Book Review: The New Wild

What if we were to look at invasive species with fresh eyes? Traditionally we have viewed them as interlopers hellbent on environmental destruction, but have we considered the good they can do? Should our efforts to eradicate them be tempered – eliminating them when it seems absolutely necessary, but accepting them when they are doing some good; welcoming them when they have something to offer. What does their presence mean anyway? What does it say about the ecosystems they inhabit and about us? Invasive species are convenient scapegoats, taking the blame for much of the ecological devastation that we started in the first place. Is that justified?

This is, essentially, the theme of The New Wild, a book by Fred Pearce that urges us to reconsider the ways we think, talk, and act towards invasive species. More than that, it is about dumping the idea that pristine nature (a mythological concept anyway, and one that is not all that useful) is the only true wild, and that nature invaded by alien species is a lesser thing that needs to be fixed. The truth is, nature is and always has been in a constant state of flux, and it is unconcerned about the provenance of the species that compose it. As Pearce puts it, if it’s doing “a useful job,” “it matters not a jot where a species comes from.”

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Invasion biology is a relatively new field of study, stemming from the publishing of Charles Elton’s book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, in 1958. For thousands of years, humans have had a hand in moving species of all kinds around the planet, but it was in the latter half of the 20th century that our awareness of the ecological damage that some of these species can do really developed. Since then we have made great efforts to remove such species and put things back the way we found them. The zeal with which we have done so hasn’t always been justified or effective, and throughout what at times has felt like an all out war against foreigners, a profound sense of animosity and suspicion towards anything non-native has taken root in our psyche.

Pearce hopes to mitigate these feelings and get us to reconsider some of our actions. To start with, he calls into question the distinction between aliens and natives: “A broad time horizon shows there is no such thing as a native species. All lodgings are temporary and all ecosystems in a constant flux, the victims of circumstance and geological accident.” Also, “many aliens are so well integrated that they are assumed to be native,” and “species come and go so much, as a result of both human and natural forces, that conventional hard distinctions about what belongs where have long been all but meaningless.”

Instead of judging a species by its provenance, “we should treat species on their merits and learn a little tolerance and respect for foreigners.” While “being alien can sometimes be problematic,” it can equally result in the renewal of “flagging ecosystems, creating new space for natives and providing ecosystem services.” Seeing that those services are in place is what should really matter, and “[ecological services] are best done by the species on hand that do it best.” After all, nature is not a system of “preordained perfection,” but instead “a workable mishmash of species, constantly reorganized by the throw of the dice.”

In his criticisms of the field of invasion biology, Pearce investigates some of the “constantly recycled ‘facts’ about alien species.” He finds many of the claims to be unfounded and oft-repeated statistics to be blatant misrepresentations of the original studies. He concludes that “some of the most widely used statistics in the canon of invasion biology do not stand up.” To support his point, he offers several examples of how alien species have added to the biodiversity in certain ecosystems and he shares stories that “show how we instinctively blame aliens for ecological problems that may have a lot more to do with our own treatment of nature.”

Immigrant Killers by Carolyn King, one of many books making a case for the war on alien species.

Immigrant Killers by Carolyn King, one of many books published in the past few decades that makes the case for waging war on alien species.

In so many words, Pearce’s stance is that the classic “aliens are bad, and natives are good” approach is outdated – “nature doesn’t care about conservationists’ artificial divide between urban and rural or between native and alien species,” which means that our perception of aliens should shift from being “part of the problem to part of the solution.” Abandoned farmlands, secondary forests, recolonized waste places, urban sprawl, and other novel ecosystems across the globe offer explicit examples of species from all backgrounds coming together to create functional habitats. This is the new wild.

Pearce is not advocating that we throw in the towel and let invasive species run rampant: “It would be foolish to claim that alien species never do any harm or that efforts to uproot them are always doomed to fail.” His support for the new wild is “not a call to let it rip.” Instead, “conservation in the twenty-first century requires an open-minded assessment of what might work – not a sullen retreat into blinkered orthodoxy.” So, rather than try to stop the flux of nature (an act that is decidedly “anti-nature”), let’s see where it goes, alien species and all; and when we do decide to beat back invasives and intervene “to preserve what we like,” we should be mindful that nature may be “traveling in a different direction.” As Pearce writes, “the new wild is flourishing, and it will do better if we allow it to have its head.”

