Nanuza Luiza de Menezes: A passion for plants

Nanuza Luiza de Menezes: A passion for plants

A pioneer in research on the plants of the Serra do Cipó mountains helped establish plant anatomy as a field of study in Brazil


Holding the shovel she always takes on field trips, Menezes poses in front of the majestic Panama tree planted accidentally in front of the auditorium of the Botany Department in the year she was hired at USP

Anyone who has received an undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of São Paulo (USP) in the past five decades knows that plants of the family Velloziaceae, such as tree-lilies, are the most beautiful in the world, and that the rocky grasslands of the Serra do Cipó mountains, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, offer the most spectacular scenery. This information, though hardly impartial, accompanies the colorful stories that Nanuza Luiza de Menezes likes to tell.

Unceasingly enthusiastic, Menezes still has no thoughts of giving up research, or her students. In 2004, as she continued to work despite having reached mandatory retirement age, she was elected to the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. She was the only woman among 25 inductees. That same week, she was presented with the title of citizen of Santana do Riacho, a town of scarcely more than 4,000 residents that is home to Serra do Cipó National Park, which her support helped to establish. Of these two honors, the reception she was given in that small town—where residents were enthralled by the nature slides from the surrounding area that she projected onto a white wall—may have been the more thrilling experience.

Menezes was one of the first people to study plant anatomy in Brazil, but she was not content just to describe the structures she viewed under the microscope; she wanted to understand how they functioned in an evolutionary context. In that pursuit, she helped explain how Velloziaceae (a family of flowering plants) survive in soil that does not retain water, along with other aspects of a diverse array of plants. An educator first and foremost, she is cut from the same cloth as many of the plant anatomists active in Brazil today.

Plant anatomy
Natural History (undergraduate), Biological Sciences – Botany (Master’s and PhD), at USP
Biosciences Institute, USP
Scientific Production:
69 scientific articles, 2 books, 10 book chapters. Advised 17 Master’s and 21 PhD students










In 1963, the year she began working at USP, someone brought a few seeds for Aylthon Brandão Joly—the professor responsible for hiring her—to identify. They were seeds of the Panama tree, from the Atlantic Forest. Some time later, Menezes spied a seedling growing on the site where that consultation had taken place, and concluded that one of the seeds must have fallen onto the ground that day and germinated. Quite coincidentally, it was under that same tree that we took her photograph.

At the age of 80 as of 2014, you still don’t appear to have room for retirement in your plans.
I reached mandatory retirement age in 2004 and I still teach undergraduate classes, in which we take the students to the Serra do Cipó mountains. We have a laboratory/van equipped with microscopes and air conditioning. The kids love the trip and my stories so much that they’ve insisted I write about my early childhood and my life as a botanist, along with plant anatomy. I’m currently writing three books. I’ve also just finished advising my last master’s student.

And now you’re going to Recife?
I was invited by the Federal University of Pernambuco. I’ll be teaching graduate students, on a two-year grant. If I like it, I’ll move there, bag and baggage.

You were already a plant lover as a young girl?
Yes. Our house was in Botucatu, and my father used to plant all kinds of things in the back yard. I asked if I could have a plot for planting my own things, and he let me.

What did you plant?
I bought seeds to grow lettuce and carrots. I would burst with pride, watching them grow and seeing my father eating things from my garden. I would ask him, didn’t he want to add some seasoning, and he’d say it was delicious just the way it was. I must have been eight or nine. At 14, I saw the ocean for the first time and fell in love. I used to collect little creatures.

And how did you get involved in plant anatomy, being a lover of little creatures?
By chance. I was teaching in the Caxingui neighborhood of São Paulo State, at the Virgília Rodrigues Alves de Carvalho Pinto high school. To anyone coming in off the highway, it was the first state school, a little before you get to Butantã. It was far away, since I lived in the Planalto Paulista neighborhood and taught classes in the morning, afternoon and evening in Caxingui and at two other schools. One year I was class sponsor for 10 fourth-year classes.

