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

What Is a Plant?

Part one and two of this series have hopefully answered that.

Why should you care?

Part three offered a pretty convincing answer: “if it wasn’t for [plants], there wouldn’t be much life on this planet to speak of.”

Plants are at the bottom of the food chain and are a principle component of most habitats. They play major roles in nutrient cycling, soil formation, the water cycle, air and water quality, and climate and weather patterns. The examples used in part three of this series to explain the diverse ways that plants provide habitat and food for other organisms apply to humans as well. However, humans have found numerous other uses for plants that are mostly unique to our species – some of which will be discussed here.

But first, some additional thoughts on photosynthesis. Plants photosynthesize thanks to the work accomplished by very early photoautotrophic bacteria that were confined to aquatic environments. These bacteria developed the metabolic processes and cellular components that were later co-opted (via symbiogensis) by early plants. Plants later colonized land, bringing with them the phenomena of photosynthesis and transforming life on earth as we know it. Single-celled organisms started this whole thing, and they continue to rule. That’s just something to keep in mind, since our focus tends to be on large, multi-cellular beings, overlooking all the tiny, less visible beings at work all around us making life possible.

Current representation of the tree of life. Microorganisms clearly dominate. (image credit: nature microbiology)

Current representation of the tree of life. Microorganisms clearly dominate. (image credit: nature microbiology)

Food is likely the first thing that comes to mind when considering what use plants are to humans. The domestication of plants and the development of agriculture are easily among the most important events in human history. Agricultural innovations continue today and are necessary in order to both feed a growing population and reduce our environmental impact. This is why efforts to discover and conserve crop wild relatives are so essential.

Plants don’t just feed us though. They house us, clothe us, medicate us, transport us, supply us, teach us, inspire us, and entertain us. Enumerating the untold ways that plants factor in to our daily lives is a monumental task. Rather than tackling that task here, I’ll suggest a few starting points: this Wikipedia page, this BGCI article, this Encylopedia of Life article, and this book by Anna Lewington. Learning about the countless uses humans have found for plants over millennia should inspire admiration for these green organisms. If that admiration leads to conservation, all the better. After all, if the plants go, so do we.

Humans have a long tradition of using plants as medicine. Despite all that we have discovered regarding the medicinal properties of plants, there remains much to be discovered. This one of the many reasons why plant conservation is so important. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Humans have a long tradition of using plants as medicine. Despite all that we have discovered regarding the medicinal properties of plants, there remains much to be discovered. This is one of the many reasons why plant conservation is imperative. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Gaining an appreciation for the things that plants do for us is increasingly important as our species becomes more urban. Our dense populations tend to push plants and other organisms out, yet we still rely on their “services” for survival. Many of the functions that plants serve out in the wild can be beneficial when incorporated into urban environments. Plants improve air quality, reduce noise pollution, mitigate urban heat islands, help manage storm water runoff, create habitat for urban wildlife, act as a windbreak, reduce soil erosion, and help save energy spent on cooling and heating. Taking advantage of these “ecosystem services” can help our cities become more liveable and sustainable. As the environmental, social, and economic benefits of “urban greening” are better understood, groups like San Francisco’s Friends of the Urban Forest are convening to help cities across the world go green.

The importance of plants as food, medicine, fuel, fiber, housing, habitat, and other resources is clear. Less obvious is the importance of plants in our psychological well being. Numerous studies have demonstrated that simply having plants nearby can offer benefits to one’s mental and physical health. Yet, urbanization and advancements in technology have resulted in humans spending more and more time indoors and living largely sedentary lives. Because of this shift, author Richard Louv and others warn about nature deficit disorder, a term not recognized as an actual condition by the medical community but meant to describe our disconnect with the natural world. A recent article in BBC News adds “nature knowledge deficit” to these warnings – collectively our knowledge about nature is slipping away because we don’t spend enough time in it.