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Obviously this is a controversial topic, but the ideas in this book are worth exploring further. Pearce’s notes are extensive, and I intend to read through many of his resources. Stay tuned for more posts. Meanwhile, you can listen to an interview with Pearce on this episode of Talking Plants. For a more critical veiw of Pearce’s book, check out these reviews by Los Angeles Review of Books and The EEB & Flow.

 

2016: Year in Review

2016 was another busy year at Awkward Botany headquarters. A major highlight was the response I received from the Help Wanted announcement that I posted early last year. Several people expressed interest in writing guest posts, while several others volunteered to help out in other ways (contributing images, illustrations, logos, etc.). The offer still stands, so please be in touch if you would like to contribute in any way.

Speaking of being in touch, the comments I’ve received and the connections I’ve made through social media and beyond really add to the experience of doing this blog. Not only does it make this more of a conversation, but it is greatly motivating to know that people find this to be a valuable and entertaining resource. Thank you to all who have reached out. And thanks to silent observers as well. Let’s stay in touch.

As I have done in the past, I am including a list of some of the posts from this past year, mainly those that are part of ongoing series. Many posts don’t fall within these categories, so all others can be found in the ‘Archives’ widget on the right side of the screen.

Book Reviews:

Poisonous Plants:

Famous Botanists in History:

Drought Tolerant Plants:

Field Trips:

Ethnobotany:

Botany in Popular Culture:

Tiny Plants:

Rare and Endangered Plants

Podcast Review:

Guest Posts:

What Is a Plant, and Why Should I Care? part one, part two, part three, part four

Along with the great guest posts, I also received Awkward Botany logos from three incredible artists/graphic designers. I loved them all, and I am very thankful for the time and talent that was spent creating them. The logos are featured below. In order of appearance they were created by Franz Anthony, Mesquite Cervino, and Mara McCall. If you have an idea for an Awkward Botany logo, please let me know. I would love to see it.

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And now a heads up…

In the coming months I plan to focus most of my posts on “weeds” and invasive species. These are topics that I have found increasingly intriguing, so I am hoping that writing a long series of posts about them will help satisfy my curiosity. This may or may not be your thing, but I hope you will stick around regardless. I plan to continue to include some guest posts, which will hopefully help break up the monotony. Also, I know I said this last year and it didn’t actually happen, but I will most likely be taking some breaks from my weekly publishing schedule in order to work on some other projects. Those projects and more will be revealed at some point in time, along with other ideas I have rolling around in my head. If the thought of me taking breaks from posting here bothers you, I invite you to join me on twitter and tumblr, where I will continue to post random things regularly.

Until then, I wish you all a splendid 2017. It should be an interesting one, so buckle up.

Yucca in the snow at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho

Yucca in the snow at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho

Children’s Books About Evolution

Evolution is a difficult subject to learn, let alone teach. Because evolution is generally such a slow process, it involves a timeline that is challenging for us to comprehend. Evolution is also commonly misunderstood, so misconceptions abound, be they purposeful misrepresentations, gaps in understanding, or otherwise. Wrapping one’s brain around even the basic tenets of evolution can take years of study, yet it is one of the most fundamental concepts of biology; failing to understand it stifles one’s knowledge of and appreciation for the study of life on Earth. On the flipside, gaining an understanding of the workings of evolution can inspire a greater appreciation for our place in the universe and can instill in oneself the urgency of conservation.

Despite being a tough subject to grasp, there is no reason why children should be exempt from learning about it. However, because it is such a complex topic, adults can struggle to find ways to explain it. Luckily, there are some great children’s books about evolution that introduce the subject in basic ways. These books are good starting points and can help cultivate a desire to explore the topic further. Understanding evolution and the science surrounding our world and the broader universe is a lifelong pursuit. Children will benefit from a head start.

What follows are reviews of a handful of books that may be useful in teaching kids about the theory of evolution.

I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan

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This book is an excellent place to start. It is a quick and easy read, and it introduces – in a very simple way – the evolutionary lineage of humans. It doubles as a lesson on evolution and, as Sullivan puts it, “a tribute to every child’s power to transform their lives and to dream big,” which is achieved by highlighting the imagination of the main character and defining evolution as the gradual development over a lifetime towards achieving goals and aspirations.

