Field Guide to Adventures in Tropical Botany

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Field Guides to the Wild intrigue Naomi Pitcairn, sharing her adventures in scientific documentation of the wonders of nature, in this case the botanical wealth of the American Tropics.

Scott A. Mori, tropical botany

Scott A. Mori is a Curator Emeritus at the The New York Botanical Garden. His research interests are the ecology, classification, and conservation of tropical rainforest trees. Here he is collecting a tree sample in French Guiana, photographed by Naomi Pitcairn.

Adventures in Tropical Botany

By Naomi Pitcairn

When enjoying your field guides to nature, do you ever wonder what went into their creation? Before there are field guides, numerous taxonomic studies are undertaken that provide the science that creates Floras and Monographs, the research documents that provide the underlying information in laymen’s guides. A Flora describes all plants in a geographic area, while a Monograph treats all species of a chosen group of plants throughout its geographic range.

Brazil, botany, Victoria Amazonica

The underside of a leaf of Victoria Amazonica taken on a tour of the Brazilian Amazon River Basin. Photo by Naomi Pitcairn.

As part of their travels to the “New” World (between 1799 and 1804), the German scientist Alexandre von Humboldt and the French botanist Aimé Bonpland traversed the Rio Orinoco, making natural history collections and observations along the way. At one point, they subsisted for three entire months on rancid chocolate and plain rice alone. Fortunately, these explorers came upon Brazil nut collectors, allowing them to feast on great quantities of Brazil nut seeds. They were also impressed by the magnificent tree itself, and so interested in obtaining its flowers that Humboldt offered an ounce of gold to any one of the collectors who could find and retrieve them—an impossible task, as fruiting Brazil nut trees were not in flower.  — Scott A. Mori, New York Botanical Garden

flowering plants of the neotropics

Field Guide: Flowering Plants of the Neotropics – Edited by  Nathan Smith et al.

Manuals like The Jepson Manual, written by a group of experts on the various plant groups and compiled by knowledgeable editors, is an example of a Flora. Along with Monographs and Herbaria, Flora are the definitive descriptions of plant life occurring at a particular place or time. Herbaria are large collections of preserved plant data, that are usually pressed, dried and mounted on information-bearing paper cards. Dried specimens are stored in row upon row of heavy, expensive, archival, climate-controlled, big, library-like cabinets. The cases are taller than a man and often on some kind of rollers so that they can be “compacted” more closely together to save storage space. These three scientific products constitute the last word in plant identification and provide information used by botanists and expert amateurs, as well as the basis for the manuals like Audubon’s Field Guides that laymen enjoy.

field guides to tropical plants

Field Guide: Vascular Plants of Central French Guiana, by Scott Mori, et al.

The reason I know this is because my cousin John D. Mitchell is a plant taxonomist, the world authority on the Anacardiaceae, the cashew family, and I’ve traveled with him and his friends quite a bit. He didn’t go to graduate school, and is partially self-taught and hence an “honorary” curator at the The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). In spite of this, he is nonetheless allowed to change the labels at botanical gardens and herbaria worldwide. He understands how to play off of his idiosyncratic obsessions with botanical minutia for laughs and his passion for the natural world tends to rub off. He’s convinced me that the Anacardiaceae does have some interesting members, like mangos, pistachios, poison ivy, pepper trees and various plants who’s resins are used in lacquers, brake linings, and tanning processes. He hopes to do a coffee table book on the Anacardiaceae one day although he mostly writes monographs. He has the largest library of anyone I know and I wonder what he’s going to do with it.

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Wildflowers in a field guide

Field Guide: Wildflowers of the Field and ForestSteven Clemants and Carol Gracie

Although they can clearly be considered nerds, plant taxonomists are a fun lot and their jobs are not, in fact, boring. Fieldwork can be tedious at times, but it is also a wild adventure. It takes scientists to remote places filled with all kinds of interesting, cool stuff. There are always “members of their family” (their plant family) they can run into and they tend to be people who enjoy the unusual. One of the advantages of tagging along with their lot is that it provides the chance to have experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible to non-scientists, visiting research stations and watching them work. True, nothing exotic might happen for days on end, but when something does, it tends to be memorable.

My cousin’s NYBG mentor, Scott Mori, (Curator Emeritus at the Institute of Systematic Botany, The New York Botanical Garden) recently published another kind of book about his vast experiences in the tropical rainforests. The memoir, Tropical Plant Collecting, From the Field to the Internet, is designed as a “how to” for the tropical botanist and plant expedition enthusiast in the field as well as recounting Scott’s experiences in the field.

The first two chapters are devoted to descriptions of two botany careers, chapter 3 to tips for the field, 4 to specimen collecting, 5 to Herbariums, 6 to the internet, and 7 to “the future.”  The book is heavily illustrated and interspersed with vignettes written by people who have traveled with Scott, including non-scientists like myself. My most memorable experience with Scott is included in the book.