The mounting evidence for the benefits of having nature nearby should be enough for us to want to protect it. However, recognizing that we are a part of that nature rather than apart from it should also be emphasized. The process that plants went through over hundreds of millions of years to move from water to land and then to become what they are today is parallel with the process that we went through. At no point in time did we become separate from this process. We are as natural as the plants. We may need them a bit more than they need us, but we are all part of a bigger picture. Perhaps coming to grips with this reality can help us develop greater compassion for ourselves as well as for the living world around us.

Our Urban Planet

As the human population balloons and cities sprawl, ecological studies in urban areas are following suit. Nature has always been a component of cities – we can’t escape it after all, as hard as we may try – but urban nature (and the enhancement of it) has become increasingly important as the human species continues to urbanize. More and more we are seeing the importance of melding the built environment with the natural one. Our motivations are diverse – albeit largely anthropocentric. But that’s fine. As we make improvements to the live-ability of cities for human’s sake, other living beings benefit. We are finding ways to get along with our neighbors, and we are learning to appreciate and value them as well.

Since 2008, the world’s urban population has outnumbered its rural population, and it is predicted that by 2050, more than two-thirds of humans will be urbanites. Immense resources are required to support such large, concentrated populations, and most of these resources are produced outside of urban areas. This results in an ecological footprint that is significantly larger than the city itself. Additionally, waste and pollution produced within cities negatively effects surrounding areas and beyond in abundant ways.

st louis

In May of this year, Science put out a special issue entitled, “Urban Planet,” which features a series of articles that address some of the latest research in urban ecology and discuss current developments and future research needs – a sort of state of the union address for urban ecology in 2016. A series of 13 articles covered diverse topics including city-integrated renewable energy, innovative solutions to water challenges, transportation and air pollution, and food security in an urban world. Rodent-borne diseases in urban slums, creating sustainable cities in China, and Vancouver’s push to become the “greenest city” were also features of this special issue.

The issue serves to highlight the importance of this field of study and the urgency there is in finding solutions to major environmental challenges. But it also offers hope. Bright minds are working towards solutions to this century’s biggest problems as we look towards a more sustainable future. The introduction emphasizes that “the rise of cities is not…all doom and gloom.” Urbanization has upsides: “consolidating human populations helps shrink our individual environmental footprints, and cities are serving as living laboratories for further improvements.”

Urban ecology is a relatively recent subfield of ecology. In The Ecological Future of Cities, Mark McDonnell and Ian MacGregor-Fors describe how it “arose in the 1990’s out of a need to increase our…understanding of the ecological and human dimensions of urban ecosystems.” Initially the field was mainly concerned with biodiversity and the ecosystem processes and services found within cities. Findings from these studies are now influencing urban planning, design, and management. Such decisions are also informed by more recent studies in the field of urban ecology, which has grown to include “issues of sustainability, environmental quality, and human well-being in urban ecosystems.”

The authors note that our ecological understanding of cities was waylaid because “nature within cites was long considered unworthy of study, except when it involved solving environmental problems that threatened human well-being.” Cities were perceived as unnatural because humans had “disrupt[ed] the natural ecological conditions and processes that scientists [were] attempting to understand.” Today, ecologists recognize that studies in the field of urban ecology help us better understand basic ecological principles, while also providing “valuable information for creating liveable, healthy, and resilient urban environments.”

Studies in urban ecology have also increased our understanding of the mechanisms involved in evolution and adaptation. To illustrate this, the authors offer examples of birds that modified their songs “to communicate at noisy locations” and plants that shifted their seed dispersal strategies to survive in “highly fragmented urban habitats.” The authors also highlight the importance of maintaining or restoring natural vegetation in urban areas in order to help preserve struggling species of plants and animals, citing a study that found that “fewer local plant extinctions occurred in cities that maintained at least 30% native vegetation cover.” Additionally, the authors note that “the scope of urban ecology research extends well beyond city limits,” since urbanization is partly to blame for numerous environmental issues including habitat loss and fragmentation, biodiversity loss, climate change, and invasive species.

