.
Several decades of interdisciplinary research have created a paradigm shift in our perception of symbioses. This change in perspective has led to the discovery of the originally underappreciated and overlooked dynamism of fungal mutualisms such as mycorrhizae. Lichens are another example of important fungal mutualisms where reconceptualization is needed in order to realize their potential as model systems. An objective synthesis of data and envisioning a new integrative approach will unify the spectrum of ecology and evolution. With this newly proposed ten-theme framework, lichens can become the vanguard of symbiotic theory.
(Trends in Ecology & Evolution, April 6, 2022
NYBG Contact: James Lendemer)
Nine New Species and a New Country Record for Meriania (Melastomataceae) from Peru
Meriania is the genus of flowering plants in the family Melastomataceae. Merianieae blooms are characterized by their cuplike campanulate corollas with lobed petals that may be tightly or loosely whorled, and house anthers with dorsally inclined pores.
Nine new species of Meriania (Melastomataceae, Merianieae) are described and illustrated, and M. zunacensis, originally from Ecuador, is recorded for the first time in Peru. Among the new species, following IUCN criteria, M. megaphylla is categorized as Data Deficient (DD) as it is only known from one collection made in 1914, M. bicentenaria and M. sumatika are categorized as Endangered (EN), and the remaining new species are categorized as Critically Endangered (CR). With these discoveries, Northern Peru now has a total of 34 species of Meriania and is the country with the second highest diversity for the genus. Despite these breakthroughs, there are still many undescribed species, mainly due to the poor exploration and collection in some highly diverse regions.
(Willdenowia, March 3, 2022
NYBG Contact: Fabian Michelangeli)
DNA Barcode Authentication of Devil’s Claw Herbal Dietary Supplements
Devil’s claw is the vernacular name for a genus of medicinal plants that occur in the Kalahari Desert and Namibia Steppes. The genus comprises two distinct species: Harpagophytum procumbens and H. zeyheri.
Although the European pharmacopeia considers the species interchangeable, recent studies have demonstrated two chemically distinct species that should not be treated as the same species. Further, the sale of H. zeyheri as an herbal supplement is not legal in the United States. The authors used DNA barcoding to distinguish H. procumbens from H. zeyheri in herbal supplements. Among the 20 fully-analyzable supplements, H. procumbens was not detected in 75%; 25% contained both H. procumbens and H. zeyheri; and none contained only H. procumbens. The authors recommend a novel mini-barcode region as a standard method of quality control in the manufacture of devil’s claw supplements.
(MDPI, September 24, 2021
NYBG Contact: Damon Little)
Agronomic and Metabolomic Side-Effects of a Divergent Selection for Glucosinolate Content in Kale
Brassica oleracea var. acephala (kale) is a cruciferous vegetable widely cultivated for its leaves and flower buds in Europe and a food of global interest as a “superfood”. Brassica crops accumulate phytochemicals called glucosinolates (GSLs) which play an important role in plant defense against biotic stresses.
Studies carried out to date suggest that GSLs may have a role in the adaptation of plants to different environments, but direct evidence is lacking. The authors grew two kale populations divergently selected for high and low indol-3-ylmethylGSL (IM) content (H-IM and L-IM, respectively) in different environments and analyzed agronomic parameters, GSL profiles and metabolomic profile. They found a significant increase in fresh and dry foliar weight in H-IM kale populations compared to L-IM in addition to a greater accumulation of total GSLs, indole GSLs and, specifically, IM and 1-methoxyindol-3-ylmethylGSL (1MeOIM). Metabolomic analysis revealed a significant different concentration of 44 metabolites in H-IM kale populations compared to L-IM. The authors suggest that H-IM kale populations could be more tolerant to diverse environmental conditions, possibly due to GSLs and the associated metabolites with predicted antioxidant potential.
(Metabolites, June 14, 2021
NYBG Contact: Alex McAlvay)
The Herbarium 2021 Half–Earth Challenge Dataset
Herbarium sheets present a unique view of the world’s botanical history, evolution, and diversity. This makes them an all–important data source for botanical research.
With the increased digitization of herbaria worldwide and the advances in the fine–grained classification domain that can facilitate automatic identification of herbarium specimens, there are a lot of opportunities for supporting research in this field. However, existing datasets are either too small, or not diverse enough, in terms of represented taxa, geographic distribution or host institutions. Furthermore,aggregating multiple datasets is difficult as taxa exist under a multitude of different names and the taxonomy re-quires alignment to a common reference. We present the Herbarium Half–Earth dataset, the largest and most diverse dataset of herbarium specimens to date for automatic taxon recognition.
(arXiV, May 28, 2021
NYBG Contacts: Damon Little, Barbara Ambrose)
Impacts of Rock Climbing on Cliff Vegetation
Cliff vegetation is diverse, understudied, and threatened by increased human disturbance. The growing popularity of rock climbing heightens the need for science-based management to balance recreational use and conservation of cliff ecosystems.
This team of researchers, led by NYBG Graduate Student Laura Boggess, presents a review of vegetation-focused climbing-impact studies. They compare study design and climbing-specific considerations in 19 studies and report the impact of rock climbing on richness and abundance of lichens, bryophytes, and vascular plants. They then propose a set of best practices to guide design of future studies.
This review reveals that existing studies have employed widely differing methods for data collection and analysis. The effects of climbing on vegetation also varied among studies. Standardizing methods, such as pairing climbed and unclimbed transects or including a metric for climbing use, will generate more reliable and useful conclusions about the effect of climbing on vegetation. Climbing will increasingly disturb cliff ecosystems. The authors’ proposed best practices for climbing study methods are one way to produce more accurate information to inform climbing management plans, ultimately enhancing cliff conservation.