In the Author’s Note, Sullivan briefly explains some important aspects of evolution: it is “a very slow process” that “occurs over generations to entire populations of creatures,” it doesn’t occur in a straight line like the book implies but instead looks “more like a tree with many complicated branches,” and “it doesn’t happen because a creature wants it to.”

One step in our evolutionary lineage as depicted in I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan

One step in our evolutionary lineage as depicted in I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan

Life history

Timeline from I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan. Look how far we’ve come!

Grandmother Fish by Jonathan Tweet; illustrated by Karen Lewis

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This book is similar to Sullivan’s book, but it adds a little more detail to the story and invites interaction from its audience. As major periods in our evolutionary lineage are reached, readers are asked to “wiggle” like our Grandmother Fish, “crawl” like our Grandmother Reptile, “squeak” like our Grandmother Mammal, “hoot” like our Grandmother Ape, and so on. As the story transitions from one main character to another, simplified versions of evolutionary trees are shown (like the one below).

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A larger version of “Our Evolutionary Family Tree” is featured at the end of the story followed by several pages of additional information that adults can use to further explain evolution to children, including discussions on three major concepts of evolution (descent with modification, artificial selection, and natural selection), more details on the main characters in the book, and a guide to correcting common errors about evolution.

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When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm by Hannah Bonner

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This book is much more text heavy than the first two, but is still very approachable. The illustrations are both humorous and informative, and Bonner excels at explaining complex topics in a way that makes them easy to digest. Rather than covering hundreds of millions of years of evolution like the first two books, this book focuses mainly on events that occurred during the Silurian and Devonian periods – between 360 and 444 million years ago. It was during this time that plants were making their way to land and diverging into many different forms. Arthropods were doing the same. During this period, the earth’s atmosphere became more oxygen rich and soil began to accumulate largely due to the growth and expansion of land plants.

Recipe for a land plant from When Fish Got Feet by Hannah Bonner

Recipe for a land plant from When Fish Got Feet by Hannah Bonner

This was also a period of great diversification in the fish world. Jaws were becoming more common and skeletons made of bone (as opposed to cartilage) were developing.  The first tetrapods (fish with legs) emerged from the oceans and onto land in the Devonian period. These tetrapods were our early ancestors, and Bonner explains how some of the skeletal features that fish developed during this time period were precursors to our current skeleton.

Unlike the first two books, the evolution of plants receives some attention in Bonner’s book. It is during the Devonian period that the first trees and seed-bearing plants appear. As in the other books, there are additional resources at the end, including this important warning by Bonner: “Please remember that anyone can set up a Web site, so not everything you will encounter will be good science.”

A time line of life on earth from When Fish Got Feet by Hannah Bonner

A timeline of life on earth from When Fish Got Feet by Hannah Bonner

Key to helping children understand evolution is understanding it ourselves, and there are, of course, endless resources out there to help with this. I will suggest just two additional books. In keeping with the spirit of children’s books, there is a great illustrated biography of Charles Darwin (who is considered the Father of Evolution) called Darwin For Beginners by Jonathan Miller and Borin Van Loon. It’s basically Darwin’s life told in graphic novel form. And keeping with the fish theme, you can’t go wrong with Neil Shubin’s, Your Inner Fish, a fascinating look into the origins of many of the parts, pieces, and other features of the human body.

Do you have a favorite book, children’s or otherwise, about evolution? Please share it in the comment section below.

Podcast Review: Native Plant Podcast

Always on the lookout for more podcasts to listen to, I somehow stumbled upon Native Plant Podcast. I wish I could remember the rabbit hole I went down that brought me to this masterpiece, but I can’t. What I do remember is being hesitant at first. I am all for calling things what they are. A restaurant called “Restaurant?” Why not? A podcast about native plants called “Native Plant Podcast?” Sure. It’s not the most creative name, but it works. What I was worried about, though, was that a podcast calling itself after native plants was going to be preachy, pushy…or just dull.

