In Defense of Plants

Towards the end of my undergraduate career I took a job restoring abandoned quarries throughout western New York. The goal was to take possibly the most destructive form of land use and attempt to coax something resembling a habitat out of it.

My favorite project took place in an old sand pit way out in the country. Spending time there was rewarding enough, as the surrounding wilderness was already beginning to reclaim what humans had taken from it. We were attempting to reintroduce an endangered butterfly to part of its former range, and to do so, we needed to establish a robust population of its host plant. The butterfly in question is the Karner blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) and its host plant the blue lupine (Lupinus perennis). Karner blue caterpillars feed on nothing else.

The Karner Butterfly

Following the end of the Pleistocene, L. perennis took advantage of the well-drained soils left in the wake of the retreating glacial ice sheets and spread from coastal New England all the way to Minnesota. It specializes on nutrient poor, sandy soils. In fact, these plants were once thought to be bad for the land, robbing it of life and vitality. As such, they were maligned. The generic name “Lupinus” has its roots in another Latin word and was given to these plants because early botanists associated them with another creature that haunted their nightmares and left the land impoverished—the wolf (Canis lupis). As with the misappropriated hatred towards the wolf, the idea that Lupine was bad for the land was far from true. Being a legume, it is able to fix atmospheric nitrogen, thus bringing life to barren soils. But, as is human nature, facts never seem to trump emotions, and L. perennis has seen a 90% decrease in its numbers in the wild. With it went the Karner blue butterfly.

This story affected me deeply. The more I dug into the literature, the more I realized how important plants are. I haven’t looked back since. That initial interest has grown into a full-blown obsession with the botanical kingdom.

Early on, if someone had told me that I would end up devoting my life to studying plants, I probably would have laughed at them and walked away. Growing up I thought plants were utterly boring, a sentiment probably shared by more people than I can count. I was an animal person. Needless to say, much has changed over the last decade.

I try my best to communicate my love of the plant kingdom, but all too often it falls of deaf ears. Any time I present to a group I inevitably hear the same responses: “What medicinal properties does it have?” or “Are the flowers pretty?” Most people only seem to care about plants when there is some sort of anthropocentric use for them. This, my friends, is a travesty. Plants are everything. They are the reason our planet is not a closed system. They are the reason I am here writing this and you are there reading it. Plants are what paved the way for terrestrial life way back in the Devonian.

Wild Lupine

You see, plants have this amazing ability to absorb energy from our sun and turn it into food, a fact that with the exception of deep sea thermal vents, every organism on this planet relies on in one form or another. They have been at it for a long time too. The botanical world is full of survivors. Far from being boring and nonreactive, plants are living, breathing organisms capable of some amazing biological feats, which include chemical warfare that the UN would seriously frown upon. They have been at this whole survival game for much longer than any of our ancestors have. Each species has its own story, its own ecology, and its own way of interacting with the world around it. Plants aren’t here for us. We are here because of them. Everything is. We define entire ecosystems by the types of plants that grow there. We simply cannot understand the living world without first considering the flora that shaped it.

Despite all of their importance, plants still receive considerably less attention than animals. Shoot a bald eagle and you risk being put in jail. At the same time, some careless herbalist can clear an entire forest of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) or American ginseng (Panax quinquifolius) without anyone batting an eye. Poachers are taking to what little old growth forests remain and robbing them of orchid species already threatened with extinction and all so that some careless hobbyist can have a rare plant in their collection. We are heading into an uncertain future wrought with climate change and habitat destruction. At the base of it all is the plant kingdom. Until we begin appreciating our botanical neighbors for all they are worth, I fear things are not going to get any better.

In Defense of Plants is a blog and podcast dedicated to the botanical world, hoping to foster a sense of awe for earth’s photosynthetic wonders. Like them on Facebook or follow their Tumblr for more.

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