How could a university be a world heritage site? This is what I thought to myself when I was first heard this about UNAM. Well, once you see the slideshow below you'll understand. There is a profusion of buildings with gorgeous sculpture-murals by many well-known artists. Enjoy!
In Mexico City I visited the university's botanic garden, together with Dr David Gernandt and his daughters, and later with David and Dr Susana Magallon.
It was the first time I'd seen a botanic garden with mostly succulents. I loved wandering around the paths of endless yuccas, agaves and opuntias (prickly pear). The prickly pears were especially fun because they are prone to dissociating, so each segment was labeled with the number.
Below are some images of the succulents, the signage as hand painted tiles, some cute mini-scarecrows, and of course ferns and cycads. You can click on the images to bring up a slideshow with larger images.
While in Mexico City I visited the Museum of Anthropology. It houses artifacts from the earliest humans, Mayans, Aztecs and today's traditional people: all part of the rich history of Mexico.
There was a lot to see and we managed to visit most of the museum, spanning all of Mexico's history, in one day.
For my first stop in Mexico, I visited the herbarium at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, or UNAM, in Mexico City. It is the largest in Latin America with 1.4 million specimens! As a comparison the herbarium at the RBG Sydney has 1.2 million specimens.
It's housed in the biology institute - a couple of pictures of the interconnected buildings are below. Note the succulent garden in the first picture, and the large cycads in the second picture.
I was there to look at the ferns and the cycads. The herbarium preserves plants on sheets of paper. Here's a cycad herbarium specimen from Mexico.
The label tells us a lot of information: it was collected in the Hildalgo region in 1970 by Francisco Gonzalez-Medrano and it was the 2969th collection he made. The name has been in flux as you can see by the addition of the labels.
I was hosted by the director of the herbarium Dr David Gernandt. Here he is looking at a Mexican pine species - pines are his area of expertise.
David tells me that there are 49 pine species in Mexico. It's a biodiversity hotspot for these and many other groups of plants.
The UNAM herbarium is currently photographing and databasing all of its specimens. First they take the photo and then a room full of speedy typers type out the label information. So far they have captured one-quarter of the specimens! It's a monumental effort but well-worth it.
As well as cycad conservation, the MBC is also working toward palm conservation.
In the pictures below, they are testing out different soil types for growing palm seeds. As you can see one of the soil types is not very successful, and the palm seeds aren’t staying in the soil! Fortunately the rest are working out.
They also have some interesting collections. Here is the world’s smallest palm (fully grown) as well as a massive palm that’s only about 10 years old.
Below is a seedling of Coco De Mer from the Seychelles. It’s a palm with many fascinating stories. Probably because the seeds look like someone’s backside! They are also the largest seeds produced by any plant.
One of their significant palms is Attalea crassispatha. It’s on the endangered list because there are less than 30 plants left in Haiti. While I was visiting, it was producing fruit for the first time! The seed will be harvested, and either stored in the seedbank or grown into new plants.
Here are some volunteers who work in the seedbank. They are preparing palm seed for long-term storage. Seed banks are a vital storehouse conserving for plants — they serve as a “backup plan” for storing plants that are at risk of becoming extinct. Work like this is critical for palm survival in the future!
The MBC has been actively working in cycad conservation. Below is the shade house where they grow seedings from endangered species into plants for the MBC and for gardens around the world.
Vickie is the greenhouse horticulturalist and Patrick is the director, and they are standing in front of seedlings of Zamia prasina, which is only found in a sinkhole in Belize. The plant is highly endangered.
When the genetics of the MBC plants are compared to the wild populations, the diversity of the MBC plants successfully represents the wild genetic diversity. A very promising sign that their conservation work is effective!
Another way to conserve the cycads is to preserve their pollen. Below is a pollen cone of Microcycas calocoma. It's restricted to a few plants on Cuba today. To release the pollen, the cones are tapped with the mallet.
The Microcycas pollen is first stored in the freezer. The frozen pollen is sent to other gardens when they have a female cone that requires pollen - the result is seeds for growing into a new generation of plants.
These are what the Microcycas plants look like. These are some of the oldest plants known outside of Cuba.
Below is the endangered species Zamia lucayana. It's from the Bahamas, and the plants grow along the beach so they have been planted in a beach setting!
Lastly is Cycas micronesica from Guam. In one part of Guam, there were 686 plants in 2004, which then dropped to 87 plants in 2007. So the work of MBC is highly critical to the long-term survival of this species.
There are seeds on this Cycas micronesica plant at the MBC. The seeds will be used to raise more plants in the hope of increasing the number of living plants of this endangered species.
One morning, while at MBC I walked into Patrick's office and he told me he had just sent me a text saying "Today I need to show you the Churchill mango tree". Coincidentally I was already on my way to his office so I didn't see the text. So we went to see the tree.
In the 1950s Churchill visited Col. Montgomery - the founder of the plant collection. Churchill set up his easel under the mango tree to paint a vista of the lake. In the picture above, I'm standing in the exact position where Churchill set up his easel.
Above is part of the vista that Churchill would have seen. A tree on the left now obscures part of the view - it wasn't there in the 1950s when Churchill was there. And of course all of the plants are a bit bigger!
What a very special coincidence to be a Churchill Fellow following in the footsteps of Churchill himself!
I've spent this past week at the Montgomery Botanical Center. It's in southern Miami and it's a cycad and palm paradise. They grow living collections with a conservation focus (more on that another day).
The director Dr Patrick Griffith gave me and a visiting cycad paleobotanist Dr Boglarka Erdei a tour of the grounds. Patrick had so many stories to tell us about so many of the plants. It was a true delight to share Patrick's love of the plants and the gardens, and to meet all of the dedicated and friendly staff.
I've put some pictures of some vistas, the master plan for the site, and the critters on the grounds. There will be more on the plants in my next post or two.
On my first day in Miami I met Dr Alan Meerow from the USDA. My host, Dr Patrick Griffith, who is the director of the Montgomery Botanical Garden, arranged for us to meet.
Alan and I had a lot to talk about! Alan works on ornamental plants, but his true passion is population genetics. We talked about his work on Amaryllis, Iris, and of course cycads.
Alan has been working on a complex of cycads in the Caribbean. I had closely read one of Alan's recent papers on the population genetics of three species from Puerto Rico, so it was really helpful to talk to him about his insights on this type of work since I'm going to be conducting similar research on the Australian cycads.
Alan (top left) also gave me a tour of the facilities at the USDA. I was impressed with the robot for automating some of their experiments - even though Alan told me it's a bit outdated (top right)! I also took a couple of photos of the outside of the building (bottom two pictures).
On my last day at the University of Florida I had a meeting with Dr Charlotte Germain-Aubrey. I met Charlotte after she gave a fascinating talk at the botany conference about extinction of species in Florida due to climate changes (the link is in a previous post). We talked about doing some similar analyses for the cycads, and I'm excited to see what we will find.
Charlotte works at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and I took a picture of her with some bird collections from the late 1800s.
While in Gainesville, I also spent some time with Dr Emily Sessa. Emily is a newcomer to the University of Florida, and here she is in her lab that is being renovated.
Emily works on ferns, specifically the genus Dryopteris. She combines multiple disciplines, molecular systematics, ecology and physiology to understand the outcomes of hybridization.
She also has a fun blog on ferns: No seeds, no fruits, no flowers: no problem.
In 2012, I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship sponsored by the Australian Biological Resources Study.