Plant Blindness and Urban Ecology

A small patch of biodiversity – i.e.: weeds – from my driveway.
Weeds in my driveway, August 2018

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal has people talking about it, e.g.: on the Twitter. The term “plant blindness” has been in use for a while, especially among those of us intensely interested in the subject of plants, from gardeners to botanists.

“Apps” and Social Media

I’ve seen folks get more interested in plants when they can reduce, or eliminate, the risk of being shamed by others for ignorance. (Which is nothing to be ashamed of, nor to shame others for. We all start out ignorant. Choosing to remain so, on the other hand …)

I’ve been on BugGuide for a decade. This is an expert-curated Web site where you can upload observations of any insect – and many other arthropods – seen in Canada and the continental United States. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the experts there, both professional and “amateur”, and continue to do so. However, it is curated; I’ve had many of my photos “Frass”‘d – trashed – because they did not meet someone’s standards for image quality. (“Frass” is caterpillar excrement.) So I can’t rely on BugGuide as a record of my observations, even for insects. Even so, I’ve often wished for the equivalent for plant identification.

The widespread availability of handheld computers with visual processing capabilities – i.e. “smart” phones with cameras and displays – has given rise to applications such as PlantSnap to help people ID plant “on their own”, without having to ask others for help. I’ve not been impressed with the accuracy of such apps. And better alternatives are available.

The rise of iNaturalist has been astonishing, and refreshing. Anyone can upload any observation of any living organism anywhere in the world. The technology behind iNaturalist is also a decade ahead of BugGuide. Geotagging and labels are automatically picked up, you can explore observations by region or place, or even just be exploring a map.

Anyone can assist in identification. This community aspect raises it up to the level of social media. I know a lot of conventional garden plants; I can help those who don’t know a Rhododendron from a Hydrangea by identifying their observations. I may even be able to go back to the same plant to confirm what it is, using the geolocation. In this way, I’ve made more identifications of others’ observations, than observations of my own.

Countering Plant Blindness in Urban Settings

When I’m sharing my knowledge, informally or formally, I find that people welcome the opportunity to learn new ways of seeing. It could be discovering that there are different kinds of bees, or that an asteraceous “flower” like a daisy or sunflower is not a single bloom, but hundreds of flowers. I’ve yet to come across someone who wasn’t excited to learn something new about living things that have been there all the time, right around them, where they live, not in some distant, inaccessible “preserve”.

We’ve had an unusually rainy year. The first half of this August gave us twice as much rain as the average month. A good time for the weeds; not so much for the gardeners.

I’ve been joking that the weeds are so out of control that I should do a “Bio-Blitz” of my own driveway. And why not?! Let’s get started.

Here is a small section, maybe 10 square feet in total, of the broken up concrete we call a driveway. How many different plants can you find in this photo? (Don’t worry, we’ll get some closer looks.) If, at first, your eyes glaze over and just see green, let’s practice. Are there any differences among all that green?

  • Is it all green? I see some yellow and brownish spots (aside from the leaves) in there.
  • Even among the green, is it all the same shade of green? Some is lighter, some darker. Maybe some has more yellow in it.
  • How about texture? Some seems coarse, some seems fine. Maybe those are different leaves, warranting closer inspection.

Weeds in my driveway, August 2018

Instead of looking down, let’s look from the side. Now we can see there are many different heights and shapes of the plants themselves (and more evidence of an inattentive Gardener). The field of green starts to distinguish itself into groups of vegetation, even individual plants.
Weeds in my driveway, August 2018

Let’s start to look at some groups. Let’s call them A, B, and C.

Group A: How many different kinds of plants can you see in this photo?
Weeds in my driveway, August 2018

Group B: How about this one?
Weeds in my driveway, August 2018

Group C: Feeling confident? Let’s go back to the photo at the top of this post. How many different plant species are in this small patch, no more than two or three square feet in area?
Weeds in my driveway, August 2018

My answers:
A: 2 (maybe 3): crab grass, and Euphorbia (might be two different species)
B: 3, at least: The above two, plus Oxalis stricta, a native weed.
C: 7, at least: The crab grass and Euphorbia, plus Viola sororia, a foxtail grass, horseweed, and two I’m going to iNaturalist to ID to species: an Acalypha, copperleaf, and the one with pretty little yellow flowers (seems like a Sonchus, a sow-thistle, but the flowers don’t look right).

Now, I’m still a native plant gardener, and it is a driveway, not a garden bed. Once I’m done with my IDs, I’ll pull all the weeds. But knowing which weeds are native, and which are not, I can “edit” my weeds more selectively elsewhere in the garden, leaving the natives to pop up where they like, and reducing the competition from the non-native species. Thread by thread, I can weave ecological associations back into the landscape, even if it’s just a few square feet at a time.

Related Content


Rhododendron? Hydrangea? America Doesn’t Know Anymore, Douglas Belkin, Wall Street Journal, 2018-08-14 (PAYWALLED)

A milkweed by an other name …

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
– Juliet, Romeo and Juliet, Wiliam Shakespeare

A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
– Gertrude Stein, various

I started to get into a little tiffle on a post (since removed) on one of the insect ID groups in Facebook. The original poster was trying to ID a tight cluster of orange eggs on a leaf of a plant she identified as “milkweed vine.” One of the responders commented: “Milkweed vine? Not likely.” And then we were off.

What’s a “milkweed,” anyway?

