Barbara Alper Courtesy of Brooklyn Botanic Garden
On a recent visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the witch hazel was just beginning to bloom, the magnolia trees were budding, but in the herbarium staging area, it was still spring training. Empty counters topped with dissecting microscopes sat waiting for the onslaught of plant specimens that April through October would bring. For the time being, there were just the piles of dried plants from past years, separated, of course, by metropolitan New York City newspapers – what easier way is there to date specimens? – and Gerry Moore, a botanist with allergies.
The middle of a densely-populated borough may seem a strange place to study nature, even if the Garden is tucked into a corner of 526-acre Prospect Park. That's part of the point, and it drives much of the research there. "Most people go to the forests to study plants," says vice president for science Steven Clemants, who was hired to work on local flora and has now been at the Garden for 16 years. "We take advantage of the area to try to understand the impact of the urban environment on flora."
Studying only those plants in the Garden wouldn't tell more than a fraction of the story, since the species there are not particularly representative of what's growing in New York City, says Clemants. For a bigger picture view, in 1990 the Garden created the New York Metropolitan Area Flora Project, a growing database, freely available online at
The study of such flora has been in decline for the past 50 years following the first publication of
In the past, New York City and kudzu went together like New Orleans and subways, but there's some of the wild-growing plant in downtown Brooklyn, notes Clemants. Urban environments act as "heat islands:" On an August afternoon, downtown Manhattan can be 7°F warmer than surrounding areas. Predicting future problems may mean keeping an eye on species such as kudzu.
The Garden is also extending its knowledge base backward in time, by entering its 250,000-specimen herbarium into an online freely accessible database. On a guided tour of the herbarium, a visitor can find ivory nuts collected in 1921, a rare orchid from Queens County picked in 1864, and the facility's oldest-known specimen, from 1800.
Even in the shadow of the herbarium and a 2,000-volume rare book collection, botanists are constantly updating their approaches to bridge the molecular with traditional taxonomy. Mark Tebbitt, whose main interest is begonias – Timber Press will publish his
Sue Pell, a botanist who started at the Garden late last month, studies Anacardiaceae – not a family that botanists are itching to research. "There aren't a lot of people who want to work on poison ivy," says Clemants, even though its diversity – the family also includes cashews, mangoes, and pistachios – could prove fruitful. Most poison ivy in the New York City area is a vine. In Minnesota, it's a free-standing shrub.
Some of the Garden's work is published in a peer-reviewed open access journal it supports,