(Applied Vegetation Science, April 2021
NYBG Contact: Laura Boggess)
Low bee visitation rates explain pollinator shifts to vertebrates in tropical mountains
Evolutionary shifts from bee to vertebrate pollination are common in tropical mountains, and reduction in bee pollination efficiency under adverse montane weather conditions has been proposed to drive these shifts. Although pollinator shifts are central to the evolution and diversification of angiosperms, we lack experimental evidence of the ecological processes underlying such shifts.
Here, the authors combine phylogenetic and distributional data for 138 species of the Neotropical plant tribe Merianieae (Melastomataceae) with pollinator observations of 11 species and field pollination experiments of six species to test whether the mountain environment may indeed drive such shifts. The authors demonstrate that shifts from bee to vertebrate pollination coincide with occurrence at high elevations, and they show that vertebrates are highly efficient pollinators even under the harsh environmental conditions of tropical mountains, whereas bee pollination efficiency lowers significantly as reflected in flower visitation rates. Furthermore, the authors show that pollinator shifts in Merianieae coincide with the final phases of the Andean uplift and were contingent on adaptive floral trait changes to alternative rewards and mechanisms facilitating pollen dispersal. These results provide evidence that abiotic environmental conditions (i.e,. mountain climate) may indeed reduce the efficiency of a plant clade’s ancestral pollinator group and correlate with shifts to more efficient new pollinators.
(New Phytologist, April 2021
NYBG Contact: Fabian Michelangeli)
Understanding Medical Cannabis
This book provides a cutting-edge overview of topics related to the medical and therapeutic use of cannabis. Employing an interdisciplinary, biopsychosocial framework, the book explores the biological, cultural, and policy context of medical cannabis from a wide range of perspectives including practitioners, academics, and medical cannabis advocates.
The book bridges the gap between theory and practice and underscores the urgent need for expanded and rigorous scientific research as medical cannabis is increasingly legalized. Chapters are both evidence-based and practical, weaving in learning objectives, review questions, and case examples, all of which will prepare students and professionals for the reality of working with medical cannabis consumers.
*One chapter in the book, Cannabis Ethnomedicine (Balick & Dahmer), explores the historical and cultural context of cannabis and addresses contemporary medicinal uses.
(Understanding Medical Cannabis, January 2021
NYBG Contact: Michael Balick)
First Reports of Vivipary in Neotropical Melastomataceae
The authors present the first reports of vivipary in Neotropical Melastomataceae and remark on the evolutionary relationships among the three lineages that share this feature.
The observational data were gathered during field expeditions and from herbaria collections. These data were then plotted onto a phylogeny developed for the Melastomataceae in a previous study. Vivipary is reported in six species belonging to three genera and three tribes of Melastomataceae. These species have convergent characters, such as an herbaceous habit and capsular fruits, and inhabit similar ecological niches in shaded tropical rain forest floors. This record of convergent vivipary distributed among different lineages could elicit discussions regarding the role of the phenomenon in the distribution of individuals within populations as well as contribute to the knowledge of vivipary in flowering plants.
(International Journal of Plant Sciences, January, 2021
NYBG Contact: Fabian Michelangeli)
Retracing origins of exceptional cycads in botanical collections to increase conservation value
Cycads have a long history of use in traditional medicine and food, and are among the most highly sought‐after plants in ornamental horticulture. Threatened by overharvesting and habitat destruction, cycads are the most threatened group of plants in the world.
Thousands of cycads are on display at botanic gardens worldwide, and many have been kept alive for centuries. Unfortunately, information about their provenance is unknown or has been lost over time. By retracing wild origins (provenance) of cycads in botanical collections, we can realize their untapped value for use in restoration and recovery work, addressing international conservation targets.
(People, Plants, Planet, December 19, 2020
NYBG Contact: Dennis Stevenson)
Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve & Classify the World's Plants
Since the 1500s, scientists have documented the plants and fungi that grew around them, organizing the specimens into collections. Known as herbaria, these archives helped give rise to botany as its own scientific endeavor.
Herbarium is a fascinating enquiry into this unique field of plant biology, exploring how herbaria emerged and have changed over time, who promoted and contributed to them, and why they remain such an important source of data for their new role: understanding how the world’s flora is changing. Barbara Thiers, director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden, also explains how recent innovations that allow us to see things at both the molecular level and on a global scale can be applied to herbaria specimens, helping us address some of the most critical problems facing the world today.
At its heart, Herbarium is a compelling reminder of one of humanity’s better impulses: to save things—not just for ourselves, but for generations to come.
(Timber Press, December 8, 2020
NYBG Contact: Barbara Thiers)
New Edition of Plants, People and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany
NYBG’s Michael Balick and his colleague Paul Alan Cox, head of the Institute of Ethnomedicine and Brain Chemistry Labs in Jackson Hole, Wyoming have just published the second edition of their widely acclaimed book, Plants, People and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany.
This edition, developed as a textbook for ethnobotany classes as well as the lay public, discusses the botanical wisdom of indigenous peoples. The authors argue that the very roots of human culture are deeply intertwined with plants, and that conservation goals can be best achieved by learning from indigenous peoples and their beliefs. The book is written in an engaging style understandable to all, with first-hand stories of fieldwork, spectacular illustrations and a deep respect for cultural diversity and the earth’s natural heritage. Recently, the American Botanical Council in Austin Texas hosted a virtual book launch event, with anthropologist and sustainability specialist Ann Armbrecht moderating a conversation with Drs. Balick and Cox that can be viewed here.
(CRC Press, September, 2020
NYBG Contact: Michael Balick)