Want to discover a new species? Become a botanist.
A Q&A with New York Botanical Garden’s James S. Miller
James S. Miller is the Dean and Vice President for Science at the New York Botanical Garden. This job entails managing all of the research and conservation programs at NYBG — one of the three largest botanical research programs at gardens in the world. After discovering our common interest in Madagascar’s flora (I worked as a conservation volunteer there for five weeks), I just couldn’t resist interviewing this influential plant scientist. The following conversation has been edited for length and content.
How did you get involved in botany?
I grew up as a kid in two houses in suburban Maryland where I could wander out into the backyard, directly into the woods, and I just grew up with a love of natural history.
How did you come to specialize in Latin American and African plants?
I did my Ph.D. research in Mexico and Central America and, later, in South America and worked in Latin America for 10 years or so. Then in 1988, I had an opportunity to go to Madagascar, and that was a life-changing experience. I fell in love with the place and went back and forth many, many times and branched out into various parts of tropical Africa as a consequence of that.
What about the first time that you went abroad for a botanical project? What made you want to continue being a botanist?
My first fieldwork was in Mexico, in very, very rural parts of western Mexico. It was really exciting to see things that were poorly known and poorly explored and plants that people either hadn’t seen before or had only been seen a few times before by Western scientists.
Do you have any plants or any plant in particular that’s your favorite?
That’s [an] impossible question. There are 350,000 plus species of plants, so…
There’s not one that holds a special place for you? More so than others?
Well … I took my wife on a trip with me to Panama, and she collected a new species of the genus that I work on, and I named it after her. So, I’m particularly fond of that.
What kind of plant is it?
It’s a tropical tree. It’s a member of the genus Cordia, and I named it Cordia leslieae.
When you have plants from so many different locations, how are you able to keep them flourishing in a botanical garden in New York?
There are two completely different ways to answer that question. One is that as research botanists, we go places and we clip small pieces of plant material and we fold it up in newspaper and we dry it and we make preserved specimens out of them that are dead. All of our research collections are preserved plant material. We’re not trying to grow them. We’re not struggling to keep them alive.
Madagascar, of course, is an island that’s bigger than the state of California and it’s — climatically and meteorologically — tremendously diverse. You can find just about every imaginable kind of weather short of really cold in Madagascar. The New York Botanical Garden is 250 acres, and it’s in New York City, and so we’re limited as to what we can grow outdoors here. We do maintain a series of glass houses, and we control the environments in there, and we grow quite a few plants from Madagascar in the greenhouses. We grow the wetlands in greenhouses that are kept warm and humid, and we grow the ones from southwestern Madagascar in greenhouses that are very dry. We have to artificially manipulate the environment in order to accommodate those plants.
What’s some exciting research that’s happening at the Botanical Garden currently?
The real mission of the New York Botanical Garden is to go to the far, unexplored corners of the world and explore and catalog the plant diversity that’s there. I think we have a tendency to think that you’ve got to be looking at the Hubble Space Telescope or be in a deep ocean trench to find something new in science. When, in fact, our research botanists are bringing back species of plants no one’s ever seen before on a daily basis.
We name and describe and catalog many, many new species of plants every year. By definition, many of these are known only from remote, inaccessible places, and they’re often not common. So, [there are] conservation concerns. We’re not only trying to figure out what plants exist in the world, but we’re also trying to help define the priorities of where we need to pay attention to ensure the long-term survival of all these plants.
What do you feel like is the most challenging part of your job?
Another one of these questions that’s just impossible to answer. There’s a myriad of challenges to doing all of this. Everything from the difficulties getting to remote and inaccessible places to the politics of it to the international laws that govern the transport of specimens to raising money to support the science. So, every aspect of it’s challenging, and we need to all of them well in order to accomplish it.
What are some of the best parts? I realize that you can’t choose a single one, but what makes it rewarding for you?
Being able to travel places that nobody’s ever been before and see things that no one’s ever seen before is a pretty special experience.
Since the Botanical Garden is a pretty unique and special experience for people in New York especially what do you want the public to take away from the Botanical Garden when they visit it?
The places that we go out and find things that are really new, that nobody’s ever seen before, are not only in remote countries, like Madagascar, they’re in remote places within Madagascar. They’re not an hour from the capital. And most people in their lives will never really have the opportunity to go spend four days hiking into the middle of a remote forest and see things that no one else has ever seen.
There’s a proxy to that. They can come to an institution like New York Botanical Garden. They can see a lot of unusual plants that they’re not going to see in their friends’ gardens — that are only cultivated in botanical institutions like this. And they can begin to share in some of the excitement of seeing these unusual things from far-distant corners of the world.
Is there anything else that you’d want to share with me about the Botanical Garden or your specific work there?
I think the work that we’re doing is creating the road map for species-level conservation, for ensuring that the greatest percentage of the world’s 350,000 plus plant species are well enough known and understood that we can make sense out of efforts to try to ensure that they all survive and are preserved in the future. That’s an important legacy: that we are the caretakers for the biological diversity on this planet.
From a public education standpoint, this is a great place to come learn about all that. To see the diversity of plants, to appreciate the diversity plants, to see unusual plants that you wouldn’t see other places and learn about plants and learn about gardening and learn to appreciate this part of the world.