Responding in a comment, the original poster specified that the plant was Morrenia odorata, an introduced, and invasive, vine in the Apocynaceae, the dogbane family. (Some authorities still list it under Asclepiadaceae, the milkweed family, which is now considered a sub-family, Asclepiadoideae, of Apocynaceae.) Its common names include latex plant, strangler vine, and, yes, milkweed vine.

The responder’s objection was that “Aclepias is milkweed.” Period. Final. Absolute declaration.

It’s not that simple.

Common names like “milkweed” have no authority. Many plants have “milkweed” as part of their common name, not just Asclepias species. Cynanchum laeve, a native vine in the same family as Morrenia and Asclepias, has a common name of climbing milkweed, among several others.

Noone can claim that only Asclepias species can be called “milkweed.” To insist so is, at best, dismissive. I would use stronger language. (I blocked the responder on Facebook to avoid future tiffles with them.)

Why plant ID matters for insect ID

Why did the original poster include the id of the plant in their requesting for identifying insect eggs? Because they understand that many insect species depend on different types of plants. Specialist insect-host associations are common in the co-evolutionary biochemical arms race between insect herbivores and their host plants.

Only five years ago, I didn’t have any knowledge of insect-host plant relationships. Marielle Anzelone (@NYCBotanist on Twitter – follow her!) clued me in on what was going on when I observed this in my backyard in May 2011:
Battus philenor, Pipevine Swallowtail
I recognized it as a swallowtail. Knowledge of the plant – Aristolochia tomentosa, wooly dutchman’s pipevine – id’d the butterfly as pipevine swallowtail, Papilo troilus. The caterpillars of this species feed only on plants in the Aristolochiaceae, the pipevine family, primarily – but not exclusively – Aristolochia species.

And so it is with “milkweeds” and their most famous herbivore, the caterpillars of monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus.
Danaus plexxipus, Monarch, on Eupatoridelphus maculatus (Eupatorium maculatum), Spotted Joe Pye Weed
The butterflies nectar on a wide variety of flowers. Their caterpillars, however, are specialized feeders on plants in the Apocynaceae. While they are most commonly associated with Asclepias species, they have also been observed on Cynanchum and Apocynum species. They have even been observed on a few plants outside of this family.

So, when trying to identify insects, knowledge of plants, plant families, and their ecological associations is also important. Being pedantic about common names, not so much.

Related Content


Battus philenor, Pipevine Swallowtail, Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA)
Battus philenor host plants, HOSTS: World’s Lepidopteran Hostplants Database
Danaus plexippus host plants, HOSTS: World’s Lepidopteran Hostplants Database
Aristolochia tomentosa Sims, woolly dutchman’s pipe, USDA PLANTS Database (Synonym: Isotrema tomentosa (Sims) Huber)
Isotrema tomentosum (Sims) H. Huber,  NY Flora Association Atlas (Does not list as present, let alone native, in NY)

Bombus fervidus, golden northern bumblebee, yellow bumblebee

Sunday, while cutting up edited plants into my compost tumbler, I caught sight of something unusual out of the corner of my eye. It turned out to be Bombus fervidus, golden northern bumblebee, or simply, the yellow bumblebee.
Bombus fervidus, golden northern bumblebee, on Vernonia noveboracensis, New York ironweed, in my garden, August 2015

This is at least the 21st bee species I’ve found in my garden. And this brings to 20, or more, the number of new insect species I’ve identified in my garden this year alone.

Bombus fervidus, golden northern bumblebee

Related Content

Flickr photo set
All my bee photo albums


BugGuide: Bombus fervidus, Golden Northern Bumble Bee
Discover Life: Bombus fervidus
Encyclopedia of Life: Bombus fervidus

Megachile, Leaf-Cutter Bees

A leaf-cutter bee removes a segment from a leaf of Rhododendron viscosum, swamp azalea, in my urban backyard native plant garden and wildlife habitat (National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat #141,173). You can see other segments – both completed and interrupted – on the same and adjacent leaves.

Like carpenter bees, Leaf-cutters are solitary bees that outfit their nests in tunnels in wood. Unlike carpenter bees, they’re unable to chew out their own tunnels, and so rely on existing ones. This year, I’ve observed a large leaf-cutter – yet to be identified – reusing a tunnel bored in previous years by the large Eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica.

They use the leaf segments to line the tunnels. The leaves of every native woody plant in my garden has many of these arcs cut from the leaves. The sizes of the arcs range widely, from dine-sized down to pencil-points, reflecting the different sizes of the bee species responsible.

Tiny arcs cut from the leaves of Wisteria frutescens in my backyard.

I speculate that different species of bees associate with different species of plants in my gardens. The thickness and texture of the leaves, their moisture content, and their chemical composition must all play a part. I’ve yet to locate any research on this; research, that is, that’s not locked up behind a paywall by the scam that passes for most of scientific publishing.

Although I’ve observed the “damage” on leaves in my garden for years, this was the first time I witnessed the behavior. Even standing in the full sun, I got chills all over my body. I recognize now that the “bees with big green butts” I’ve seen flying around, but unable to observe closely, let alone capture in a photograph, have been leaf-cutter bees.

As a group, they’re most easily identified by another difference: they carry pollen on the underside of their abdomen. A bee that has pollen, or fuzzy hairs, there will be a leaf-cutter bee.

An unidentified Megachile, leaf-cutter bee, I found in my garden.