And what brought you here to USP?
In 1962 they opened up 200 slots, including in my school, but I had to rank in the top three to get the job. I came to USP to do a practical exam and [Aylthon Brandão] Joly, who had been my professor, saw me and gave me a call. He said he had an opening in botany and invited me. I said I was happy teaching classes and that I’d never thought about working in botany. Joly suggested that I work with marine algae, because when I went looking for them, I’d find my little creatures. There were a lot of tears when I left the school, as the kids had lit candles in support of my success in the competition. The day I got here, Joly told me there were a lot of people working with algae in Brazil, at least 10 of them. But in anatomy, there was just Bertha [Lange de Morretes] in São Paulo and [Fernando] Milanez in Rio de Janeiro. And Brazil needed anatomists, he said. I just about cried. He realized how disappointed I was and said that when there was an opening to work with algae, I’d come work with him. I had no choice.

You had never imagined looking at the insides of plants.
Joly told me there were certain families of Brazilian plants that nobody knew anything about, such as Eriocaulaceae, Velloziaceae and Ericaceae. I went and looked in Martius [the book Flora brasiliensis, edited in the 19th century by Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, August Wilhelm Eichler and Ignatz Urban], and when I saw a Vellozia, I was dazzled—what a beautiful plant! I discovered that they existed in a region called Serra do Cipó in Minas Gerais, and in Rio de Janeiro. I went to Rio first to talk with Graziela Barroso at the Botanical Garden. She took me to see a Vellozia in bloom and told me that if I wanted to work with them, I should go to Minas. I could take a bus from São Paulo to Belo Horizonte, catch another bus there, get off on the side of the road, and at kilometer 92 there was an inn called Chapéu de Sol. When I got up in the morning, I’d see a Vellozia paradise. Coincidentally, my colleague Walter Handro was going with the students to Paraopeba, in that same area. I went running off to join them.

So they were already going there?
No one was going to Serra do Cipó, but they took me there. It was raining so hard that you couldn’t see mountains or anything when we got there. The next day, we woke up in fog. At kilometer 114 on the highway, suddenly the fog lifted and I could see the Vellozias, tree-lilies, all in bloom. It lasted just an hour, and then the fog settled in again and I couldn’t see anything. I had an hour to see what the mountains looked like.

But that didn’t stop you from going back?
It was pure luck. I remember the day. It was December 8, 1964. I went back, wanting to take another trip to collect material. Ivan Sazima, who was a student, offered to take photos and drive. It the time, women weren’t allowed to drive. I learned later that I was the first woman in São Paulo to drive an official car. I went to the president’s office with a request, and from there it went to the state governor, who approved it. After that, any woman could drive an official car.

With her brothers and sisters (third from right)

With her brothers and sisters (third from right)

That’s when you started working, collecting and doing anatomy?
I was already doing anatomy of Vellozias. It was a beautiful plant, and the inside of the leaf is a marvel.

What was special about it?
It was different from anything we had ever seen. When I started studying anatomy, I would take a plant and examine its interior. But when I cut a Vellozia in bloom, I fell in love. It grows on rocks, the green leaves fall and the sheaths remain around it. The adventitious roots go from the apex to the base, inside the sheaths. They live in the ever-present night-time fog, and they don’t need a lot of nutrients. The air brings in pollen grains, fungal spores, and ash from fires carried in droplets of mist, and that’s enough. Six months later, Joly told me he had an opening in algae. “Now I’m the one who doesn’t want to do it,” I said. I had come to the conclusion that we don’t like what we don’t know. A stone can be unbelievable when we understand the system by which each tiny grain crystallizes. I was discovering beautiful things in the Vellozias and I realized I wanted to be an anatomist. He never forgave me. Because up to that point, people working on anatomy would just cut and sketch, cut and sketch. I began to question why it was like that. Why had it stayed that way? I decided to study development.

