Plant Research and Conservation at The New York Botanical Garden: News and Media
NYBG Team uses DNA data to solve 50-year-old botanical mystery
Solving a 50-year-old botanical mystery, an NYBG scientist and his colleagues have identified a new species of tree in the Amazon rain forest based on an analysis of the tree’s DNA, finally placing it on its own branch of the tree of life with a name that means “mystery of Manu,” after the national park in Peru where it was first collected in 1973.
In a paper published online today by the journal Taxon, NYBG Curator Emeritus Wayt Thomas, Ph.D., and his co-authors name the species Aenigmanu alvareziae and assign it to the bitter-bush family (Picramniaceae), a group of tropical trees and shrubs found mainly in Central and South America, many of which have been used in traditional medicine to treat skin ailments.
Body of Wonder Podcast: Ethnobotany, The Science of Indigenous Medicine
Plants have provided human beings with nourishment, medicine, fibers, and other resources for millennia. The passing of botanical knowledge through generations not only ensured survival, it shaped how cultures understood their world. Occasionally, this knowledge would be exchanged with neighboring people in the forms of stories, rituals, and daily practices.
To understand this, co-hosts Drs. Andrew Weil and Victoria Maizes welcome Michael Balick, Ph.D., ethnobotanist, and Vice President and Director of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden.
National Geographic: Answers to these botanical mysteries could help a climate-stressed world
Whether you’re munching spicy kimchi on a Seoul street corner, tucking into a hearty turnip stew to get through a northern European winter, or enjoying crispy collards in a Southern soul food joint, your meal is anchored by one of just two species: Brassica rapa or Brassica oleracea.
For over a century, scientists have puzzled over the origins of these globally important food plants. Now, a team of researchers including NYBG Ethnobotanist Dr. Alex McAlvay has analyzed DNA from hundreds of wild brassicas around the world and declared the mysteries solved. The findings should set off immediate efforts to collect and conserve plants from their places of origin, where unparalleled genetic diversity can help breeders create new, resilient varieties to feed a hungry, climate-stressed world.
The Graduate Center (CUNY): Lichens return to New York City, and new book reveals their splendor
The CUNY Graduate Center offers an advance preview of Urban Lichens: A Field Guide for Northeastern North America, which will be available from Yale University Press in October.
The book, all about the colorful organisms you might see on tree bark or the side of a building, was spearheaded by former NYBG graduate student Jessica Allen (Ph.D. ’17) now a professor at Eastern Washington University. Allen collaborated on the project with NYBG Lichenologist James Lendemer and NYBG Graduate student Jordan Hoffman.
The book is not just for academics, but for anyone who is curious about the world around them. One part of the book features a MetroCard tour of all the different lichens a New Yorker could see in one day via public transportation. “The whole idea is that someone with a hand lens and no real knowledge of lichens can use the book to identify the common things they see around them in the city,” Lendemer said.
Atlas Obscura: The deep roots of the vegetable that took over the world
The plant known as Brassica rapa has quite the history, one that, after decades of debate, is finally emerging. The single species, which humans have turned into turnips, bok choy, broccoli rabe (also known as rapini), and other residents of the produce aisle, began up to 6,000 years ago in Central Asia, most likely in the shadow of the Western Himalayas’ sky-piercing peaks.
Earlier this month, NYBG Ethnobotanist Dr. Alex McAlvay and collaborators published findings from an unprecedented study that pulled together genetic sequencing, environmental modeling, and the largest number of wild, feral, and cultivated samples ever collected. The team’s results are important for more than knowing the genealogy of your next stir-fry: The paper is a significant step forward in understanding how one of the planet’s most important agricultural species might weather climate change.
In Defense of Plants: Evolution of the Seed
Seeds are among the most important biological structures on this planet. Seeds have been instrumental in the diversification of plants, allowing them to spread into new habitats all over the globe. In fact, you and I would not be here if it were not for seeds. For these reasons and more, Dr. Cecilia Zumajo is fascinated by how seeds evolved.
