Book Review: Rambunctious Garden

Last month in a post entitled Making the Case for Saving Species, I reviewed an article written by Emma Marris about doing all we can to prevent species from going extinct, even when the approach is not a popular one – like introducing rust resistant genes into native whitebark pine populations. Intrigued by Marris’ words, I decided to finally read her book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild Word, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for several months and had been on my list of books to read for at least a couple of years before that. At only 171 pages, Marris’ book is a quick read and comes across as an introduction to some sort of revolution. Its brevity demands future volumes, which are hopefully on their way.

rambunctious garden

The general topic that Marris addresses is how to do conservation work in a world that is riddled with human fingerprints, especially coming from a perspective that human influence is and has been largely negative. What should our goals be? The traditional approach has been to restore natural areas to a historical baseline. In North America, that baseline is usually pre-European colonization. So, we remove introduced species and we use whatever records we have and data we can gather to make natural areas look and function as they did several hundred years ago.

But there are some concerns with this approach. Rewinding time requires massive amounts of money, labor, and time, and if that historical baseline is ever achieved, it will require great effort to keep it there. Also, a number of species have gone extinct and there is no way of replacing them (unless we introduce similar species as proxies), and some species require large areas to roam that even our most spacious parks cannot accommodate. And then there is the challenge of continual change. Anthropogenic climate change aside (which complicates conservation and restoration efforts in serious ways), the earth’s ecosystems are in a constant state of flux, so holding a site to a pre-determined baseline makes little sense when viewed from a geological timescale.

There is another issue – which is in part a semantic one – and that is, we seem to have a distorted view of nature. We like to think of it as being apart from us, away from us, somewhere wild and pristine. Marris writes: “We imagine a place, somewhere distant, wild and free, a place with no people and no roads and no fences and no power lines, untouched by humanity’s great grubby hands, unchanging except for the season’s turn. This dream of pristine wilderness haunts us. It blinds us.”

We are blinded because “pristine” is a myth. Every inch of the globe has been altered in some way by humans – some areas more than others – and disconnecting ourselves from nature in a way that makes it unattainable deters us from the perception that nature can be all around us. Nature is not found only in national parks, nature preserves, and other protected areas, but in our backyards, on our rooftops, along roadsides, in the cracks of concrete, and in farm fields. Nature is everywhere. And if nature is everywhere, then conservation can happen everywhere.

After a brief overview of how we (Americans specifically) arrived at our current approach to conservation and restoration, Marris dives into some new approaches, visiting sites around the world and talking with biologists and ecologists about their work.  She explores rewilding (Pleistocene rewilding even), assisted migration, embracing exotic species, novel ecosystems, and designer ecosystems. The subject matter of each chapter in Marris’ book is worthy of a post or two of its own, but I’ll spare you that and suggest that you read the book. The controversy that surrounds these novel approaches is also worth noting. A few searches and clicks on the internet will lead you to some fairly heated debates about the ideas that Marris puts forth in her book, as well as some criticisms of Marris herself.

Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia) - a critically endangered tree species native to a tiny corner in the southeastern United States that is not likely to survive the coming decades in the wild without assisted migration.

Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia) – a critically endangered tree species native to a tiny corner in the southeastern United States that is not likely to survive the coming decades in the wild without assisted migration. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

My view as an outsider – that is, one without a high level degree in ecology and lacking years of experience working in the field – is that the tools and methods outlined in Marris’ book are worth exploring further. Certainly, each natural area must be approached differently depending on the conditions of the site and the goals of the managers. [Marris offers a great overview of some goals to consider in her last chapter.] Ultimately it is up to people much smarter and more experienced than I to sort it all out. But I heartily encourage thinking outside of the box…for whatever it’s worth.

And that brings me to what I loved most about the book. Controversy aside, Marris’ clarion call for a paradigm shift is a welcome one. Nature is all around us, and regardless of what land managers and the powers that be decide to do with large tracts of land “out there,” every individual can find purpose and beauty in the nature that surrounds them, whether it be the street trees that line our neighborhoods or the vacant lot growing wild with weeds down the street. We can decide to let our yards go a little feral, to plant some native plants, to encourage wildlife in urban areas, and to even do a little assisted migration of our own by planting things from nearby regions just to see how they will do in our changing climate. In short, we can garden a bit more rambunctiously. And we should.