In Living in Cities, Naturally, Terry Hartig and Peter Kahn, Jr. address the topic of mental health and urban living. While there is still much to learn about the relationship between the two, it is generally believed that viewing or spending time in nature can help improve one’s mental well-being. As the authors put it, “parks and green spaces” can be viewed as “health resources for urban populations,” and including natural areas and natural processes in the design and creation of cities is necessary “for psychological as well as ecological purposes.”

Green roofs

Green roofs are one way to add green space to urban areas. They help replace vegetation that was removed when buildings were constructed, and they offer numerous environmental benefits.

Interacting with nature in an urban setting can help people develop positive feelings about the natural world and may encourage support for environmental protection. The authors worry that if future generations grow up without an intimate connection to the natural world, elevated amounts of environmental degradation will be seen as normal and a feeling of urgency to protect the environment from continued degradation will fade. This is why including plentiful amounts of green space within cities is essential: “Providing opportunities for people to experience more robust, healthy, and even wilder forms of nature in cities offers an important solution to this collective loss of memory and can counter the shifting baseline.”

This special issue of Science highlights some of the current ecological and environmental research regarding urbanization. For a great introductory look at urban ecology and basic ecological principles, check out the book, Nature All Around Us. Also, expect to see many more urban ecology themed posts on Awkward Botany. Tell your friends.

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.

native plant podcast logo and sign

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.

Happy American Wetlands Month!

To kick off this year’s American Wetlands Month, I am reposting something I posted three years ago. I have updated the links and added a few more resources. In celebration, all Awkward Botany posts in May will have something to do with wetlands. An underlying goal of American Wetlands Month is to encourage people to get out and visit wetlands in their area and find out what they can do to help conserve them. Hopefully this series of posts helps to further that aim.

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“May is American Wetlands Month! No matter where you live, chances are there’s a wetland nearby that provides important environmental benefits to your community. Wetlands support diverse fish and wildlife species, filter pollutants from rain water runoff, help recharge groundwater supplies, prevent flooding and enhance property values.” – Earth Gauge (A program of the National Environmental Education Foundation)

Wetlands are ecosystems that are characterized by their vegetation (aquatic plants), their soils (formed during anaerobic conditions caused by being flooded or saturated with standing water), and, of course, their state of being largely saturated with water either seasonally or permanently. Examples of natural wetlands include bogs, fens, marshes, and swamps. Wetlands can also be constructed by humans for the purpose of collecting storm water runoff from urban areas in efforts to reduce the risk of flooding and avoid overwhelming municipal sewer systems during large rainstorms.

Wetlands are the most threatened type of ecosystem on earth, and we are losing them at a steady clip. Major threats to wetlands include land development, pollution (agricultural, commercial, residential, etc.), and the introduction of invasive species. Considering the benefits we receive from having wetlands around, it is imperative that we protect them. Earth Gauge offers some suggestions on how to do so.

wetland benefits

Speaking of wetlands, one of my favorite wetland plant species is marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). It is in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and is common throughout the Northern Hemisphere. I became familiar with this plant when I was volunteering at a wetland in Edwardsville, IL. Perhaps you’ve seen it growing near you.

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) - Photo taken at Idaho Botanical Garden.

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) – Photo taken at Idaho Botanical Garden.

Additional Resources

The Making of a Kill Jar

I often hear stories from plant lovers about their initial nonchalance concerning plants. The common refrain seems to be that they were fascinated by wildlife and largely ignored plant life until they came to the realization that plants were integral in the lives of animals and play a major role in shaping the environments that support all life. Such an epiphany spawns an insatiable obsession with botany, at least for some people.

I seem to be on the opposite trajectory. It’s not like I have ever really been disinterested in animals; I’ve just been significantly more interested in plants and haven’t bothered to learn much about the animal kingdom (with the exception of entomology). My growing fascination with pollination biology (see last year’s Year of Pollination series) isn’t much of a stretch because insects have always appealed to me, and their intimate interactions with plants are hard to ignore. Ultimately, it is my interest in urban ecology and wildlife friendly gardening that is driving me to learn more about animals.