By looking at the genetic mechanisms that control seed development in various gymnosperms, Dr. Zumajo is opening new doors into our understanding of the development of these incredible structures.
Unraveling Domestication of Brassica rapa
Turnips, bok choy, napa cabbage, mizuna and many other globally important vegetables derive from thousands of years of human selection on a single species, Brassica rapa. Previously, the wild relatives of these crops, their complex domestication history, and their selection into diverse forms has been a mystery.
Through a combination of genetics, ecological modeling, and ancient literature, a team of researchers led by NYBG Ethnobotanist Alex McAlvay was able to distinguish truly wild B. rapa from weedy escaped crops, identify a possible location of domestication in the mountains of Central Asia, and disentangle multiple origins of leafy vegetables out of turnip crops. The identification of wild relatives and a center of origin help prioritize conservation efforts and point to diversity that may be useful for adapting our crops to new pressures like climate change.
(Molecular Biology and Evolution, April 2021
NYBG Contact: Alex McAlvay)
The Language of Land and Life: Connecting Language and Ecology in Wixárika (hch)
A new grant from the National Science Foundation will support the research of NYBG Ethnobotanist Alex McAlvay, Ph.D. The project is funded through the Dynamic Infrastructure Program, a funding partnership between the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
This project will document the Wixárika language (hch), also known as Huichol, an endangered Uto-Aztecan language from West-Central Mexico. The project is a collaboration between an ethnobotanist (McAlvay), native-speaker language activists, a linguist specialized in Wixárika, Mexican universities, and non-profit community centers. Researchers will focus on the threatened semantic domain of ethnobotanical and ethnoecological knowledge in Wixárika. This interdisciplinary effort will generate a website with a searchable Ethnoecological and Linguistic Database and a physical ethnobotany handbook, an annotated audiovisual corpus of texts, and a body of pedagogical materials that are accessible to the Wixárika language community. These resources will provide the key tools to fill knowledge gaps in Wixárika linguistics and ethnobiology as well as a basis for Wixárika language preservation and revitalization efforts.
Collections Lens (BRIT): Barbara Thiers on Funding Natural History Collections and the Extended Specimen Network
In the Collection Lens series, BRIT Librarian Brandy Watts highlights collection managers from around the world as collections move into the future.
The Blog draws attention to botanical collections in order to facilitate understanding and appreciation of their importance in preserving biodiversity. Tune in for a wide ranging conversation with NYBG’s Barbara Thiers!
North Creek Nurseries Special Bulletin: *DROPPED* Carex flacca
When North Creek Nurseries received word from noted NYBG botanist Dr. Robert Naczi that Carex flacca was spreading beyond the garden, we knew we had to do the right thing and eliminate Carex flacca from our gardens and stop selling this plant.
North Creek Nurseries stands by our “Plant Principles” to only carry plants that are “garden-worthy, stand the test of time, and are non-invasive.”
North Creek Nurseries thanks Dr. Naczi for calling attention to this issue. North Creek Nurseries is committed to being part of the solution, not part of the problem. While this plant was a much-requested customer favorite – we must do the right thing and we have discontinued Carex flacca ‘Blue Zinger’. It is a disappointment but we hope you will join us in the effort to be good stewards of our local environments.
(February 5, 2021)
Follow the link for a complete statement and the original message from Dr. Naczi
Nature: My 2020 as an ‘alien’ Ph.D. student in New York
As a Colombian student in the joint Ph.D. program between the City University of New York (CUNY) and The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), Cecilia Zumajo is officially an ‘alien’, according to US customs officials and law.
The term made Cecilia laugh when she first heard it, on account of its extraterrestrial origins, but it was not amusing for long, and it became increasingly serious as 2020 progressed. When lockdowns caused laboratory closures, members of NYBG’s Plant Science Research Laboratory took plants home to continue their experiments. Cecilia learned three key lessons as an international graduate student in the United States, and she is optimistic about 2021.