This is how Marris puts it:

If we fight to preserve only things that look like pristine wilderness, such as those places currently enclosed in national parks and similar refuges, our best efforts can only retard their destruction and delay the day we lose. If we fight to preserve and enhance nature as we have newly defined it, as the living background to human lives, we may be able to win. We may be able to grow nature larger than it currently is. This will not only require a change in our values but a change in our very aesthetics, as we learn to accept both nature that looks a little more lived-in than we are used to and working spaces that look a little more wild than we are used to.

Read a short interview with Marris about her book here, and listen to a discussion with her on a recent episode of Out There podcast.

Weeds and Wildflowers of the Boise Foothills: June 2015

Boise, Idaho is a beautiful city for many reasons. One feature that makes it particularly attractive are the foothills that flank the city from the southeast to the northwest. The foothills are a transition zone to the mountains that lie to the northeast. Large sections of the foothills have been converted to housing, but much of the area remains as wide open space. There are around 150 miles of trails winding through the foothills that can be accessed from the Boise area. These trails are used frequently by hikers, mountain bikers, dog walkers, bird watchers, trail runners, and horseback riders. The foothills, along with so many other nearby attractions, explains why Boise is such an excellent city for those who love outdoor recreation.

boise foothills trail

I feel embarrassed to say that I had not yet made it into the foothills this year until about a couple weeks ago. I had intended to go for more frequent hikes this year, but life has been in the way. What I was especially curious to see was how the plant life in the foothills changes throughout the year. Because Boise is located in a high desert and receives very little precipitation (especially during the summer months), many of the local wildflowers show themselves in the spring when there is moisture in the soil, after which they wither up and go dormant for the rest of the year.

But there is still lots to see in June. However, it should be noted that when you are hiking in the foothills you must develop an appreciation for weeds, as many of the plants you will see are not native to this area and, in many cases, are in much greater abundance than the plants that are. Species brought in from Europe and Asia have become well established in the Boise Foothills, significantly altering the area’s ecology. One of the major changes has been wildfire frequency. Before weeds like cheatgrass – an annual, shallow-rooted grass imported from Europe – became so prolific in the area, fires were rare, slow moving, and isolated. The continuous, quick burning fuel source provided by dead cheatgrass heightens the risk of more frequent, faster moving, widespread fires, especially in the hot, dry summer months. This threatens plant species that are not adapted to frequent fires.

But this post isn’t about the ecology of the foothills. We can save that for another time. For now, I just wanted to share some of the plants I saw – both native and non-native – on my short walk through a very tiny corner of the Boise Foothills earlier this month.

The trail that I hiked is one of several trails in an area of the Boise Foothills called Hulls Gulch Reserve.

The trail that I hiked is one of several trails in an area of the Boise Foothills called Hulls Gulch Reserve.

 

Bachelor's Buttons (Centaurea cyanus) are native to Europe. They are a common cultivated flower and have escaped from yards into the foothills. They are quite attractive and popular among pollinators. Their flowers and stems are edible so perhaps we should all take to eating them.

Bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus) are native to Europe. They are a common cultivated flower and have escaped from yards into the foothills. They are quite attractive and popular among pollinators. Their flowers and stems are edible, so perhaps we should all take to eating them.

 

Silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastate) - a foothills native that is also a pollinator favorite.

Silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastata) – a foothills native and a pollinator favorite.

 

Pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida) - a foothills native pollinated by nocturnal moths.

Pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida) – a foothills native pollinated by nocturnal moths.

 

Medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusa) is an invasive annual grass from Eurasia. It has an ecological impact similar to cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum).

Medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae) is an invasive annual grass from Eurasia. It has an ecological impact similar to cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum).

 

The fruits of nineleaf biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum), a spring flowering plant in the carrot family (Apiaceae).

The fruits of nineleaf biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum), a native spring wildflower in the carrot family (Apiaceae).

 

Fruits forming on antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), one of several shrubs native to the Boise Foothills.

Fruits forming on antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), one of several shrubs native to the Boise Foothills.