It was a functional approach.
Yes. I realized it was important to understand development. For example, I saw that in a structure like a petal of a Vellozia flower, all the vascularization comes out of the petal or the sepal. Nothing to do with the stamens, as they used to say. “What should I call this?” I asked Joly. He said he didn’t understand anything about anatomy, but he suggested I look for a structure called a corona in the Amaryllidaceae family. I saw that it was the same thing, and I started calling it a corona. I also described a structure—transfusion tracheids—in the leaves of the Vellozia that distinguish them from all other angiosperms. Tracheids are cells that correspond to lateral extensions of the zylem. If there is water available, the plant opens the channels where the stomata are, in the leaves. During dry periods, the channels close and no water is lost. That way, the water moves along faster. In the same way I fell in love with Vellozias, I became more and more fascinated by the Serra do Cipó. I started inviting everyone to go there, including Joly. One day, at a conference in Paraíba, he said I should come to the session on algae where he was going to talk. He was going to say goodbye to phycology, because he had decided to change fields and work on surveying the flora in the Serra do Cipó. I nearly died crying.

How do you explain the importance of anatomy to someone who’s not in that field?
Anatomy is important for knowing the intimate details of a plant. After we started doing vascularization studies, there were a lot of changes made in plant taxonomy. The other day, while examining a Rutaceae along with [USP botanist José Rubens] Pirani, I asked if there were any species with more stamens in the flowers, as indicated by vestiges of a vascularization that I observed. The next day, he told me there is a plant in Australia with several stamens. That is so fantastic!

Anatomy offers an evolutionary perspective.
Exactly. You can follow all the changes. I’ll give you an example. In Vellozia leaves, the sap is conducted through bundles with two phloems and one xylem, while in all the other monocotyledons, each bundle consists of one xylem and one phloem inside the bundle sheath. After studying the evolution of the vascular bundle in several groups of Vellozia, I concluded that one of their ancestors must have had two strands of xylem and phloem within the same sheath. I discovered this when I was an associate professor in 1984. In 1994 I learned of the discovery of a new plant in China. I asked them to send me a leaf to cut, so I could see whether or not it was a Vellozia. When I cut it, I ran out into the hallway shouting, “It’s the ancestor!” The vascular system, which transports water and sap, has two complete bundles, with protoxylem, metaxylem, protophloem and metaphloem.

With students in the Serra do Cipó in 2007, alongside a Vellozia gigantea, a species she discovered

With students in the Serra do Cipó in 2007, alongside a Vellozia gigantea, a species she discovered

You also showed that the aerial roots of mangrove trees, or rhizophora, are not roots at all. How did that discovery come about?
I spent years teaching that they were aerial roots, but I had never studied the anatomy. One day our team offered an elective subject, and we played a little trick. It involved collecting and comparing plants from mangrove stands, restinga coastal habitats, the Atlantic Forest, and dune habitats. We dug up plants to photograph and put them back again. I suggested that we bring a young Rhizophora mangle plant to USP, one that already had “aerial roots,” because a few students in the night course weren’t able to go on that trip. I hinted to my colleagues that I would start with the roots.

It seemed like a simple thing….
I left the aerial roots with one of the students and went off to get a coffee. When I came back and looked, I said he had cut a stem, not a root. “No, Professor Menezes, I got it from this bottle of root,” he replied. I picked up the living plant, told him where to make a cut, and examined it. “Who says this is a root? It’s a stem.” The first person to describe the species in 1780 thought it was a root system but didn’t do any anatomical analysis. And that’s the way it remained. [Philip Barry] Tomlinson at Harvard used to say it was a root, but with several exceptions, including the fact that it has endarch differentiation—protoxylem inside metaxylem—and all roots have external protoxylem. Xylem and phloem form vascular bundles, and a root does not form a bundle. They have an exogenous origin, and all roots have an endogenous origin. Everything was an exception. It was, in fact, a stem, with a single exception: positive geotropism, meaning it grows down into the earth. I called it a rhizophore because I had already described a similar structure in 1977, in Vernonia from the Serra do Cipó. In 1994 I brought that paper to a conference in Japan.