Yet I work with native plants every day(!), and I love them – so my initial judgement must say more about myself than anything else. Despite my hesitation – and my inclination to judge a podcast by its cover – I gave it a shot. I’m so glad that I did, because what I found was a highly informative show that is simultaneously delightful, fun, goofy, and entertaining. It’s a podcast that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The hosts and their guests share an important message about the benefits of native plant gardening, and they do so with passion and a sense of urgency while remaining lighthearted and approachable.

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Native Plant Podcast is young. The first episode came out in January 2016. It is run by three individuals that met at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference in North Carolina (a conference that is often mentioned on the podcast). Mike Berkeley and John Magee are the regular hosts; Jesse Turner mainly operates behind the scenes but makes appearances on a few episodes. They each have their own nursery and/or landscaping businesses that deal largely with native plants. Together they have decades of experience working with native plants. In an episode with Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery, Mike makes the comment that they “were into native plants before it got cool.” Several of the guests that have been on the podcast so far can say the same thing.

One such guest is Miriam Goldberger, owner of Wildflower Farm and author of Taming Wildflowers, who appears on two episodes (part 1 and part 2). Other notable guests include Thomas Rainer, co-outhor of Planting in a Post-Wild World, and David Mizejewski, a naturalist for the National Wildlife Federation. So far all of the guests have been great, and since the the podcast has only been around for a few months, it is easy to catch up on past episodes.

As someone who enjoys sitting around talking about plants, this podcast is perfect since much of the “airtime” is taken up by such discussions. The episodes about winter interest and spring gardening are particularly great for this sort of thing. Two other standout episodes are the introductory episode, in which Mike and John discuss how they got started working with native plants, and the episode about defining native plants, in which Mike, John, and Jesse all take a crack at coming up with a definition. A topic that comes up often on the podcast is native plant cultivars (John understandably cringes each time he hears the portmanteau of “native” and “cultivar”), which seems to be a controversial topic in the native plant world.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus) - one of Mike and John's favorite grasses and a plant that comes up frequently on the podcast. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus) – one of Mike and John’s favorite grasses and a plant that comes up frequently on the podcast. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

In each episode of the podcast there is an interview/discussion followed by three short segments: listener questions, stories about dogs or other pets (the hosts really love their dogs), and a toast (in which the hosts pop open their beers in front of the microphone for all to hear). The twitter bio for the Native Plant Podcast sums it up well: “A podcast started by a group of goofballs to highlight the beauty and functionality of native plants in the landscape.” These goofballs really know their stuff, and I highly recommend listening to their show.

Bonus quote from the episode with Neil Diboll:

Everybody says they love Mother Nature, but if you look at people’s yards, very few people actually invite her over. Most people have lawns that are mown to within an inch or two of their lives, and the typical American garden is like a big pile of mulch with a few perennials stuck in it or maybe a few shrubs stuck in it. These are really non-functional gardens from a standpoint of an ecological approach, so bringing your landscaping to life is creating ecological gardens that are not just for the owner of the property, but for all life that you can attract to the land for which you are the steward.

Botany in Popular Culture: Saga of the Swamp Thing

From the swamps of Louisiana comes a fictional character that is entirely composed of vegetation, has the appearance of a monster, and the consciousness of a human. He is called the Swamp Thing. Created by Len Wien and Bernie Wrightson, the Swamp Thing made his first appearance in the ninety-second issue of House of Secrets in 1971. He was then given his own series, which after 19 issues was handed off to up and coming author, Alan Moore.

Moore was an established comic book writer in the United Kingdom, but this was his first time writing for an American imprint. The work Moore did on Swamp Thing left a lasting impact on the comic book industry and helped establish Moore as one of the greatest comic book writers of all time. While Moore wrote more than fifty issues of The Saga of the Swamp Thing, I am narrowing this post down to the first volume, which compiles issues 20 – 27.

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When Moore inherited the character, the Swamp Thing was thought to be (and also thought himself to be) the vegetable form of Alec Holland, a scientist who blew himself up while experimenting with a bio-restorative formula he was developing. Because Moore had some plot lines to dispense of before he began his own telling of the story, it only made sense to have the Swamp Thing killed off in the first issue so that he could reveal who or what he really was.