 

Rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), a native shrub that flowers in late summer.

Rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), a native shrub that flowers in late summer.

 

Lichens on the branch of basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tirdentata sbsp. tridentata) another common native shrub.

Lichens on the branches of basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. tridentata), another common native shrub.

 

Tall tumblemustard (Sisymbrium altissimum) an introduced species and one of many tumbleweed species in the western states.

Tall tumblemustard (Sisymbrium altissimum) – an introduced species and one of many tumbleweed species in the western states.

 

Little spider atop the flowers of western yarrow (Achilea millefolium), a foothills native.

A little spider atop flowers of western yarrow (Achilea millefolium var. occidentalis), a foothills native.

Learn more about the Boise Foothills here and here.

Where have you been hiking lately?

Year of Pollination: Stamen Movement in the Flowers of Prickly Pears

Last week I made an effort to convince you to add a prickly pear or two to your water-wise gardens. One standout reason to do this is their strikingly beautiful flowers. Apart from being lovely to look at, many prickly pear flowers have a distinct feature that makes them quite fascinating. A demonstration of this feature can be seen in the following video.

 

Stamen movement in response to touch is a characteristic of many species in the genus Opuntia. It isn’t exclusive to Opuntia, however, and can also be seen in Berberis vulgaris, Portulaca grandiflora, Talinum patens, among others. Knowing this makes me want to touch the stamens of any flower I can find just to see what will happen.

The response of stamens to touch has been known for at least a few centuries, but recent research is helping us gain a better understanding of how and why this phenomenon occurs. In general, this movement is thought to assist in the process of cross-pollination. In some cases it may also aid in self-pollination. Additionally, it can have the effect of protecting pollen and nectar from “robbers” (insects that visit flowers to consume these resources but that do not provide a pollination service). Quite a bit of research has been done on this topic, so to simplify things I will be focusing on a paper published in a 2013 issue of the journal, Flora.

In their paper entitled, Intriguing thigmonastic (sensitive) stamens in the plains prickly pear, Cota-Sanchez, et al. studied the flowers of numerous Opuntia polyacantha individuals found in three populations south of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Their objective was to “build basic knowledge about this rather unique staminal movement in plants and its putative role in pollination.” They did this by conducting two separate studies. The first involved observing flower phenology and flower visitors and determining whether the staminal movement is a nasty (movement in a set direction independent of the external stimulus) or a tropism (movement in the direction of the external stimulus). The second involved using high-powered microscopes to analyze the morphology of the stamens to determine any anatomical traits involved in this movement. While the results of the second study are interesting, for the purposes of this post I have chosen to focus only on the findings of the first study.

An important note about the flowers of O. polyacantha is that they are generally protandrous, meaning that the anthers of a single flower release pollen before the stigmas of that same flower are receptive. This encourages cross-pollination. An individual flower is only in bloom for about 12 hours (sometimes as long as 30 hours), however flowering doesn’t occur all at once. The plants in this study flowered for several weeks (from the second week of June to the middle of July).

To determine whether the staminal movement is a nasty or a tropism, the researchers observed insects visiting the flowers. They also manually stimulated the stamens with various objects including small twigs, pencils, and fingers, touching either the inner sides of the filaments (facing the style) or the outer sides (facing the petals). In every observation, the stamens moved in the same direction, “inwards and towards the central part of the flower.” This “consistent unidirectional movement, independent of the area stimulated” led the researchers to categorize the staminal movement of O. polyacantha as thigmonastic. They also observed that staminal movement slowed as the blooming period of an individual flower was coming to an end – “and finally when all the anthers had dehisced, the anthers rested in a clustered position, marking the end of anthesis.” Furthermore, it was observed that “filaments move relatively faster in sunny, warm conditions as opposed to cloudy, cold and rainy days.”

The researchers went on to discuss unique features of the stamens of O. polyacantha. Specifically, the lower anthers contain significantly more pollen than the upper anthers. When the stamens are stimulated, their movement towards the center of the flower results in the lower anthers becoming hidden below the upper anthers. They also noted that small insects less than 5 millimeters in size did not trigger stamen movement. Further observations of the insect vistors helped explain these phenomena.