Another behavior I observe among the leaf-cutters in my garden is that they tend to hold their abdomens above the line of their body, rather than below, as with other bees. Perhaps this is a behavioral adaptation to protect the pollen they collect. In any case, when I see a “bee with a perky butt,” I know it’s a leaf-cutter bee.

When they’re not collecting leaves, they’re collecting pollen. Having patches of different plant species that bloom at different times of the year is crucial to providing a continuous supply of food for both the adults and their young.

An individual bee will visit different plant species (yes, I follow them to see what they’re doing). And different leaf-cutter species prefer different flowers. All the plants I’ve observed them visit share a common trait: they have tight clusters of flowers holding many small flowers; large, showy flowers hold no interest for the leaf-cutter bees.

Related Content


BugGuide: Genus Megachile

Hempstead Plains, Long Island’s Remnant Prairie

Updated 2013-09-05: CORRECTION – The white-flowering plant is Eupatorium hyssopifolium, Hyssop-leaf Throughwort, not E. perfoliatum, Common Boneset, as I misidentified it.

At a glance – say, highway speed – this may appear to be yet another old-field meadow, biding its time before it transitions into shrubland and eventually forest. This is Hempstead Plains, one of several mature grasslands on Long Island, and the only true prairie east of the Appalachian Mountains.

Hempstead Plains
Hempstead Plains on the grounds of Nassau Community College in East Garden City, Nassau County, NY. The white-flowering plants are Eupatorium hyssopifolium, Hyssop-leaf Throughwort.

On Sunday, August 25, I joined three other native plant lovers for a whirlwind tour of Hempstead Plains. We had only an hour; I could have spent several hours there. For me, this was a pilgrimage. I spent most of my childhood on Long Island.

Our guide was Betsy Gulotta, Conservation Project Manager of the Friends of Hempstead Plains, Department of Biology, Nassau Community College, on whose grounds this remnant stands. Here Betsy points out Apocynum cannabinum, Indian Hemp, at the start of our visit.
/Apocynum cannabinum/, Dogbane, Indian Hemp, Hempstead Plains

A Brief Natural History of Hempstead Plains

New York’s Long Island comprises four counties; from east to West they are Suffolk, Nassau, Queens, and Kings (aka Brooklyn). If you look down from space, and maybe squint a bit, Long Island resembles a fish: Brooklyn is the face, Queens is the head and gills, and Nassau and Suffolk are the body and tail.

The fish shape of Long Island arises from two ridges, running roughly east-west. The ridges stand out as light yellow to white in this Digital Elevation Model (DEM) map of Long Island. I’ve highlighted the location of Hempstead Plains in Nassau County, right about where the fish’s pectoral fins would be.Digitial Elevation Map (DEM) of Long Island, showing location of Hempstead PlainsMap: Dr. J. Bret Pennington, Department of Geology, Hofstra University

These ridges are terminal moraines: deposits of sand, gravel and rock left behind as the Wisconsin glaciation made its last stand, then retreated, 20,000-19,000 years ago. Long Island is part of the Outer Lands, the archipelago formed by these moraines, that extends to Cape Cod.

South of the moraines are outwash plains, laced with streams and rivers leading to the bays of Long Island’s southern shores. Hempstead Plains once spanned the westernmost extent of these plains, bounded on the west and north by the northern Harbor Hills Moraine, and on the east by the Ronkonkoma Moraine, where it abuts the Harbor Hills Moraine. This map, from a U.S Fish & Wildlife Service survey of grasslands habitats on Long Island, shows the estimated original extent of Hempstead Plains prior to European colonization, based on soil surveys and historical accounts.
Map, Long Island Grasslands

Why Hempstead Plains is Special

Even if no more of this land were taken up in farms, the continued growth of New York City is bound to cover it all with houses sooner or later, and it behooves scientists to make an exhaustive study of the region before the opportunity is gone forever.
The Hempstead Plains: A Natural Prairie on Long Island, Roland M. Harper, 1911

The existence and persistence of this prairie has yet to be completely explained.

There’s evidence of periodic fire disturbance, whether natural or man-made, even prior to European colonization. (Today, they mow to keep invasive species in check.) But the pine barrens that once extended east of here are also adapted to fire. Why prairie, not pine barrens, here?

The soil here is nothing like the deep topsoils of midwestern prairies. Most of Long Island is a glacial deposit of sand and gravel. Perhaps that balances out the relatively high rainfall we get here. Then why wasn’t there more prairie on Long Island?

Hempstead Plains shares another characteristic with arid and semi-arid lands, including prairie: biological soil crust. During our visit, there were a few places where the lichen soil crust was visible. Where it’s disturbed, as in this photo, you can see the sandy, gravelly underlying soil.
Lichen Soil Crust, Hempstead Plains

With such an unusual confluence of conditions, Hempstead Plains is home to several species that are locally or globally rare and threatened. During our visit, we were privileged to see Agalinis acuta, Sandplain Gerardia, in bud.
Flower Buds, /Agalinis acuta/, Sandplain Gerardia, Hempstead Plains

Back to our little troupe; here we are closely examining a specimen of Baptisia tinctoria, Blue Indigo. We remarked on how different the Hempstead Plains Baptisia looks from horticultural varieties, even of the same species.
Examining /Baptisia tinctoria/ in the Hempstead Plains

Wild areas such as Hempstead Plains provide critical reservoirs of seeds for conservation and restoration efforts. Local ecotypes of native plants are adapted to local conditions. They’ve co-evolved with other organisms in their environment, and support more wildlife than cultivars. Their populations exhibit diversity that disappears when we select and propagate plants for our purposes, such as “garden value.”