Why wasn’t the paper published until 2006?
I sent it to several international journals, including the Journal of the Linnean Society in England, where I’ve been a Fellow since 1979. They all rejected it. It was ultimately signed under the name P. B. Tomlinson.

He was the reviewer on all the other submissions?
Exactly, and on that last submission, he signed it as if to say: you’ll never publish this outside of Brazil. Fortunately, when I got into the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, they asked if I had a paper ready to publish in their journal Anais da Academia. I told them I had one ready, and it was published two months later.

In addition to anatomy, you’ve also gotten involved in conservation, right?
In the 1970s, the governor wanted to build an airport in Caucaia do Alto. It meant tearing out Atlantic Forest vegetation. Our water supply comes from there, from the higher elevations. Dr. Paulo Nogueira-Neto, who was secretary of the environment, told me what was going on and requested that it not be allowed. I called a meeting with five other conservationists. We invited the TV and radio media and said they were trying to wipe out an extremely important native forest. Over 500 people showed up; 16 environmental protection associations were there. Reporters started seeking us out. Someone pointed out that a city councilman had said the vegetation in Caucaia do Alto was brushwood, not Atlantic Forest. My response was that he was a big ignoramus who didn’t know a thing about vegetation. But the person who had said it was brushwood was not the councilman; it was the governor, Paulo Egydio Martins. This was during the height of the dictatorship. The next day, the governor’s statement and my reply were on the front page of the afternoon newspaper. Everything I had said was true, but I didn’t know it was the governor. If I had known, I would have said, “The governor needs to be better informed.” The airport is now in Guarulhos, thanks to that first victory. Then came the battle against pollution from Cubatão.

What was that like?
There was a period of time when I didn’t take any trips to Paranapiacaba, at the top of the Santos mountains, and when I went back, I noticed that the forest wasn’t so wonderful anymore, because of pollution from Cubatão. So I started a campaign to fight pollution, and the polluting companies ended up having to install filters. It will never be the same, but the forest has recovered. After that they started calling me for every campaign. They wanted to tear down the Modernist House, near Santa Cruz Station, to build some buildings. I talked with the former governor, Franco Montoro, and asked him to ask Governor Mário Covas to go there. Covas arrived at 10:00 on Sunday morning. It was a spectacle, and they saved it from demolition. The Modernist House is still there. Some time later there was a reserve in Itanhaém, on the southern coast of São Paulo State, that they wanted to destroy. There I went. They were going to build the Tamoios Highway, so I went to São Sebastião. After that I gave notice that I couldn’t do it anymore. There were a lot of other conservationists around, and I needed to put those activities aside.

And what about the Serra do Cipó National Park?
Joly and I put together the documentation testifying to the importance of Serra do Cipó. Aureliano Chaves [governor of Minas Gerais at the time] established the park in 1975. Unfortunately, Joly died in August. He had been very ill, and he wasn’t there to see it. The park wasn’t implemented until 10 years later. The inauguration plaque says: September 27, 1984—the day I turned 50, by pure coincidence!

With Burle Marx, a shared passion for plants

With Burle Marx, a shared passion for plants

You were friends with the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. How did you meet him?
When I found out he was crazy about Velloziaceae, I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet him. So I asked Graziela Barroso to introduce me to Roberto and tell him I worked with the tree-lilies he was so fond of. Being friends with Roberto has been one of the best things in my life. He had an incredible passion for plants. One day I suggested giving a class on plants to his team of gardeners, and he was first in line. When I took a flower, opened it up, showed them the ovules in the ovary under a magnifying glass and said that the pollen falls into stigma and germinates, he cried. He cried with emotion.