SAMSUNG

A “broad diversity of insects” was observed visiting the flowers, from a variety of bees (bumblebees, honeybees, sweat bees, and mining bees) to bee flies, beetles, and ants. The large bees  were determined to be the effective pollinators of this species of prickly pear. Their large weight and size allows them to push down through the upper anthers to the more pollen-abundant anthers below. After feeding on pollen and nectar, they climb out from the stamens and up to the stigma where they take off, leaving the flower and depositing pollen as they go. Because the bees are visiting numerous flowers in a single flight and the flowers they visit are protandrous, pollen can be transferred from one flower to another and self-pollination can be avoided.

Beetles were observed to be the most common visitors to the flowers; however, they were not seen making contact with the stigma and instead simply fed on pollen and left. Ants also commonly visit the flowers but largely remain outside of the petals, feeding from “extranuptial nectaries.” In short, beetles and ants are not recognized as reliable pollinators of this plant.

Similar results involving two other Opuntia species were found by Clemens Schlindwein and Dieter Wittmann. You can read about their study here.

There are lots of flower anatomy terms in this post. Refresh your memory by visiting another Awkward Botany post: 14 Botanical Terms for Flower Anatomy.

Recently I received a note from a reader requesting that I include a link to subscribe to this blog’s RSS Feed. I have now made that available, and it can be found at the top of the sidebar.

Drought Tolerant Plants: Prickly Pears

In the introduction to this series about drought tolerant plants, I defended water efficient gardens by claiming they don’t have to be the “cacti-centric” gardens that many visualize upon hearing terms like “xeriscape,” “water-wise,” and “drought tolerant.” And this is absolutely true. However, that won’t stop me from suggesting that such landscapes include a cactus or two. Despite their menacing and potentially dangerous spines, they are actually quite beautiful, and a cactus in bloom is really a sight to behold. Together with a variety of grasses, herbaceous flowering plants, and shrubs, cactus can add unique forms, textures, and focal points that will enhance the look and function of a water-wise garden. This is why I recommend considering cactus, particularly (as far as this post is concerned) one of the many varieties of prickly pears.

The cactus family (Cactaceae) has a native range that is limited to the Americas. Within that range it is expansive, and cactus species can be found in diverse regions from Canada down to Patagonia. The genus Opuntia (the prickly pears) is the most widespread of any genus in the cactus family consisting of at least 300 species found throughout the Americas. Even a brief investigation into Opuntia will reveal that there is considerable controversy as to how many species there actually are and what to call them. This is partly due to the large ranges that species in this genus can have and the diverse habitats they can be found in within those ranges, resulting in a single species having many forms, varieties, and/or subspecies. Hybridization is also common in this genus where ranges overlap, augmenting the challenge of identification.

Generally, prickly pears have flattened stems with spines and glochids emerging from small bumps called areoles. Their flowers are large, showy and a shade of either yellow, orange, or pink and sometimes white. They form fruits that are either fleshy and juicy with a red or purple hue or hard, dry and a shade of brown or tan. The flattened stems are called pads or cladodes and can be quite large in some species, while diminutive and sometimes rounded in others. Some species are without spines, but all have glochids – tiny, barbed, hair-like structures found in clusters on the stems and fruits. While the spines can be painful when they penetrate skin, the glochids are far more irritating as they easily detach themselves from the plant and work their way into the skin of their victims. The fleshy fruits, called tunas, can be eaten after first taking care to remove the glochid-infested outer layer. The young stems of many species can also be eaten – they are referred to as nopales and are common in Mexican cuisine.

Flowers of Opuntia sp. with bee inside flower on the left

Flowers of Opuntia sp. with bee inside flower on the left

Again speaking generally, prickly pears are very easy to propagate and cultivate. Their two main preferences are full sun and well-drained soil. If you are worried that the soil you are planting them in is going to stay too wet for too long, amend it with some gravel. This is especially important if you live in a climate that receives lots of precipitation or that has cold, wet winters. Once established, prickly pears will move around the garden. If that becomes a problem, expanding plants are easily pruned and traveling plants are easily removed.

