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,"...

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