I started this year off by finally reading Doug Tallamy’s popular book, Bringing Nature Home. Tallamy wrote a lot about birds in his book, which got me thinking more about them. I then discovered Welcome to Subirdia, a book by John Marzluff that explores the diversity of birds that live among us in our urban environments. I then found myself paying more attention to birds. Many bird species rely on insects for food at some point in their lives. Plants regularly interact with insects both in defending themselves against herbivory and in attracting insects to assist in pollination. It’s all connected, and it seems I wouldn’t be much of a botanist then if I didn’t also learn about all of the players involved in these complex interactions.

So, now I’m a birdwatcher and an insect collector. Or at least I’m learning to be. Insects are hard to learn much about without capturing them. They often move quickly, making them hard to identify, or they go completely unnoticed because they are tiny and so well hidden or camouflaged. With the help of a net and a kill jar, you can get a closer look. This not only allows you to determine the species of insects that surround you, but it can also help give you an idea of their relative abundances, their life cycles, where they live and what they feed on, etc.

insect net 2_bw

As the name implies, if you’re using a kill jar, your actions will result in the death of insects. Some people will be more pleased about this than others. If killing insects bothers you, don’t worry, insect populations are typically abundant enough that a few individuals sacrificed for science will not hurt the population in a serious way.

Kill jars can be purchased or they can be made very simply with a few easy to find materials. Start with a glass jar with a metal lid. Mix up a small amount of plaster of paris. Pour the wet plaster in the jar, filling it to about one inch. Allow the plaster to dry completely. This process can be sped up by placing the jar in an oven set on warm. When the plaster is dry, “charge” the jar by soaking the plaster with either ethyl acetate, nail polish remover, or rubbing alcohol. I use nail polish remover because it is cheap and easily accessible. It doesn’t work as quickly as pure ethyl acetate, but it is less toxic. Place a paper towel or something soft and dry in the jar. This keeps the insects from getting beaten up too much as they thrash about. Once the insect is dead, it can be easily observed with a hand lens or a dissecting microscope. It can also be pinned, labeled, and added to a collection.

There are several resources online that describe the process of collecting and preserving insects, including instructions for making an inexpensive kill jar, which is why I am keeping this brief and will instead refer you to a couple of such sites. Like this one from Purdue University’s extension program. It’s directed toward youth, but it includes great information for beginners of any age. This post by Dragonfly Woman is a great tutorial for making a kill jar, and there are several other posts on her blog that are very informative for insect collectors of all experience levels.

I guess you could consider this part of my journey of becoming a naturalist. Perhaps you are on a similar journey. If so, share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below.

In Defense of Plants – A Podcast Review

I’m an avid podcast listener; however, the majority of the podcasts I listen to, while satisfying many of my varied interests, don’t speak to my interests in plants and plant science. Recently, when I went searching for such a podcast, I happened upon In Defense of Plants. Alas, my podcast queue felt complete.

indefenseofplants

In Defense of Plants began as a blog authored by a guy named Matt. The podcast emerged about 3 years later, and in the first episode (which was posted in January 2015), Matt explains why he started the blog. While searching the internet in an effort to learn more about plants, he discovered that people weren’t writing the stories that he really wanted to read – stories that went beyond mainly talking about the anthropogenic uses of plants. Rather, Matt was interested in the stories of the plants themselves, their biological and evolutionary histories and how they fit in with the ecological world around them. Unable to find such a blog, he decided to start one himself.

His passion for plants for plant’s sake continues in his podcast. It’s evidenced both in the topics he covers as well as in the way he speaks enthusiastically and affectionately about the plants involved in the stories he tells and their habitats. He finds people to interview that are as excited about plants as he is – some are friends, some are research scientists, and some are people otherwise involved in botany or horticulture. All have interesting things to say about the world of plants and plant ecology.

Ludisia discolor - the plant that inspired Matt to start the blog

Ludisia discolor – the plant that inspired Matt to start the blog (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Over the mere nine months that the podcast has been in existence, Matt has shared some of his personal botanical explorations. When he started the podcast he was living in Buffalo, NY. He completed a Master’s degree program there and has since moved to Illinois to pursue a PhD. His most recent episodes find him exploring the tallgrass prairie of the Midwest. He’s got my attention, since this is one of my favorite ecosystems in North America.