I live in a climate that requires the selection of cold hardy prickly pears, so I am taking my specific recommendations from two books: Cacti and Succulents for Cold Climates by Leo J. Chance and Hardy Succulents by Gwen Moore Kelaidis. If you live in a warmer climate, your options will be greater. Still, the options for cold regions are pretty numerous, so for the sake of space I am narrowing my list down to a handful that stand out to me at this particular moment.

Three eastern United States species of prickly pears (O. compressa, O. macrorhiza, and O. humifusa) are, according to Chance, “more capable of dealing with wet and cold conditions than almost any other members of the cactus family.” They still require well-drained soil though. An appealing trait is their large, juicy, red fruits that can add garden interest in late summer and fall. Opuntia engelmannii is another species with the potential to tolerate cold, wet conditions. Its size is appealing to me, with pads that reach a foot wide and plants that grow several feet tall. Chance advises finding “a clone that is known to be cold tolerant” and making some space for it, “as it becomes huge in time.” The most cold tolerant prickly pear may be Opuntia fragilis. It is a diminutive plant with a large native range and a variety of forms, some with rounded pads “shaped like marbles.”

Fruits ("tunas") of Opuntia engelmannii - photo credit: www.eol.org

Fruits (“tunas”) of Opuntia engelmannii – photo credit: www.eol.org

Opuntia fragilis 'Frankfurt' - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Opuntia fragilis ‘Frankfurt’ – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Opuntia polyacantha is a prickly pear native to my home state, Idaho. It is found at high elevations throughout the Intermountain West and is also found on the Great Plains. It has many forms and varieties, and its flowers are various shades of pink or yellow. It is a fast growing species and spreads around easily. Other cold hardy species include Opuntia macrocentra (which has a very attractive yellow flower with a red-orange center), Opuntia erinacea (commonly known as hedgehog prickly pear for its abundant, long spines that can obscure the pads), and Opuntia microdisca (a tiny Argentinian prickly pear with pads that barely reach an inch across but, as Chance says, “works very well in a dry rock garden with other miniatures”).

Pads of Opuntia polyacantha

Pads and spines of Opuntia polyacantha

A post about Opuntia could go on indefinitely due to the sheer number of species and their diverse forms and attributes. This is meant merely to pique your interest. The flowers, if nothing else, should certainly interest you. In her book, Kelaidis calls them “improbably beautiful,” and goes on to say that they are “often papery, always glistening and showy.” Chance likens them to “any fancy rose” because they are “extraordinarily large, brightly colored, [and] eye catching.” Next week, as part of Awkward Botany’s Year of Pollination, I will present another reason to be fascinated with the flowers of Opuntia. For now, I will leave you to ponder this word, “thigmonasty.”

Want to learn more about prickly pears? Check out Opuntia Web.

Year of Pollination: An Argentinian Cactus and Its Unlikely Pollinator

A few weeks ago I wrote about pollination syndromes – sets of floral triats that are said to attract specific groups of pollinators. In that post I discussed how pollination syndromes have largely fallen out of favor as a reliable method of predicting the pollinators that will visit particular flowers. In this post I review a recent study involving a species of cactus in Argentina that, as the authors state in their abstract, “adds another example to the growing body of mismatches between floral syndrome and observed pollinator.”

Denmoza rhodacantha is one of many species of cacti found in Argentina. It is the only species in its genus, and it is widely distributed across the east slopes and foothills of the Andes. It is a slow growing cactus, maintaining a globulous (globe-shaped) form through its juvenile phase and developing a columnar form as it reaches maturity. D. rhodacantha can reach up to 4 meters tall and can live beyond 100 years of age. Individual plants can begin flowering in their juvenile stage. Flowers are red, nectar rich, scentless, and tubular. The stigma is lobed and is surrounded by a dense grouping of stamens. Both male and female reproductive organs are extended above the corolla. The flowers have been described by multiple sources as being hummingbird pollinated, not based on direct observation of hummingbirds visiting the flowers, but rather due to the floral traits of the species.

