Current Fellows

Betsabe Castro-Escobar

University of California, Berkeley (Calif.)

Can human selection of ethnobotanical plants enhance phenotypic variation? The case of the calabash trees in Caribbean Islands in the Greater Antilles

Plants provide us with raw materials to sustain human life. Depending on how plants are used over time, they could be selected for particular traits that are both desirable to people and favorable for the plant's success and evolution, thus promoting variation within a group of plants. In my study I explore calabash trees, also known as higüeros or güiras. Of the six species, three are from the continental Americas and three are of island origin. Of these species, five are present across the Caribbean. The plants are moderate-size trees that produce round fruits that greatly vary in shape and size, with a thin hard shell and soft white pulp. Crescentia cujete (the most widely spread) seems to be the most commonly used of all calabash trees. By conducting a comparative multi-sited study among Caribbean islands in the Major Antilles, I aim to understand: how local people select, prepare, and consume these calabash plants; why they choose these plants and not others; how these practices might be shared or be different across the Caribbean landscape; where did these plants originate and how have they spread across the Caribbean. By the variation of the calabash trees in the Caribbean Basin, my interest is to understand how people have promoted the evolution and conservation of these medicinal, material and culturally significant plants.

Reasearch Advisors: Dr. Paul V. A. Fine, Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley and Dr. Thomas J. Carlson, Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley

Current Fellows

Jonathan Flickinger

Florida International University (Fla.)

Systematics of Myrtaceae in the Caribbean Islands Biodiversity Hotspot

I study the diversity and classification of the myrtle family, a large group of trees and shrubs that includes guava, allspice, cloves and eucalypts. There are approximately 500 species of this family in the Caribbean islands, almost all of which are found nowhere else. The goal of my research is to use the information found in DNA to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships between these species as a basis for classification. In order to accomplish this goal, I am collecting plants in the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico), extracting their DNA from fresh leaf tissue, analyzing the sequence data to determine relationships and relating these findings to careful studies of the characteristics of the plants.  This research will provide basic information on diversity in the myrtle family that lays the groundwork for future scientific studies, identification of useful species and sustainable management in a region that is a global priority for conservation.

Research Advisor:  Dr. Javier Francisco-Ortega, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, Florida International University

Current Fellows

Toby Liss

State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (New York)

The Role of Plant Assemblage Diversity in Evapotranspiration: A Novel Application to Enhance Green Roof Function

Drought, wind stress, and infertile soils: these are the hallmarks of a “marginal” plant habitat. Yet far from being barren wastelands, marginal habitats support highly diverse groupings of rare plants. Rooftops experience similar harsh conditions but have received little attention as potential habitats for rare plant species. Using diverse plantings of extremely resilient species will likely improve green roof aesthetics and function. Eliminating stormwater runoff by retaining it in the soil and returning it to the atmosphere through plants (evapotranspiration) is a key function of green roofs that can reduce the damages associated with excessive stormwater runoff, making urban landscapes more sustainable. However, the plant species often used on green roofs do not maximize this essential function. Stress-adapted plants may improve green roof performance; novel and charismatic plantings on high-profile green roof projects could encourage wide adoption of this approach. In this project, novel combinations of marginal plant species will be planted in green roof modules and the amount of water that enters (precipitation) and exits (runoff) will be measured. By calculating the difference between precipitation and runoff, the ability of different mixtures of plant species to minimize stormwater runoff can be compared, leading to measurable improvements in green roof performance.

Research Advisor: Dr. Donald J. Leopold, Department of Environmental and Forest Biology, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Current Fellows

Sarick Matzen

University of California, Berkeley (Calif.)

Plant-based Brownfield Remediation: Arsenic Phytoextraction with the Brake Fern, Pteris vittata L.

I study arsenic uptake in the arsenic-hyperaccumulating brake fern, Pteris vittata, with the goal of advancing sustainable methods for the remediation of arsenic-contaminated soils. Broadly, I'm interested in contaminant dynamics at the soil-root interface in urban agricultural soils, and in working with urban farmers to rehabilitate moderately contaminated urban land for agriculture.

Research Advisor: Dr. Celine Pallud, Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of California, Berkeley

Current Fellows

Ashley McGuigan

University of Hawaii (Hawaii)

Agroforest resilience and contributions to nutritional diversity in Fiji

Global changes are affecting economies, cultures, and environments worldwide. Some of the adverse effects of these changes are particularity pronounced in small, isolated island ecosystems, such as those in the tropical South Pacific. Fiji is one of the most rapidly developing South Pacific island nations and is acutely impacted by global change. Historically, Fiji Islanders remained healthy by relying on their local natural resources to meet essential food, water, and cultural needs. Local governance systems, traditional practices and diverse agricultural strategies ensured these resources were sustainably managed and utilized, securing environmental health and ecological functionality. This allowed Islanders to be resilient to changes in their social and ecological environment. Many of these natural resources are obtained from agroforests, or agro-ecological systems where crops grow in tandem with trees and shrubs. Historically, Pacific agroforests have been key sources of food, medicine, and water, and conserved high levels of biodiversity. However, these systems are rapidly degraded or destroyed by social and environmental changes, which are having devastating effects on human and environmental well-being. This novel interdisciplinary plant-based research documents plant biodiversity, natural resource use and recovery, and dietary intake in Fijian agroforests after a severe cyclone to understand what role agroforests play in conserving native biodiversity and maintaining human and environmental health today. This research will help us form strategies that will help people adapt to local and global changes and secure overall health through innovative land management systems.

Research Advisor: Dr. Tamara Ticktin, Botany Department, University of Hawai’i at Manoa

Current Fellows

Nichole Tiernan

Florida International University

Endemic Plumeria in Cuba

The Neotropical genus Plumeria L. (Apocynaceae), commonly known as Frangipani, is an ornamental garden plant that occurs throughout the Caribbean islands. Though several species are common in tropical gardens, many wild growing species are not present anywhere in horticulture. Resolving the confusing taxonomy of the Caribbean species of Plumeria L. will unveil wild varieties currently not in cultivation, benefitting both botanical garden collections and ornamental gardens. Classification studies of threatened plants provide a framework for what and where to conserve. The Caribbean Islands are a hotspot of biodiversity and a prime focus for conservation efforts. The recently published Red List of the Flora of Cuba lists five species of Plumeria with insufficient data for proper classification with the urgent call for further research to fully determine the level of threat. The revised classification generated by this study will help land managers make informed conservation decisions in regards to areas where these species occur. Utilizing undergraduate interns, a pollination study will provide STEM education to students pursuing a career in plant sciences, while shedding light into the breeding system of an important ornamental genus. Thus providing substantial conservation and economic significance in the Caribbean as well as tropical gardens around the world access.

Research Advisor: Dr. Javier Francisco-Ortega, Department of Biological Science, Florida International University

Top photo © Paul g. Wiegman