The beginning of issue #21 finds Dr. Jason Woodrue examining the Swamp Thing’s corpse. Woodrue is a villian that goes by the name Floronic Man and is himself a plant-human hybrid. The men who killed the Swamp Thing got Woodrue out of jail so that he could help them do an autopsy. During the autopsy, Woodrue makes a startling discovery: “We thought that the Swamp Thing was Alec Holland, somehow transformed into a plant. It wasn’t. It was a plant that thought it was Alec Holland! A plant that was trying its level best to be Alec Holland.” In the explosion, Holland’s body was completely incinerated, but due to the help of the bio-restorative formula that followed Holland into the swamp, the swamp plants fashioned themselves into a new creature with the form of a man and the consciousness of Holland.

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The bio-restorative formula is key because it allows the Swamp Thing to regenerate. Woodrue knows this and takes advantage of it. He moves the Swamp Thing’s resting body back to the swamp. Conveniently he finds Abby Cable there, one of the Swamp Thing’s good friends. Woodrue informs her that the Swamp Thing is not Alec Holland, news that is difficult for her to take. As the Swamp Thing awakens, he must also come to terms with the fact that he is not who he thought he was. Meanwhile, Woodrue/Floronic Man harvests and eats a tuberous growth protruding from the Swamp Thing, which enhances his powers to control plant life.

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Floronic Man is upset with animal life, particularly humans for the collective destruction that they have caused plant life. He is determined to take revenge for the harm that has been done to “The Green.” He causes plants to grow up rapidly and consume buildings and cars and wrap around humans to kill them. Amidst his mayhem he explains his vision of “another green world, as there was at the beginning, before the beasts crawled up out of the oceans. Those long, green centuries where no bird sang, where no dog barked. Where there was no noise! Where there was no screaming meat!!”

The Justice League is called in, but there isn’t much they can do. This is a job for the Swamp Thing who, while wandering through the swamp coming to grips with his new identity, senses trouble in The Green. He then realizes that Floronic Man must be involved, at which point he arrives on the scene and gives Floronic Man a good beating and a stern talking to.

Floronic Man is obsessed with the idea of plants taking over and destroying all other life. He has clearly gone mad, threatening to make the plants “pour out oxygen” so that “all the animals will die.” He is convinced that only plants will remain and that “it’s the only way to save the planet from those creatures.” The Swamp Thing rhetorically asks, “And what will change the oxygen back into the gasses that we need to survive when the men and animals are dead?” That seems to shut Floronic Man up. Schooled by logic, he slowly loses control of the plant life he had recruited to do his dirty work, at which point the Justice League swoops in and picks him up. The Swamp Thing retreats back to the swamp, embracing his new identity – elated to be alive and feeling at home in the swamp.

The final three “chapters” of the book are focused more on Abby. The Swamp Thing is around, and he definitely shows up for some fight scenes, but Moore seems to be working on developing Abby’s character. After all, she and the Swamp Thing have a future together. In one fight scene, a demon rips the Swamp Thing’s arm off. At which point, the Swamp Thing nonchalantly picks up his arm, reattaches it, and resumes fighting the demon.

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Throughout the book, Moore’s writing and storytelling is exceptional. A brief recap such as this cannot do the book justice. Moore’s prose must be read to be truly appreciated. The Swamp Thing is a fairly minor character in the comic book world, and one of the very few that brings botany to the forefront. Thanks to Moore and the artists that worked with him, Saga of the Swamp Thing gives this great character the exposure and legacy it deserves.

For more authoritative reviews, check out the following links:

Book Review: Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs

The spring season for plant-obsessed gardeners is a time to prepare to grow something new and different – something you’ve never tried growing before. Sure, standards and favorites will make an appearance, but when you love plants for plant’s sake you’ve got to try them all, especially the rare and unusual ones – the ones no one else is growing. Even if it ultimately turns out to be a disaster or a dud, at least you tried and can say you did.

That seems to be the spirit behind Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs by Emma Cooper. Subtitled, “Unusual Edible Plants and the People Who Grow Them,” Cooper’s book is all about trying new plants, both in the garden and on your plate. While its focus is on the rare and unusual, it is not a comprehensive guide to such plants – a book like that would require several volumes – rather it is a treatise about trying something different along with a few recommendations to get you started.