Denmoza rhodacantha illustration - image credit: www.eol.org

Denmoza rhodacantha illustration  (image credit: www.eol.org)

In a paper entitled, Flowering phenology and observations on the pollination biology of South American cacti – Denmoza rhodacantha, which was published in volume 20 of Haseltonia (the yearbook of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America), Urs Eggli and Mario Giorgetta discuss their findings after making detailed observations of a population of D. rhodacantha in early 2013 and late 2013 – early 2014. The population consisted of about 30 individuals (both juveniles and adults) located in the Calchaqui Valley near the village of Angastaco, Argentina. At least three other species with “hummingbird-syndrome flowers” were noted in the area, and three species of hummingbirds were observed during the study periods. Over 100 observation hours were logged, and during that time “the studied plants, their flowering phenology, and flower and fruit visitors were documented by means of photographs and video.”

The flowers of D. rhodacantha only persist for a few short days, and in that time their sexual organs are only receptive for about 24 hours. The flowers are self-sterile and so require a pollinator to cross pollinate them. Despite their red, tubular shape and abundant nectar, no hummingbirds were observed visiting the flowers. One individual hummingbird approached but quickly turned away. Hummingbirds were, however, observed visiting the flowers of an associated species, Tecoma fulva ssp. garrocha. Instead, a species of halictid bee (possibly in the genus Dialictus) was regularly observed visiting the flowers of D. rhodacantha. The bees collected pollen on their hind legs and abdomen and were seen crawling across the lobes of the stigma. None of them were found feeding on the nectar. In one observation, a flower was visited by a bee that was “already heavily loaded with the typical violet-coloured pollen of Denmoza,” suggesting that this particular bee species was seeking out these flowers for their pollen. Small, unidentified beetles and ants were seen entering the flowers to consume nectar, however they didn’t appear to be capable of offering a pollination service.

D. rhodacantha populations have been observed in many cases to produce few fruits, suggesting that pollination success is minimal. The authors witnessed “very low fruit set” in the population that they were studying, which was “in marked contrast to the almost 100% fruit set rates of the sympatric cactus species at the study site.” This observation wasn’t of great concern to the authors though, because juvenile plants are present in observed populations, so recruitment appears to be occurring. In this study, dehisced fruits were “rapidly visited by several unidentified species of ants of different sizes.” The “scant pulp” was harvested by smaller ants, and larger ants carried away the seeds after “cleaning them from adhering pulp.”

The authors propose at least two reasons why hummingbirds avoid the flowers of D. rhodacantha. The first being that the native hummingbirds have bills that are too short to reach the nectar inside the long tubular flowers, and often the flowers barely extend beyond the spines of the cactus which may deter the hummingbirds from approaching. The second reason is that other plants in the area flower during the same period and have nectar that is easier to gather. The authors acknowledge that this is just speculation, but it could help explain why the flowers are pollinated instead by an insect (the opportunist, generalist halictid bee species) for whom the flowers “could be considered to be ill adapted.” The authors go on to say, “it should be kept in mind, however, that adaptions do not have to be perfect, as long as they work sufficiently well.”

Patagona gigas (giant hummingbird) was observed approaching the flower of a Denmoza rhodacantha but quickly turned away (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Patagona gigas (giant hummingbird) was observed approaching the flower of a Denmoza rhodacantha but quickly turned away (photo credit: www.eol.org)

More Year of Pollination posts on Awkward Botany:

Making the Case for Saving Species

It is no question that the human species has had a dramatic impact on the planet. As our population has grown and we have spread ourselves across the globe, our presence has altered every ecosystem we have come into contact with. Our footprints can be detected even in areas of the planet uninhabited by humans. As awareness of our impact has increased, we have made efforts to reduce it. However, much of the damage we have caused is irreversible – we can’t bring species back from extinction and we can’t replace mountaintops. Furthermore, for better or for worse our continued existence – despite efforts to minimize our negative influence – will continue to be impactful. This is the nature of being human. It is the nature of all living things, really. As John Muir said, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” That we are cognizant of that fact puts us at a crossroads – do we make a concerted effort to protect and save other species from the negative aspects of our presence or do we simply go on with our lives and let come what may?