Local ecotypes are rarely available commercially. For example: several of the plants offered at June’s Long Island Native Plant Initiative Plant Sale were propagated by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center from seed collected at Hempstead Plains. Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s elimination of field work threatens such regional conservation efforts.

The Hempstead Plains is the last remnant of native prairie grassland that once covered 40,000 acres of central Nassau County. Today, as a result of commercial development only a few acres remain. The site is considered highly ecologically and historically significant. The Hempstead Plains supports populations of federally endangered and globally rare plants among its 250 different kinds of vegetation as well as several plant species that are now considered rare in New York State. It represents one of the most rapidly vanishing habitats in the world, along with scores of birds, butterflies, and other animals that are vanishing with it.
About the Plains, Friends of Hempstead Plains


Here are some of the plants we met during our visit. First, some characteristic tall-grass prairie species.

Andropogon gerardii, Big Bluestem
Andropogon gerardii, Big Bluestem, Hempstead Plains

Panicum virgatum, Switchgrass
/Panicum virgatum/, Switchgrass, Hempstead Plains

Sorghastrum nutans, Indian Grass
/Sorghastrum nutans/, Indian Grass, Hempstead Plains

And a handful of other, smaller grasses. There are 35-40 species of grasses, native and non-native, at Hempstead Plains.

Dichanthelium clandestinum, Deer-Tongue Grass (in the center of the weeds)
/Dichanthelium clandestinum/, Deer-Tongue Grass, Hempstead Plains

Eragrostic spectabilis, Purple Lovegrass
Eragrostic spectabilis, Purple Lovegrass, Hempstead Plains

Schizachyrium scoparium, Little Bluestem
/Schizachyrium scoparium/, Little Bluestem, Hempstead Plains

Here are some more conventional “wildflowers.”

Eupatorium hyssopifolium, Hyssop-leaf Throughwort
/Eupatorium hyssopifolium/, Hyssop-leaf Thoroughwort, Hempstead Plains

Euthamia caroliniana/, Slender Goldentop, Flat-top Goldenrod
/Euthamia caroliniana/, Slender Goldentop, Flat-top Goldenrod, Hempstead Plains

Visiting Hempstead Plains

The site is not open to the public except for scheduled guided tours. Plants aren’t labelled – it’s a wild area, not a botanic garden – so you’ll want a knowledgable guide, anyway! Check the Activities page on the Friends of Hempstead Plains web site for their calendar. They have regularly scheduled tours on Friday afternoons, and volunteer days on Saturday mornings, into November.

Getting there is confusing. It’s really easy to miss the turnoff. I circled the entire campus of Nassau Community College before I was able to get back on approach to Perimeter Road, where the parking area is located. I could have used a navigator.

They’re working on a new Interpretive Center, scheduled to be open in 2014. The building site is a corner of the property that was already less than pristine. Nevertheless, they’re disturbing the soil as little as possible. The composting toilet will be an above-ground model, instead of one that requires excavation. The building will have a green roof populated with plants propagated from the site.
Future Site, Hempstead Plains Interpretive Center

I look forward to a return visit.

Related Content

Flickr photo set from my visit
Long Island Native Plant Initiative Plant Sale 2013
All my Native Plants blog posts
My Native Plants page

Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Slash and Burn “Campaign for the 21st Century”, 2013-08-23


Friends of Hempstead Plains
Hempstead Plains Grassland, New York Natural Heritage Program
Wikipedia: Hempstead Plains

Saving Bits of Nassau’s Original Prairie, Barbara Delatiner, New York Times, 2003-06-22
An urban nature reserve takes shape on the Diana Center’s green roof (Video), Hilary Callahan, Barnard College News, 2011-08-10 (This Project uses plants propagated by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center from Hempstead Plains seed stock)

Long Island Native Grass Initiative, Nassau County Soil & Water Conservation District
Coastal Grasslands (PDF), Long Island Sound Habitat Restoration Initiative, February 2003
Long Island Grasslands, Significant Habitats and Habitat Complexes of the New York Bight Watershed, 1996-1997, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Long Island Botanical Society
Long Island Native Plant Initiative

Digital Elevation Model (DEM) Maps of Long Island, Dr. J. Bret Pennington, Department of Geology, Hofstra University
Geology of Long Island, Garvies Point Museum and Preserve

An Introduction to Biological Soil Crusts,

Historical References:
The Vegetation History of Hempstead Plains (PDF), Richard Stalter and Wayne Seyfert, St. John’s University, Proceedings of the 11th North American Prairie Conference, 1989 (Hosted at the Digital Commons, University of Nebraska, Lincoln)
The Hempstead Plains: A Natural Prairie on Long Island, Roland M. Harper, Bulletin of the American Geographical Society , Vol. 43, No. 5 (1911), pp. 351-360 (An edited version was republished in Torreya, Volume 12, 1912)
Soil Survey of the Long Island area of New York (PDF), by Jay A. Bonsteel and Party, Field Operations of the Bureau of Soils, 1903 (Hosted at New York Online Soil Survey Manuscripts, Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA)

Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Slash and Burn “Campaign for the 21st Century”

Sign the Petition to Restore Science to Brooklyn Botanic Garden! (Added 2013-09-16)

2013-08-29: Added more links. I will continue to do so as this story begins to get more exposure.
2013-08-24: Expanded analysis. Added more external links to relevant sections of BBG’s Web site.
2013-08-23 18:00: Added response from BBG.