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Cooper starts out by explaining what she means by “unusual edible” – “exotic, old-fashioned, wild, or just plain weird.” Her definition includes plants that may be commonly grown agriculturally but may not make regular appearances in home gardens. She goes on to give a brief overview of plant exploration throughout history, highlighting the interest that humans have had for centuries – millennia even – in seeking out new plants to grow. She acknowledges that, in modern times, plant explorations have shifted from simply finding exotic species to bring home and exploit to cataloging species and advocating for their conservation in the wild. Of course, many of these explorations are still interested in finding species that are useful to humans or finding crop wild relatives that have something to offer genetically.

Cooper then includes more than 2o short interviews of people who are growers and promoters of lesser known edible plants. The people interviewed have much to offer in the way of plant suggestions and resource recommendations; however, this part of the book was a bit dull. Cooper includes several pages of resources at the end of the book, and many of the interviewees suggest the same plants and resources, so this section seemed redundant. That being said, there are some great responses to Cooper’s questions, including Owen Smith’s argument for “citizen-led research and breeding projects” and James Wong’s advise to seek out edible houseplants.

The remainder of the book is essentially a list of the plants that Cooper suggests trying. Again, it is not a comprehensive list of the unusual plants one could try, nor it is a full list of the plants that Cooper would recommend, but it is a good starting point. Cooper offers a description of each plant and an explanation for why it is included. The list is separated into seven categories: Heritage and Heirloom Plant Varieties, Forgotten Vegetables, The Lost Crops of the Incas, Oriental Vegetables, Perennial Pleasures, Unusual Herbs, and Weeds and Wildings.

This is the portion of the book that plant geeks are likely to find the most compelling. It is also where the reader learns where the title of the book comes from – “jade pearls” is another common name for Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis), and “alien eyeballs” is Cooper’s name for toothache plant (Acmella oleracea). I have tried a few of the plants that Cooper includes, and I was intrigued by many others, but for whatever reason the two that stood out to me as the ones I should try this year were Hamburg parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. tuberosum) and oca (Oxalis tuberosa).

Tubers of oca (Oxalis tuberosa) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Tubers of oca (Oxalis tuberosa) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

In the final chapter, Cooper offers – among other things – warnings about invasive species (“our responsibility is to ensure that the plants we encourage in our gardens stay in our gardens and are not allowed to escape into our local environment”), import restrictions (“be a good citizen and know what is allowed in your country [and I would add state/province], what isn’t, and why”), and wild harvesting (“act sustainably when foraging”). She then includes several pages of books and websites regarding unusual edibles and a long list of suppliers where seeds and plants can be acquired. Cooper is based in the U.K., so her list of suppliers is centered in that region, but a little bit of searching on the internet and asking around in various social media, etc. should help you develop a decent list for your region. International trades or purchases are an option, but as Cooper advises, follow the rules that are in place for moving plant material around.

Bottom line: find some interesting things to grow this year, experiment with things you’ve never tried – even things that aren’t said to grow well in your area – and if you’re having trouble deciding what to try or you just want to learn more about some interesting plants, check out Emma Cooper’s book.

Also, check out Emma Cooper’s blog and now defunct podcast (the last few episodes of which explore the content of this book).

Are you interested in writing a book review for Awkward Botany or helping out in some other way? If so, go here.

Book Review: Bringing Nature Home

Since Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy was first published in 2007, it has quickly become somewhat of a “classic” to proponents of native plant gardening. As such a proponent, I figured I ought to put in my two cents. Full disclosure: this is less of a review and more of an outright endorsement. I’m fawning, really, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

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The subtitle pretty much sums it up: “How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.” Ninety three pages into the book, Tallamy elaborates further: “By favoring native plants over aliens in the suburban landscape, gardeners can do much to sustain the biodiversity that has been one of this country’s richest assets.” And one of every country’s richest assets, as far as I’m concerned. “But isn’t that why we have nature preserves?” one might ask. “We can no longer rely on natural areas alone to provide food and shelter for biodiversity,” Tallamy asserts in the Q & A portion of his book. Humans have altered every landscape – urban, suburban, rural, and beyond – leaving species of all kinds threatened everywhere. This means that efforts to protect biodiversity must occur everywhere. This is where the You comes in. Each one of us can play a part, no matter how small. In closing, Tallamy claims, “We can each make a difference almost immediately by planting a native nearby.”