This is my story:

white-lipped peccary, tayassu peccaryWhite-Lipped Peccary (Tayassu peccari)

Excerpt (with permission) from Tropical Plant Collecting – From the Field to the Internet

On the day that my story takes place, Tatyana Lobova, Scott [Mori], and I are out trudging through Amazonian mud. We are on an expedition based at the Los Amigos research station in Madre de Dios, Peru, where we have come to collect plants dispersed by bats and to study the natural history of the Brazil nut family. We have been walking for hours already without seeing much besides tree trunks, lianas, and leaves.

So we, or at least I, am a little bored. That is, until we begin to hear a noise far off in the distance. When it first starts up, we barely even hear it. But it keeps getting louder until nobody can help but notice. It is a far away, thunderous, reverberating, bellowing kind of sound.

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tropical botany field work, Scott Mori

Into the wilds of the Madre de Dios, in Peru. Photo by Naomi Pitcairn

After a few seconds, we figure out that it can’t be what it sounds like: a fleet of bulldozers. We are a long way from roads. Earthquake? I, who have never experienced an earthquake, consider the possibility. But it’s not.

What is moving towards us is loud, roaring and ground-shaking, but it’s not any kind of vehicle. It is pure animal. It’s lots and lots of animals. “Pigs,” I say. (Note: They are actually peccaries, not really pigs exactly but I am not a scientist and at this particular time nobody attempts to correct me.)

Now Scott, in a noble effort to protect us, says that he will go alone towards this hidden, but apparently massive threat. Tatyana and I are strongly in favor of everyone running together in the other direction. It’s two against one, so we run.

“Get up high, get up on something high,” advises Scott. We are now running full speed in the direction we have just come from but where are the seemingly endless fallen trees we have had to climb over and under along our way? They are now nowhere in sight. We finally see one flimsy fallen tree but that will barely hold one person. They offer it to me, and selfishly, I take it. They are forced to take refuge on a lower tree trunk. The noise rages toward us.

Some pale-winged trumpeter birds charge out from the underbrush, trumpeting in panic. We look at each other and start to laugh. Have we been so silly as to be frightened by birds even more scared than we are? But wait, what are they so scared of? They’re not running away from us. They’re running towards us. The noise gets louder and is now accompanied by a powerful odor.

What does a herd of white-lipped peccary smell like? They smell like shit, like a homeless person who hasn’t washed in a month, like old garbage left to rot. We are experiencing an olfactory assault.

Soon we begin to catch glimpses of ghost-like black forms through the trees. The rumble splits into a cacophony of individual squeaks and grunts, breaking sticks and hoof-falls. White lipped-peccary are known to travel in herds of up to 100 individuals. We can’t count but it seems to be about that many. Maybe I exaggerate, but they just keep coming and coming and coming.

Finally, after what seems like a long time but really isn’t, one breaks through the vegetation. He (I think of him as a “he”) is black, looks about 2 feet high and is covered with bristly hair. He pokes his snout out from the dense vegetation, looks up at us and immediately begins squealing like, well like a stuck pig. Wheee! Wheee! Wheee!

The whole herd joins the panic and starts running the other way. Wheee! Wheee! Wheee! Snort. Grunt. Tooth-clack, clack, clack. Thunder. Rumble. Wheeeeeeeeeeee! After about 15 minutes, maybe a lot less, they finally seem to be gone.

Now that we are safe, I immediately wish they would come back so I can get a picture. We cautiously creep down off of our perches and start back along the trail in our original direction. We walk over peccary carnage. The earth is pocked with divots and gouges scooped out by peccary snouts. Everything, including the rare plants we hope to find, has been rooted up and mangled. But, I’m no longer the least bit bored.

Amazon River town

Life on the river moves at the speed of flow. Not for everyone. Photo of an Amazonian river town by Naomi Pitcairn.

It’s not everybody’s dream trip to go to the jungle, get bitten by a million insects, and run into a dangerous herd of foul-smelling pig relatives. Yet shadowing somebody really disciplined, who knows a subject intimately, seeing rare plants and animals in their native habitat, really does make the discomforts worth it. The beauty and drama of nature outshines any Paris atelier or museum that you could visit if you ask me, or a tropical botanist.

Besides not being boring, my friends and relatives can tell you down to at least the genus, of any plant you find in the New World rainforest and most are happy to teach anyone who is interested, regardless of their level of knowledge. I find the similarities and differences between related groups of plants particularly interesting because of the picture they paint of evolution. I am constantly asking what plant family things are in. I’ve learned plant identification techniques, how to tie hammocks up in mosquito netting, and how to use spikes to climb a tree and more.

It is difficult to put a monetary value on the products of systematic botany. Plant taxonomists don’t make a lot of money. They struggle for grants and their work isn’t widely understood or appreciated but it is the foundation for everything that comes next. Because of their work we have the nomenclature we need to talk about plants.

Naomi Pitcairn: MFA Parsons School of Design, Design and Technology. BA – NYU. Photographer, writer, prankstress, Chalkupy organizer, artivist, whistleblower supporter.

Updated 18 May 2017

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