Standout episodes to me so far have been the two part episode with Russel Funderburk as they walk through the grounds of the Highlands Biological Station, the discussion with Dave Spiering about urban ecology, and the interview with Dr. Robert Warren about invasive species (“a refreshing take”). The episode about pack rat middens and the candid discussion with Matt’s friend Steve about why they botanize are also great. Matt and Steve also do an episode about plant poaching, a topic that deserves much more attention than it gets.

The love Matt has for plants is infectious, and it is hard not to feel his excitement as he helps tell their stories. So, if you find that your podcast queue is lacking something purely plant related, In Defense of Plants is a podcast you should definitely be following.

Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis)

Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is featured in two episodes of In Defense of Plants. Listen to part one and part two. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

 

Drought Tolerant Plants: Water Efficient Garden at Idaho State Capitol Building

water efficient garden sign

As drought and threats of drought continue in the western half of the United States, as well as in many other parts of the world, people are increasingly looking for ways to use less water in their landscapes. For many it is a change they are reluctant to make, worried that they will have to sacrifice lush and colorful yards and gardens for drab, dry, gray, and seemingly lifeless ones. Not so, though. The palette of plants that can survive in low water environments is actually quite diverse and contains numerous plants that are just as lush and colorful as some water hogging ones. If planned, planted, and maintained well, a water efficient garden can be incredibly attractive and can even consist of some plants that are comparatively more heavy water users. So, for those who are apprehensive about getting down with brown, don’t fret – there is a better way.

How does one go about creating such a garden? The answer to that is a book on its own – much too long for a single blog post. It also depends who is asking the question, or more specifically, where they are asking it from. Luckily, demonstrations of water-wise gardens are becoming more common. These gardens, planted with regionally appropriate plants and showcasing various water-saving techniques, are great places to start when looking for ideas and motivation. Such gardens can be found at public parks, city and state government buildings, botanical gardens, nurseries and nursery centers, and water company offices. If you are looking to transform your landscape into a more water efficient one, seek out a demonstration garden in your area. It’s a great place to start.

There are several such gardens where I live, one of which is the Water Efficient Garden at the Idaho State Capitol Building in Boise, Idaho. This garden began in 2010 as a partnership between United Water Idaho and the Idaho Capitol Commission. Its mission is to introduce visitors to “low-water native and adaptive plants that thrive in Idaho’s climate.” The plants that were selected for the garden are commonly found at local garden centers and nurseries – an important objective when introducing people to water-wise gardening. The ultimate goal of this garden is to “show homeowners that they can maintain attractive landscaping while conserving water.”

I have my criticisms of this garden regarding plant selection, design, etc., but I’ll spare you those details. I also don’t know the specifics about how this garden is maintained or how often it is watered. All that aside, I am just happy that it exists, and I encourage you to seek out similar gardens in your area. There are numerous approaches to designing and constructing water efficient gardens – again, a book on its own – but demonstration gardens like this are an excellent place to get ideas and learn what other people in your area are doing to conserve water and create landscapes that better reflect the ecology of your region.

United Water Idaho offers a brief introduction to low water gardening here, as well as a list of plants that are in the capitol building garden here.

Blanket Flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora 'Goblin') Plants in the garden are accompanied by a sign with a number on it. The sign corresponds to the plant list that is provided at the entrances to the garden.

Blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Goblin’). Plants in the garden are accompanied by a sign with a number on it. The sign corresponds to a plant list that is provided at the entrances to the garden.

Dianthus sp.

Dianthus sp.

Coreopsis sp.

Coreopsis sp.

Geranium sp.

Geranium sp.

Liatris sp.

Liatris sp.

A drift of pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)

A drift of pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Yellow ice plant (Delosperma nubiginum)

Yellow ice plant (Delosperma nubiginum)

Other “Drought Tolerant Plants” Posts on Awkward Botany:

Fernbush

Blue Sage

Prickly Pears