(January 25, 2021)
Scott Mori (1941-2020): Friend, mentor, and colleague
This past August, The New York Botanical Garden community was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our dear friend and treasured colleague, Curator Emeritus Scott A. Mori, Ph.D.
Scott spent the majority of his long and distinguished career at NYBG, arriving in 1975 as Research Associate to work on the systematics and ecology of the Brazil nut family, Lecythidaceae. Some four decades later, Scott retired in 2014 as Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany in the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. Scott was a prolific researcher, a prodigious plant collector, and an active and passionate teacher and mentor. His legacy lives on in more than 140 scientific publications (including 12 books) and 27,000 herbarium specimens, and in the students, post docs, and interns he mentored.
Since Scott’s passing, his career has been recognized and appreciated by those who worked with Scott for many years and benefited from his influence. Every wonderful tribute adds a different perspective of Scott’s life and contributions.
In remembrance of: Scott A. Mori (1941-2020), Tropical Botanist Extraordinaire
Ghillean T. Prance, Robert Naczi, and Lúcia G. Lohman
(Biotropica; January 24, 2021)
The ‘Adopt-a-tree’ strategy – A legacy of Scott Mori (1941-2020)
(Ecotropica; January 5, 2021)
Scott Alan Mori (1941-2020): An Appreciation
(The Botanical Review; November 9, 2020)
The Scientific Legacy of Scott Mori
(Plant Talk Blog; August 19, 2020)
Times of Israel: EcoFlora Can Save Us All
One blogger’s answer to the question of how to deal with wintertime isolation: contribute to the New York City EcoFlora as a citizen scientist! She finds her own participation in the project interesting and productive, and it carries the added benefit that the natural world is devoid of partisanship.
The author summarizes the objectives of the New York City EcoFlora project and offers pointers for those who want to get involved–even in the depth of winter.
(January 24, 2021)
CUNY News: Ph.D. Student Simon Verlynde Is Hooked on Orchids
Ph.D. student Simon Verlynde’s path to NYBG and CUNY has taken many twists and turns, including abandoning a plan to become an airplane mechanic, a stint working in a Paris flower market, and visits to the tropical forests of Madagascar. He eventually got a biology degree, and then a master’s degree in tropical plant biodiversity and environments.
Verlynde always wanted to complete his academic training with a doctorate, and The Graduate Center’s partnership with The New York Botanical Garden was a perfect fit. His dissertation will be on the systematics, biogeography, and evolution of Angraecum, a genus of Afro-Malagasy orchids that includes a species studied by Darwin. Once he has his degree, he hopes to carry on the work of helping to expand knowledge and conserve Malagasy orchids.
(January 12, 2021)
Foodie Pharmacology: Herbaria & the Natural History of Plants with Dr. Barbara Thiers
Dead plants do tell tales. Over the past five hundred years, plant hunters have scoured the Earth, collecting millions of specimens that are now held in vast collections in New York, London and Paris, complemented by smaller collections found in museums and universities across the globe.
These plants were sought out not just for their beauty and diversity, but also for their potential applications in new foods, medicines, and more. This episode features Dr. Barbara Thiers, Director of the Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden and author of a new book entitled, “Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve and Classify the World’s Plants.” She discusses the fascinating history of herbaria and recounts the adventurous stories of some of the famous explorers that built these collections.
(January 11, 2021)
In Defense of Plants: Herbaria: Past, Present & Future
This episode takes a deep dive into the past, present, and future of herbaria. In Defense of Plants sits down with Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, Dr. Barbara M. Thiers, to talk about her new book Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve and Classify the World’s Plants.
Plant Talk Blog: Science
From the field to the lab, NYBG’s scientists aren’t just about white coats and microscopes—they’re adventurous and determined globe-trotters who live to discover, understand, and preserve Earth’s biodiversity. The Plant Talk blog exposes the far-reaching work of the Garden’s botanical specialists.