Frailejones are oversized members of the sunflower family with thick stems and crowns of pointed, hairy leaves. Shrouded in the mists of cold, wet, nearly treeless tropical highlands called páramos, they evoke the Spanish monks for which they are named.
Mauricio Diazgranados, the new chief science officer of the New York Botanical Garden, had his first encounter with them as a teenager in Bogotá, Colombia, when he set off alone to survive in the páramo of a nearby national park. He still keeps photos from that three-day adventure, which ended with him hungry, soaked, and rescued by farmers. A passion for páramos and their otherworldly plants never left him, even as Dr. Diazgranados, now 48, embarked on a peripatetic career, taking research positions in the United States, Colombia and England, before arriving in the Bronx in June.
Botanical gardens tend to reflect their countries’ histories of empire or influence. Visitors to the New York Botanical Garden, seeking solace amid its native conifers or rows of roses, tend not to realize that, since its inception in 1891, it has been home to a research program focused heavily on the American tropics. Although many of its staff botanists, graduate students and visiting scholars have origins in Latin America and the Caribbean, Dr. Diazgranados’s appointment represents the first time that its chief scientist hails from the same region as so much of its collections.
A lean, assertive man who shows up to work in a suit, Dr. Diazgranados projects a certain intensity and urgency. His experience working within the budget constraints of Latin American institutions, and in delicate, threatened tropical ecosystems like the páramos and rainforests, helped impart those traits. “He is quite effective — strong and decisive,” said Brigitte Baptiste, an ecologist and the rector of EAN University in Bogotá. She described Dr. Diazgranados as a tireless promoter of Colombian biodiversity, and someone able to mobilize resources for research.
A decade ago, when Dr. Diazgranados was head of Bogotá’s botanical garden, he took on the construction of a new herbarium and the largest greenhouse in the Americas, before a change in mayoral administrations swept out its leadership and he packed his bags for London. At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, he built a Colombia program from scratch, taking advantage of a landmark peace agreement that expanded possibilities for biological expeditions, eco-tourism and the development of plant-based products. He published a world checklist of useful plants, a virtually boundless, searchable database of species that supply food, medicine, fiber and fuel, or help mitigate the effects of climate change.
“Science is there, of course, to investigate, to understand nature, but also to help us protect the planet and improve our quality of life,” he said on a recent tour of the New York Botanical Garden’s science facilities, which are clustered, away from main walkways, in the northernmost corner of its 250-acre campus. “What I need to do now is figure out how this institution can respond better to these challenges.”
Dr. Diazgranado’s offices are in the garden’s glass-walled plant research laboratory, nestled in an old-growth oak forest. Here, researchers draw on collections of resins, seeds and plants preserved in spirits or in silica powder, along with vast banks of DNA samples and plant chemicals. “There’s a big range of work going on in here,” he said. “From understanding fruit and seed evolution and adaptation of plants to marginal habitats, to the potential consequences of climate change, all the way to diversification in the neotropics.”
Steps away in the garden’s stately, vaultlike herbarium complex, glass doors swished open to reveal a staff delicately laboring to press, label and glue onto acid-free paper the fruits of botanical fieldwork; on this day, it was one scientist’s haul from Peru. Nearly eight million specimens are stored in the herbarium, among them the leaves of frailejones that Dr. Diazgranados collected as a young researcher; about 40,000 more arrive every year from scientists in the field or from other institutions. The bridge between the botanical garden as a public attraction and a research facility is its living collection, whose plants are routinely sampled to help answer questions in plant genetics, structure and evolution.
As Dr. Diazgranados gets to know the botanical garden’s collections and talent, he keeps envisioning ways that both could be brought to bear on more human problems, like food security, air quality and human health. He feels at home in an institution whose daily research labors require him to be in constant contact with Latin America, as well as in this part of the Bronx, where Spanish is spoken on every block. “Cultural diversity is becoming a key aspect of American culture,” he said. “This is an institution fully committed to that. But having a Colombian chief science officer is a great opportunity to open the doors even wider, to have more interaction.”
He is finding the garden full of scientific treasures, many of which have not been made fully available to the research community. “I see opportunities everywhere,” he said. “Everywhere.” There are slides to be digitized and shared with botanists all over the world; an economic botany collection, comprising artifacts and products made from plants, that needs to be taken out of storage and studied; and staff botanists whose taxonomic expertise might be invaluable to an ecological restoration effort, whether in Westchester County or the Amazon.
“This is the time for institutions like N.Y.B.G. to start providing solutions to the world,” he said. “We just cannot keep doing the science as we are used to doing. Can we keep going into the field, bringing in and describing new species while the whole world is tearing apart and burning? While we have smoke coming into Manhattan from all the fires?”
He aims to expand the science program into new areas, pointing to the garden’s recent hiring of Brad Oberle, a botanist who will work “on functional traits of plants that allow us to investigate, for instance, carbon sequestration and how we can use plants to fight against climate change.” Another key new hire, who came on at the same time as Dr. Diazgranados, is Eric Sanderson, previously of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the garden’s first vice president for urban conservation strategy.
In Bogotá, Dr. Diazgranados once discovered a small population of a local sunflower species, long thought to be extinct, growing in a suburban wetland. His staff propagated the flowers and promoted them as an ornamental plants. And now, he said, they can be seen all over that city. Lately a team in the Bronx, including Dr. Sanderson and Robert Naczi, an expert in New York flora, have been investigating the hop sedge, a plant that once grew prolifically on the banks of the Bronx River. It’s a species that can stabilize waterfronts and serve as a buffer against increasingly frequent floods. “This is not one of those species that Home Depot is going to provide to the city, because they have no idea it exists,” Dr. Diazgranados said. “Who has the knowledge? We do.”
Over lunch of a veggie burger in the garden’s restaurant — Dr. Diazgranados is a lifelong vegetarian — the litany of goals continued. The botanical garden is leading three dozen field projects worldwide, and he would like to see more drones and artificial intelligence employed in that fieldwork. His team has been training laser-imaging technology on dried herbarium specimens, seeing whether it can be combined with face recognition algorithms to correctly identify their live counterparts.
“And did you know you can do DNA analysis in the field?” Dr. Diazgranados said. There are devices being developed that allow someone to sample a piece of a plant and get a polymerase chain reaction on the spot, he explained, adding that he dreamed of a device that could also recognize the genetic sequences of species and read out their names. How much more ground could be covered, how many species logged, how much time saved? Botanists like him have always been few, he noted — and you can’t always have the world expert on every plant family along with you.
Dr. Diazgranados is working on a book on frailejones; he is now the world’s living authority. His work, once focused on their diversity and geography, has lately come to focus more on their function — how they store water in their crowns and how their presence or absence affects the hydrology of páramo ecosystems, which are threatened by warming climates and agriculture. “I still need to publish a few new species as well,” and finish some genomic analyses, he said. But those projects might end up on a back burner as he develops his strategy for the garden’s research, which includes elevating its profile.
In recent years, Dr. Diazgranados took it upon himself to make one in every 10 Colombians aware of an ambitious project, which he led from Kew, to identify the country’s fungi species and find different and novel uses for them. He hired a bilingual spokeswoman, created channels on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube and got 50 articles published in news outlets. “And we did it,” he said, gloating just slightly. “I’ll show you the numbers.”
He doesn’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that the average American might soon know more about the science happening at the New York Botanical Garden. In two or three years, “you’ll be getting your coffee and hear on NPR that ‘scientists at N.Y.B.G. have made a big discovery’ — that’s another goal,” he said, and ran off to a meeting.