Present (almost) at Creation

Green scene

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Last week’s column featured plants found in 17th- and 18th-century archeological sites in Lower Manhattan. Today, I want to share my excitement about the “New York City – EcoFlora” project under development by the New York Botanical Garden. In 2014, theNYBG  began working on a strategic plan for 2016-2021 for upgrading infrastructure, horticultural displays, plant research and children’s and adult education. 

The EcoFlora Initiative was presented at that time by Dr. Brian Boom, vice president for conservation strategy. This project took its inspiration from two previous studies. The first, known as the Ecological Flora of the British Isles, was proposed by E.J. Salisbury in 1928, when he suggested that all the varied material about British flora scattered throughout myriad journals should be systematized and located in one accessible source. That effort is now available at the University of York (www.ecoflora.co.uk) and contains “data on 3,842 species of higher plants that grow in the British Isles most native and the balance imports that have naturalized.” The second project was conducted by Daniel Atha in his three-year study of the flora of Central Park and was intended  to “document and collect every naturally occurring plant in Central Park.”  The impressive database from that project can be found at www.nybg.org/science-new/central-park/index.php. It has records of 1,264 plants, representing 452 species of flowering plants.  The EcoFlora will attempt to emulate these projects by collecting information on all the plants growing in New York City from the largest trees to the smallest wildflowers.

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of sitting with Dr. Boom – who together with Daniel Atha, director of conservation outreach – will be heading the EcoFlora Project. Considering the scope and perhaps the audacity of this project, it is clear that both careful planning and flexibility will be the hallmarks of this massive initiative.

A sizable grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services – a significant source of federal support for libraries and museums around the country – is providing the seed money for developing the organizational concepts, the volunteer manpower necessary to actually collect the plants, and the framework for answering myriad questions about each plant and its ecological neighborhood. Last week, I mentioned the two terms, phytogeography  - “the geographic distribution of plant species and their influence on the earth’s surface” - and phytosociology – “scientific discipline that deals with “plant communities, their composition and development, and the relationships between the species within them.” These concepts will be integral to EcoFlora.

Three planning workshops will be held in the upcoming months. The first meeting in January will draw on the academic community, to explain the project them with an eye to recruiting volunteers for prototyping the data collecting protocols. The second group meeting in February will be drawn from environmental and government groups whose outreach, considerable local experience and expertise will be vital. The last meeting in March will focus on citizen scientists and organizations such as e-bird and i-naturalist, which are already enlisting citizen scientists as eyes, minds and hands in the field who can expand the reach of the NYBG.

The key to the success of this enormous project is the involvement of the citizen scientist defined as “amateur or nonprofessional scientists who forward research by their observations and collections of large amounts of data.”  Just browsing today online, I found a plethora of projects listed by Scientific American (www.scientificamerican.com/citizen-science), which demonstrates the range of scientific projects that are already in progress thanks to these volunteers.

Riverdale already has its own 19th-century citizen scientist well-known in botanical and ornithological circles. Eugene Pintard Bicknell (1859-1925) – cited in publications as E.P. Bicknell – lived in Riverdale until 1901 at the corner of Riverdale Lane and Old Albany Post Road (now Riverdale Avenue), which might have been near Riverdale Country School on Fieldston Road. Incidentally, I would love to hear from anyone knowledgeable about Riverdale geography at that time.

Bicknell was a prolific collector of plant specimens, and numerous species have been named in his honor, such as Geranium bicknelli, which he collected in 1895 from Van Cortlandt Park and which was described as new to science by Dr. Nathaniel Lord Britton, founding director-in-chief of the NYBG. Bicknell’s collection of 12,087 specimens was donated in 1925 to NYBG. Among these, he collected the holotype - the first described and published specimen of a species - of Sisyrinchium atlanticum E.P. Bicknell, whose colloquial name is Atlantic Blue-Eyed Grass (Iridaceae family).  His herbarium sheet can be found in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium.

I am deeply interested in the findings of this project and look forward to sharing more details as they become available.

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