I was alarmed to read the following on Twitter yesterday [2013-08-21]:

Brooklyn Botanic Garden suspends science program and lays off botany staff. Express concerns to president Scot Medbury
New York Flora Association, 2013-08-22, ~06:00 EDT

My Letter

For over a century, since its founding, science has been a foundation of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It is a primary reason why I have supported them. This morning [2013-08-23] I wrote the following email to Scot Medbury, President, Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), and the Director of Major Gifts at BBG’s Development Department:

Subject: The end of BBG’s Scientific Mission?

I’m writing to express my concern at what I’m hearing about the elimination of all remaining science staff at BBG.

I would like a statement of what was done, and why, and what BBG’s future plans are for its scientific mission.

BBG’s scientific mission has been a foundation for over a century. It is a primary reason why I have supported BBG. Not just financially, but through social media: my blog, Twitter, Flickr, and Facebook. I even helped organize a meetup of Brooklyn Bloggers at BBG a few years ago.

This latest – and apparently final – blow to science at BBG makes me question my support.

You can respond by email or phone. My cell number is XXXX.

Thanks in advance for your attention to this.

BBG’s response

Not long after, I received the following response from Kathryn Glass, VP of Marketing at BBG:

Thank you for your interest in and concern for BBG.

I’m sad to have to confirm that, because of financial difficulties coupled with a serious infrastructure issue in the foundation of the Garden’s off-site science building, BBG announced Wednesday that it was suspending its field-based botanical research program and putting the related programs and projects on hiatus. During this suspension interim, there’s going to be very limited access to the 300,000 specimen herbarium.

This decision was not taken lightly, and puts major challenges to not only temporarily relocate the herbarium and re-building the building, but also to plan for bringing back the research program with a strong plan for sustaining it. So not a lot of clarity here but the picture will emerge over the next months and years.

Again, thank you for your support of the garden.

The announcement mentioned was strictly internal, and sent by email. Later this afternoon, I saw the article in the Crown Heights and Prospect Heights edition of DNAInfo, which leaked the email:

“Despite the successes achieved in the Garden’s most recent fiscal year ending June 30th, BBG faced significant challenges in planning the FY14 budget because of increased insurance and employee-benefits expenses, among others,” Garden President Scot Medbury told staff in an email obtained by DNAinfo.

“The Garden faced a shortfall that could not be fully addressed by increasing revenue targets or reducing non-personnel costs.”

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Cuts Science Staff Weeks After Native Garden Debut, DNAInfo, Crown Heights and Prospect Heights edition, 2013-08-23, 10:15 EDT


For the past several years, under the guise of its “Campaign for the Next Century,” the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has been in a development frenzy – the Edibles/Kitchen Garden, The Visitor Center, the Native Flora Garden Expansion, the planned overhaul of the Children’s Corner at Flatbush and Parkside. Ample naming and branding opportunities to go around. At the same time, it has been gradually eroding its scientific and educational missions.

BBG claims these benefits for its “Campaign”:

… these enhancements will help the Garden … [foster] a love and understanding of plants and the natural world and inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards.
– “Vision,” Campaign for the Next Century, Brooklyn Botanic Garden [Emphasis added]

What relevant understanding of “plants and the natural world” is possible without science? What inspiration can the next generation find when science is valued less than a plot of Lilacs?

I can only begin to identify other costs and impacts of BBG’s “suspension” of science:

  • The New York Metropolitan Flora Project has provided information to other organizations working to document, and mitigate, the impacts of invasive plants in our region.
  • Field work has supported the work of other programs and organizations, such as the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, and the Long Island Native Plant Initiative, to document, collect, and preserve the natural botanical heritage of the region. 
  • Just one year ago, BBG hosted a two week Herbarium Course, co-sponsored with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for students to “learn how to properly curate and conserve a scientific collection of preserved plants.”
  • Earlier last year, Hobart and William Smith College donated its entire herbarium collection to BBG.

By turning its back on its scientific mission, BBG has betrayed the trust of these and scores of other institutions and individuals that have collaborated with them. BBG has lost the right to call itself a “botanic” garden.

For a vision of what has been lost, read this article of a visit in 2005, just before Scot Medbury was installed as President of BBG, and began destroying it all.

Spring has Sprung, Ivan Oransky, TheScientist, 2005-04-25

Related Content

The Plight of NYC’s Native Flora, 2010-04-08
The Brooklyn Blogade at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2008-10-12
Web Resource: New York Metropolitan Flora Project (NYMF), 2008-06-02

All my Brooklyn Botanic Garden blog posts



Botanic Garden’s celebrated plant research center wilts under layoffs, NY Daily News, 2013-08-28
Brooklyn Botanic Garden Cuts Science Staff Weeks After Native Garden Debut, DNAInfo, Crown 
Heights and Prospect Heights edition, 2013-08-23

Softball Practice: Part 1: When an Organization Undermines Its Own Mission, 2013-08-24; Part 2: Follow up to “When an Organization Undermines . . .”, 2013-08-29
BBG Purge, Backyard and Beyond, 2013-08-23
Brooklyn Botanic Garden suspends science program, Kent Holsinger, 2013-08-23

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Names New President, Press Release, published on BGCI Web site, 2005-08-15

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Announces Interim Herbarium Plans, 2013-09-12
BBG Announces Plan to Reenvision Research Program, 2013-09-06
Brooklyn Botanic Garden Announces Suspension of Research Program, 2013-08-28
Note: BBG PULLED this press release when they decided they were “re-envisioning,” not “suspending.”