What is the Burle Marx Foundation?
Some architects who worked with him, as well as myself, told Roberto that if he wanted those plants to be preserved, someone needed to care for them. If he turned it over to the government, it would be protected for the rest of his life. That led to the formation of the board of the Roberto Burle Marx Foundation, which I’ve chaired for a number of years.

Did you go with him to the Serra do Cipó?
In 1993, he said he didn’t want to have a birthday party; he wanted to take a trip with a few friends who were coming from abroad. I was the one who planned the trip. We went to Serra do Cipó and the Serra do Grão Mogol mountains, came out through Bahia and came back home. He only liked it if I was driving, and he said it was the most beautiful trip of his life, a year before he died. He used to say that everything was more beautiful with me, because I showed him things. “Look at that gland, look at that plant, what a wondrous thing.” I always had a magnifying glass with me, and I showed him things. He adored it. He used to say that if he had enough time, he’d study biology along with me.

Do you still go to Serra do Cipó?
Oh, yes. We have that course. There are 45 slots and over 90 candidates. My colleagues think I’m indispensable on those trips. I tell stories about my life, my childhood. We have a lot of fun.

Is the wood collection at the Biosciences Institute at USP named after you?
Yes, it is. I thought, I’m so happy working with Velloziaceae, but how meaningful is that for Brazil? I went to the IPT [São Paulo Institute for Technological Research] to learn wood anatomy, and I decided to teach it. For four years I would go to Manaus, and stay for a month as part of the graduate program at INPA [National Institute for Research on the Amazon. I taught about wood and underground systems, such as tubercules, which serve a feeding function. I was still working with my Vellozias, but I taught what I thought was useful for Brazil. Everyone who works with wood started with me, or with someone who started with me. The first wood anatomist in Brazil was Verônica Angyalossy, my first PhD student.

Many botanists have paid you homage. How many species are named after you?
A ton. Vellozia nanuzae, Barbacenia nanuzae, and there’s a genus of Velloziaceae called Nanuza. And several others.

Animals too?
There’s a tree frog, Bokermannohyla nanuzae. I tell my students that I’ve even become the name of a frog. A professor in Argentina studies two genera of the family Turneraceae: Turnera and Piriqueta. Can you guess which one she chose to give my name to? Piriqueta! I told this story at a conference in Manaus, and the whole auditorium burst out laughing! I explained to her that in Brazil, periquita [vagina] and perereca [frog] are the same thing.

But jokes aren’t the only thing that make you successful, are they?
No. Recently I was at the Inhotim Contemporary Art Center and Botanical Garden in Minas Gerais, after a conference. I ran into a young man who said that, if he’d known I was coming there, he would have asked me to give the same talk I gave at the conference. I had my pen drive with me, so I said I was available. On weekends, Inhotim gets about 3,500 visitors a day. They have an auditorium that holds 500 people. He went on the loudspeaker, filled the auditorium, and there were still people left outside. It was the first time I’ve given a talk to laypeople, and I showed them the plants of Serra do Cipó. When I finished, they gave me a standing ovation. A man came up with tears in his eyes, and with him were his wife, his son, his daughter, and his granddaughter. He said his granddaughter just had to become a biologist.

You have no plans to stop?
I have a gluten intolerance, and I found this out when I was 79. I was having some little problem, I don’t remember what, and my nephew said I should go see a friend of his, a Japanese doctor who is wonderful. He had a system in which he placed electrodes on the tips of your fingers and read the results on a computer right then and there, and he said I was gluten and lactose intolerant. After that I went to my own physician and told him what the other doctor had said. I asked him if I’d have to stop eating bread, which I love and have eaten all my life. He said I had eaten it all my life, why stop now? As if to say, “You’ll be dying soon anyway.” I thanked him, went back to the Japanese doctor and asked him what would happen if I didn’t stop eating bread. He said I’d reach 90 as lucid as I am now. And what if I stopped? He said I’d live past 100 and be just as healthy and lucid. Can you guess what I did? I stopped!

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