The quandary isn’t that black and white, obviously. For one thing, cleaning up polluted air, water, and soil is beneficial to humans and has the side benefit of improving the lives of other species. Protecting biodiversity is also in our best interest, because who knows what medicine, food, fiber, or other resource is out there in some living thing yet to be discovered that might be useful to us. On the other hand, putting our own interests aside, what about protecting other species and habitats just to protect them? Purely altruistically. That seems to be the question at the crux of an article by Emma Marris in the May/June 2015 issue of Orion entitled, “Handle with Care: The Case for Doing All We Can to Save Threatened Species.” [Listen to a brief discussion with Marris about the article here.]

The main character in Marris’ article is the whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), a species whose native habitat is high in mountain ranges of western United States and Canada. Whitebark pines thrive in areas few other trees can, living to ages greater than 1,000 years. Here is how Marris describes them:

Whitebark pine’s ecological niche is the edge of existence. The trees are found on the highest, driest, coldest, rockiest, and windiest slopes. While lodgepole and ponderosa pine grow in vast stands of tall, healthy-looking trees, slow-growing whitebarks are tortured by extremes into individualized, flayed forms, swollen with massive boles from frost damage. Their suffering makes them beautiful.

photo credit: www.eol.org

photo credit: www.eol.org

But in recent years they have been suffering more than usual. White pine blister rust, an introduced pathogen, is killing the trees. The native mountain pine beetle is also taking them out. Additional threats include climate change and an increased number, extent, and intensity of wildfires. Combined, these threats have been impactful enough that the species is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List where it is described as “experiencing serious decline.”

So people are taking action. In Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, botanist Jen Beck is part of an effort to select blister rust resistant trees and plant them in their native habitats within the park. Hundreds have been planted, and more are on their way. Great effort is taken to minimize human impact and to plant the trees as nature would, with the vision being that blister rust resistant trees will replace those that are dying and that trees with rust resistant genes will dominate the population.

But Beck faces opposition, and not just from challenges like seedlings being trampled by visitors or a warming climate inviting mountain hemlocks and other trees into whitebark pine’s native range, but by people who argue that the trees shouldn’t be planted there in the first place – that what is “wild” should be left alone. Marris specifically calls out a group called Wilderness Watch. They and other groups like them profess a “leave-it alone ethic.” Rather than be arrogant enough to assume that we can “control or fix disrupted nature,” we should respect the “self-willed spirit of the wild world.” Proponents of nonintervention criticize what they call “new environmentalism” and its efforts to engineer or manage landscapes, fearing that these actions are “morally empty” and that “rearranging bits of the natural world” lacks soul and will ultimately serve to benefit humans.

In her article, Marris argues against this approach. First off, the human footprint is too large, and for natural areas to “continue to look and function the way they did hundreds of years ago” will require “lots of human help.” Additionally, nonintervention environmentalism “perpetuates a false premise that humans don’t belong in nature,” and if we decide not to work to protect, save, or restore species and habitats that have been negatively affected by our actions simply because we are “in thrall to wildness”, we will be withdrawing with “blood on our hands.” Marris sums up her position succinctly in the following statement:

We have to do whatever it takes to keep ecosystems robust and species from extinction in the face of things like climate change. And if that means that some ecosystems aren’t going to be as pretty to our eyes, or as wild, or won’t hew to some historical baseline that seems important to us, then so be it. We should put the continued existence of other species before our ideas of where or how they should live.

Marris acknowledges that there are risks to this approach. “Our meddling” may save species, but it could also backfire. But that doesn’t mean the effort wasn’t worth it. We can learn from our mistakes and we can make improvements to our methods. Some sites can even be cordoned off as areas of nonintervention simply so that we can learn from them. The ultimate goal, however, should be to save as many species and to keep as much of their habitat intact as possible. Putting “other species first, and our relationship with them second” is what Marris considers to be a “truly humble” stance in our role as part of nature.

Cones of whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Cones of whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The dichotomy presented in this article is a tough one, and one that will be debated (in my mind particularly) long into the future. If you would like to share your thoughts with me about this issue, do so in the comment section below or by sending me a private message through the contact page.