A plant is considered native to an area if it shares a historical evolutionary relationship with the other organisms in that area. This evolutionary relationship is important because the interactions among organisms that developed over thousands, even millions, of years are what define a natural community. Thus, as Tallamy argues, “a plant can only function as a true ‘native’ while it is interacting with the community that historically helped shape it.” A garden designed to benefit wildlife and preserve biodiversity is most effective when it includes a high percentage of native plants because other species native to the area are already adapted to using them.

Plants (and algae) are at the base of every food chain – the first trophic level – because they produce their own food using the sun’s energy. Organisms that are primarily herbivores are at the second trophic level, organisms that primarily consume herbivores are at the third trophic level, and so on. As plants have evolved they have developed numerous defenses to keep from being eaten. Herbivores that evolved along with those plants have evolved the ability to overcome those defenses. This is important because if herbivores can’t eat the plants then they can’t survive, and if they don’t survive then there will be little food for organisms at higher trophic levels.

The most important herbivores are insects simply because they are so abundant and diverse and, thus, are a major food source for species at higher trophic levels. The problem is that, as Tallamy learned, “most insect herbivores can only eat plants with which they share an evolutionary history.” Insects are specialized as to which plants they can eat because they have adapted ways to overcome the defenses that said plants have developed to keep things from eating them. Healthy, abundant, and diverse insect populations support biodiversity at higher trophic levels, but such insect populations won’t exist without a diverse community of native plants with which the insects share an evolutionary history.

That is essentially the thesis of Tallamy’s book. In a chapter entitled “Why Can’t Insects Eat Alien Plants?” Tallamy expounds on the specialized relationships between plants and insects that have developed over millennia. Plants introduced from other areas have not formed such relationships and are thus used to a much lesser degree than their native counterparts. Research concerning this topic was scarce at the time this book was published, but among other studies, Tallamy cites preliminary data from a study he carried out on his property. The study compared the insect herbivore biomass and diversity found on four common native plants vs. five common invasive plants. The native plants produced 4 times more herbivore biomass and supported 3.2 times as many herbivore species compared to the invasive plants. He also determined that the insects using the alien plants were generalists, and when he eliminated specialists from the study he still found that natives supported twice as much generalist biomass.

Apart from native plants and insects, Tallamy frames much of his argument around birds. Birds have been greatly impacted by humans. Their populations are shrinking at an alarming rate, and many species are threatened with extinction. Tallamy asserts, “We know most about the effects of habitat loss from studies of birds.” We have destroyed their homes and taken away their food and “filled their world with dangerous obstacles.” Efforts to improve habitat for birds will simultaneously improve habitat for other organisms. Most bird species rely on insects during reproduction in order to feed themselves and their young. Reducing insect populations by filling our landscapes largely with alien plant species threatens the survival of many bird species.

In the chapters “What Should I Plant?” and “What Does Bird Food Look Like?,” Tallamy first profiles 20 groups of native trees and shrubs that excel at supporting populations of native arthropods and then describes a whole host of arthropods and arthropod predators that birds love to eat. Tallamy’s fascinating descriptions of the insects, their life cycles, and their behaviors alone make this book worth reading. Other chapters that are well worth a look are “Who Cares about Biodiversity?” in which Tallamy explains why biodiversity is so essential for life on Earth, and “The Cost of Using Alien Ornamentals” in which Tallamy outlines a number of ways that our obsession with exotic plants has caused problems for us and for natural areas.

Pupa of ladybird beetle on white oak leaf (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Pupa of a ladybird beetle on a white oak leaf. “The value of oaks for supporting both vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife cannot be overstated.” – Doug Tallamy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Convincing people to switch to using native plants isn’t always easy, especially if your argument involves providing habitat for larger and more diverse populations of insects. For those who are not fans of insects, Tallamy explains that “a mere 1%” of the 4 million insect species on Earth “interact with humans in negative ways.” The majority are not pests. It is also important to understand that even humans “need healthy insect populations to ensure our own survival.” Tallamy also offers some suggestions on how to design and manage an appealing garden using native plants. A more recent book Tallamy co-authored with fellow native plant gardening advocate Rick Darke called The Living Landscape expands on this theme, although neither book claims to be a how to guide.

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