Campaign for the Next Century
Herbarium Course at BBG, 2012-08-10
Herbarium Receives Historic Collection, 2012-05-31
New York Metropolitan Flora Project (NYMF)

BBG’s 2013-09-06 Press Release:

In late August, Brooklyn Botanic Garden announced plans to put its research program on hiatus while it grapples with an engineering problem in its science building and formulates a plan for a new research direction in plant conservation.

Garden president Scot Medbury said, “Our commitment to scientific research as a fundamental part of the Garden’s mission is unwavering. We will use this transition period to refine the focus of our research program and strengthen its base of financial support.”

During the hiatus, the Garden is taking proactive steps to protect its valuable herbarium from a failing building foundation and will limit herbarium access to qualified researchers while planning to relocate the collection.

“BBG has successfully reimagined its research programs several times in its hundred-year history, and this is another such juncture,” said Medbury.

BBG’s 2013-09-12 Press Release:

Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) today announced a new collaboration offered by The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) during a period of planning and construction affecting access to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Herbarium.

In late August, engineering problems affecting the foundation at Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s off-site science center led to a phased closure of that building and consequent access restrictions to its herbarium, the collection of 330,000 pressed, dried plant specimens housed there. While planning gets under way to relocate the BBG Herbarium (BKL), BBG will remain focused on the care of its herbarium collections, maintaining one part-time and two full-time staff members, including its director of collections, Tony Morosco, an eight-year veteran of the University of California’s Jepson Herbarium during a similar period of transition.

As part of the new collaboration, science staff from NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium will provide additional monitoring and support for the BKL during BBG’s planning phases. BBG’s important subcollection of herbarium type specimens will be temporarily moved to NYBG to facilitate researcher access. NYBG will also help process the return of loans made to other institutions from the BKL and assist with future loan requests. In addition, plans are in progress to transfer the BKL database to NYBG, where it will become a subunit of NYBG’s C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium.

“Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s commitment to ensuring that scientific research remains a fundamental part of its mission is unwavering,” said Scot Medbury, president of BBG. “We are deeply grateful to The New York Botanical Garden for their generous technical support while we undergo a major transition.”

The Supermodel in the Sewer: /Dolichovespula maculata/, Bald-Faced Hornet

Setting aside for a moment the less-than-appealing staging, this is a beautiful creature.
/Dolichovespula maculata/, Bald-Faced Hornet
This is Dolichovespula maculata, the Bald-Faced Hornet. Despite its prevalence, this is my first direct encounter with one.

I’m more familiar with its signature creation: its nest. Here’s a huge one I found a few years ago high in one of the Lilacs at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It was March; this one was left over from the previous year.
Wasp nest, Lilac Collection, BBG, March 2009

They typically nest high in trees, or large shrubs like the Lilac above. Sheltered by summer foliage, and camouflaged the color the bark, they’re difficult to spot. We’re more likely to discover them when they fall. Here’s one that was downed when a tornado swept through Brooklyn in August 2007 …
Downed Hornet Nest

… and flagged – if mislabelled – by a helpful neighbor.

Earlier in the year, the nests are much smaller. New queens emerge, and create new nests, each year. Here’s one Matthew Wills and I came across during our Magicicada hunt in Staten Island.
Fallen Bald Hornet Wasp Nest

The “setting” of the opening photo is canine dung, aka “dog poo.” I prefer to think of this as an image from a photo shoot of an aspiring hipster photographer (me) of a model wearing haute couture (hornet) in a sewer (dung).

Much more glamorous now, ain’t it! Except this hornet is too zäftig to be a modern model.
/Dolichovespula maculata/, Bald-Faced Hornet

I observed this individual scrambling over, flying off, then returning to such, uh, settings repeatedly. In between visits from the hornet, each was buzzing with flies. As the horned honed in, the flies flew off.

I think this explains this hornet’s interest. The adults are largely vegetarian, eating nectar and fruit. They capture and pre-chew flies and other insects to food to their larvae. This is the same child-rearing strategy used by a majority of bird species, most of which need insects to feed their young, but are largely vegetarian as adults.

Far from being a “pest” (in human terms) this is a beneficial (in human terms) insect. Carnivorous wasps such as this one help keep insect populations in check. A diversity of species – emerging and active at different times of the year, occupying different habitats, and specializing in different prey – ensure that no one species of insect will get out of control, at least not for long. The better able we are to at least tolerate, if not celebrate, less charismatic species such as wasps and hornets, the more we will be able to enjoy the spaces surrounding our homes, and the healthier will be our interactions with our co-habitants in nature.

Related Content

Flickr photo set
Other Hymenoptera posts


Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata), BugGuide
Bald-faced Hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, Study of Northern Virginia Ecology
Baldfaced Hornet, Virginia Cooperative Extension
Dolichovespula maculata (Linnaeus, 1763) – Baldfaced Hornet, Biological Survey of Canada

Cry Wolf: /Philanthus gibossus/, Beewolf

Philanthus gibossus, Beewolf, on Pycnanthemum muticum, Clustered Mountain-Mint, in my native plant gardens this past weekend.
/Philanthus gibbosus/, Beewolf, on /Pycnanthemum muticum/, Clustered Mountain-Mint

This thirsty little wasp face down in a cup of nectar is a Beewolf, so-named because they provision their larvae with bees. Despite the size of the image, these wasps are small; the individual flowers of this Pycnanthemum are about the size of a pencil point.

Pycnanthemum muticum, Clustered Mountain-Mint, Detail of Flowers with Pencil Eraser for Scale

Their prey is also small. They favor Halictids, Sweat Bees. I grow a wide variety of native plants, attracting any different species of bees and wasps. There are several species of Halictids that frequent my gardens, making good hunting grounds for the Wolves.
/Lasioglossum/ (Subgenus /Dialictus/) on /Clematis virginiana/, Virgin's Bower/Halictus ligatus/ on /Rudbeckia triloba/Halictus rubicundus (Halictus (Protohalictus) rubicundus) on Pycnanthemum, Mountain-MintAgapostemon, Jade Bee, on Rudbeckia triloba

I first noticed and identified this species in my garden last summer. I noticed them again this year, then realized I’d never uploaded last year’s photos. They are numerous this time of year, along with the little sweat bees.

/Philanthus gibbosus/, Beewolf, on /Solidago/, Goldenrod

Beewolves earn that name. The females target small bees, and even other wasps, as food for their larval offspring. Not all beewolves you see around flowers are there for nectar. The females will actively stalk bees that are busy gathering nectar and pollen themselves. …

A victim is stung immediately between its front legs, disabling a nerve center and rendering the bee paralyzed. The wasp then carries the bee beneath it, held in the wasp’s middle legs. It takes several bees to feed one larval beewolf wasp.

Wasp Wednesday: Beewolves, Bug Eric

Related Content

Philanthus gibossus, Beewolf (Flickr photo set)

Other Wasps from my garden:
Scolia dubia, Blue-Winged Digger Wasp, 2012-08-13
Gardening with the Hymenoptera (and yet not), 2011-07-31
Sphecius speciosus, Eastern Cicada Killer, 2009-08-18
Monobia quadridens, Mason Wasp, 2009-07-12


BugGuide: Philanthus (Beewolves), Philanthus gibbosus
Wasp Wednesday: Beewolves, Bug Eric (Eric Eaton), 2011-08-17

Cupido comyntas, Eastern Tailed-Blue

Cupido comyntas, Eastern Tailed-Blue.

A lifer butterfly for me. Very lucky to get a few good shots of it while it was resting, wings open, to take in some sun. They’re small and fast.

The undersides of the wings look completely different. Here’s another one the same afternoon in a more typical pose with the wings folded up.

From the flight pattern, I thought at first it was a Summer Azure, which are common here. Perhaps these are what I’ve been seeing instead.

To me, it looks like a cross between an Azure and a Hairstreak. Took me a while to identify it on BugGuide.

There were two, at least, flying around today. Glad they’re finding habitat in my gardens. I hope they make a home here.

Host Plants

The caterpillars eat the flowers and seeds of plants in the Fabaceae (Leguminosae), Pea Family. Genera and species include:

  • Lathyrus, Wild Pea
  • Lespedeza, Bush Pea
  • Medicago sativa, Alfalfa (I had no idea alfalfa was in this family!)
  • Melilotus officinalis, Yellow Sweet Clover
  • Trifolium, Clover
  • Vicia, Vetch
While there is some clover in my yard, the most prominent Fabaceae I’m growing is Wisteria frutescens ‘Amethyst Falls,’ a cultivar of the native Wisteria that has been reblooming in my garden most of the summer this year. I wonder if this is the plant that has attracted them?

Related Content

Flickr photo set
Gardening with the Lepidotera, 2011-06-11



A Hudson River Riparian Plant Community

Part of the eastern bank of the Hudson River, just south of the Route 8 bridge at Riparius/Riverside in the Adirondacks of New York. A year ago, this was all underwater, inundated by flood waters from Hurricane Irene.
Riparian Plant Community, Hudson River, Riparius, NY

One year ago, Hurricane Irene reached New York City. The damage in my neighborhood was slight: downed trees and large tree limbs.
London Plane Street Tree downed by Hurricane Irene

Our post-engagement pre-honeymoon vacation was delayed a day, simply because there were no roads open out of the city to our destination. Even the New York State Thruway was closed along most of its length: many entrance and exit ramps flooded, and it was safer to keep people off the road altogether.

Irene’s rains continued north, devastating the Catskills. At New Paltz, the Wallkill River overtopped its banks. This was a cornfield; the entire crop was lost. The sunflowers at the far end of the field are ten feet tall.
Flooded Sunflowers

The rains reached the Adirondacks. Which was exactly where our vacation plans were taking us. We arrived at Riparius, NY, on the banks of the Hudson River in the Adirondacks, just after Labor Day 2011, a few days after Irene had passed and the rains subsided.

The river was still swollen a few feet above its normal level. Never having been there before, I had no frame of reference. But I could see the waters lapping onto the lawns below the cabins, and saw grasses flowing beneath the waters. The few rocks visible were submerged, or nearly so.
The flooded banks of the Hudson River at Riparius after Irene

Last week we arrived at a different river, the wild Hudson, still freshly scrubbed and scoured by Irene’s floodwaters. The water, and banks, are now dominated by smooth, polished river rocks. In Adirondack tradition, I constructed a cairn on the shore near the cabin where we were staying.
My 10-Stone Cairn on the banks of the Hudson River in Riparius, NY

The evidence of Irene was everywhere. In addition to the plentiful now-exposed rocks, bank erosion was visible nearly the entire length of the shoreline here, cutting back into the mowed lawns hosting Adirondack chairs sited to view the sunset over the Hudson. The rocks themselves seemed relatively little disturbed. What Irene did was clear away a good foot or so of soil and plant growth that had overlaid the rocks, revealing the older, rocky bank beneath.
Bank Erosion, Hudson River, Riparius, NY
Bank Erosion, Hudson River, Riparius/Riverside, NY

One can see here that larger rocks amplified the power of the moving waters around them, scouring away the soil that previously surrounded them. The absence of lichens on the upper surface of this rock indicates it probably was previously covered with at least a thin layer of soil and plant roots. Now, a year after Irene, it stands alone.
Scouring around and behind a large rock, Bank Erosion, Hudson River, Riparius/Riverside, NY

Remarkable, to me, was how much plant life remained among the rocks. Most of what’s visible in this photo was inundated a year ago. The line of erosion can be clearly seen along the right. In some places, a foot or more of soil was washed away with Irene’s floods. This exposed the rocky bank beneath.
Bank Erosion and Regeneration, Hudson River, Riparius/Riverside, NY

A year ago, the water rose up onto the lawn on the upper right of the photo above. In this photo, just in front of the white bench, the rocky bank of the photo above is barely noticeable.
The beach on the Hudson at Riverside

The grasses flowed underwater with the current, like seaweed.
The flooded banks of the Hudson River at Riparius after Irene

But not all plants were washed away. Several clumps remained intact. Instead of wiping the slate clean, as Irene did in many places in the Catskills, the old set was struck and the stage reset for the next scene. The regeneration of a soft, soiled bank has already begun, as survivors recover, and pioneers fill in the now empty muck between the rocks.
Riparian Plant Community, Hudson River, Riparius, NY

Key to the persistence and recovery are the grasses, the dominant plants in this community. Here’s a detail demonstrating the tenacity of the roots, and their ability to grip bare rock and hold the soil in place against the floodwaters. And not just those of the grasses: one can also see here at least a half-dozen non-grass species growing in and around the grasses. They benefit from this close association simply by being present after the flood, ready to quickly regenerate and re-populate the landscape.
Riparian Plant Association, Hudson River, Riparius, NY

And thus begins the cycle. These plants – and some pioneer grasses – have already begun to restore themselves and their community. Over time, between floods, they will fill in all the gaps among the rocks again, laying down more organic material, and rebuilding the old, soft, green shore. Until the next flood.

The diversity of this plant community – just one year after the flood – surprised me. More evidence that most of these plants survived the flood, rather than colonizing the river just this year. I’m still identifying plants from the photos I took on this strip. And it will probably take me months to upload them all. But here’s a list of the species and genera I’ve been able to identify so far:

  • Chelone glabra, White Turtlehead
    Chelone glabra, White Turtlehead
  • Cyperus strigosus, Umbrella Sedge
    Cyperus strigosus, Umbrella Sedge
  • Eupatorium/Eupatoriadelphus, Joe Pye Weed
  • Helenium autumnale, Sneezeweed
    Helenium autumnale, Sneezeweed
  • Iris, probably Yellow Flag
  • Lobelia cardinalis, Cardinal Flower (easily identified as the spots of bright red in these photos)
    Lobelia cardinalis, Cardinal Flower
  • Lobelia kalmii, Kalm’s or Ontario Lobelia (also new to me, needed to get online before I could identify it with any confidence)
    Lobelia kalmii, Kalm's/Ontario Lobelia
  • Lycopus amaricanus, American Water-Horehound (a species new to me, I recognized it as a member of the Lamiaceae, mint family, which aided identification)
    Whorled Inflorescences, Lycopus americanus, American water-horehound (ID TENTATIVE)
  • Lythrum salicaria, Purple Loosestrife (Unfortunate, but I only found three scattered plants. Now would be the best time to remove them, but as a guest, and a stranger, it was not my place to do so on my own.)
    Flowering Spike of Lythrum salicaria, Purple Loosestrife
  • Mimulus ringens, Allegheny Monkey-flowe
    Mimulus ringens, Allegheny Monkeyflower (TENTATIVE)
  • Myosotis, Forget-Me-Not (haven’t keyed it out yet to determine if it’s a native or introduced species)
  • Polygonum amphibium, Water Smartweed (also new to me)
    Polygonum amphibium, Water Smartweed
  • Sanguisorba canadensis, American Burnet (another new species for me)
    Sanguisorba canadensis, Canadian Burnet
  • Solidago, Goldenrod
  • Spiranthes cernua, Nodding Lady’s-Tresses (also new to me, but I recognized the tiny flowers as orchids, which narrows it down considerably)
    Spiranthes cernua, Nodding Lady's-Tresses
  • Verbena hastata, Common Verbena (yet another new species for me)
    Verbena hastata, Common/Swamp Verbena

The Adirondacks as we know them today are only 20,000 years old, exposed after the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet (which also gave birth to Long island, including Brooklyn). My stone cairn may be a little sturdier than a sand castle, but its ephemeral nature is part of its charm, and its beauty. I see the river, the rocks, the plants, the mountains themselves with the same eyes. Because I will never see them this way again, they are all the more beautiful to me now.


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