Other article reviews on Awkward Botany

Ethnobotany: White Man’s Foot

“Plantains – Plantago major – seem to have arrived with the very first white settlers and were such a reliable sign of their presence that the Native Americans referred to them as ‘white men’s footsteps.'” – Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction)

“Our people have a name for this round-leafed plant: White Man’s Footstep. Just a low circle of leaves, pressed close to the ground with no stem to speak of, it arrived with the first settlers and followed them everywhere they went. It trotted along paths through the woods, along wagon roads and railroads, like a faithful dog so as to be near them.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer (Braiding Sweetgrass)

photo credits: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Plantago major is in the family Plantaginaceae – the plantain family – a family that consists of at least 90 genera, several of which include common species of ornamental plants such as Veronica (speedwells), Digitalis (foxgloves), and Antirrhinum (snapdragons). The genus Plantago consists of around 200 species commonly known as plantains. They are distributed throughout the world in diverse habitats. Most of them are herbaceous perennials with similar growth habits, and many have ethnobotanical uses comparable to P. major.

Originating in Eurasia, P. major now has a cosmopolitan distribution. It has joined humans as they have traveled and migrated from continent to continent and is now considered naturalized throughout most temperate and some tropical regions. In North America, P. major and P. lanceolata are the two most common introduced species in the Plantago genus. P. major has a plethora of common names – common plantain being the one that the USDA prefers. Other names include broadleaf plantain, greater plantain, thickleaf plantain, ribgrass, ribwort, ripplegrass, and waybread. Depending on the source, there are various versions of the name white man’s foot, and along the same line, a common name for P. major in South Africa is cart-track plant.

P. major is a perennial – albeit sometimes annual or biennial – herbaceous plant. Its leaves form a rosette that is usually oriented flat against the ground and reaches up to 30 cm wide. Each leaf is egg-shaped with parallel veins and leaf margins that are sometimes faintly toothed. The inflorescence is a leafless spike up to 20 cm tall (sometimes taller) with several tiny flowers that are a dull yellow-green-brown color. The flowers are wind pollinated, and the plants are highly prone to self-pollination. The fruits are capsules that can contain as many as 30 seeds – an entire plant can produce as many as 14,000 – 15,000 seeds at once. The seeds are small, brown, sticky, and easily transported by wind or by adhering to shoes, clothing, animals, and machinery. They require light to germinate and can remain viable for up to 60 years.

An illustration of three Plantago species found in Selected Weeds of the United States - Agriculture Handbook No. 366 circa 1970

An illustration of three Plantago species found in Selected Weeds of the United States – Agriculture Handbook No. 366 circa 1970

P. major prefers sunny sites but can also thrive in part shade. It adapts to a variety of soil types but performs best in moist, clay-loam soils. It is often found in compacted soils and is very tolerant of trampling. This trait, along with its low-growing leaves that easily evade mower blades, explains why it is so commonly seen in turf grass. It is highly adaptable to a variety of habitats and is particularly common on recently disturbed sites (natural or human caused) and is an abundant urban and agricultural weed.

Even though it is wind pollinated, its flowers are visited by syrphid flies and various bee species which feed on its pollen. Several other insects feed on its foliage, along with a number of mammalian herbivores. Cardinals and other bird species feed on its seeds.

Humans also eat plantain leaves, which contain vitamins A, C, and K. Young, tender leaves can be eaten raw, while older leaves need to be cooked as they become tough and stringy with age. The medicinal properties of  P. major have been known and appreciated at least as far back as the Anglo-Saxons, who likely used a poultice made from the leaves externally to treat wounds, burns, sores, bites, stings, and other irritations. Native Americans, after seeing the plant arrive with European settlers, quickly learned to use the plant as food and medicine. It could be used to stop cuts from bleeding and to treat rattlesnake bites. Apart from external uses, the plant was used internally as a pain killer and to treat ulcers, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal issues.

P. major has been shown to have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and other biological properties; several chemical compounds have been isolated from the plant and deemed responsible for these properties. For this reason, P. major and other species of Plantago have been used to treat a number of ailments. The claims are so numerous and diverse that it is worth exploring if you are interested. You can start by visiting the following sites:

"White man's footstep, generous and healing, grows with its leaves so close to the ground that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth." - Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (photo credit: www.eol.org)

“White man’s footstep, generous and healing, grows with its leaves so close to the ground that each step is a greeting to Mother Earth.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Other Ethnobotany Posts on Awkward Botany: