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We must pay more attention to plants and trees in times of crisis

Our ability to recover from catastrophic events like storms and wildfires is deeply tied to the natural world, says Beronda L. Montgomery

Environment | Columnist 6 April 2022

Colorful flowering herb meadow with purple blooming phacelia, orange calendula officinalis and wild chamomile. Meadow flowers photographed landscape format suitable as wall decoration in wellness area; Shutterstock ID 1428636158; purchase_order: -; job: -; client: -; other: -

Shutterstock/Juergen Bauer Pictures

SPRING is springing in Michigan, where I live, and I am scheduling frequent walks to welcome the vibrant wildflowers that will soon emerge – beautiful white trilliums, marsh marigolds and bright red wild columbine.

After two years of mostly working at home due to the pandemic, I have been limited to observing the plants growing in my own house, flower and vegetable gardens and the neighbourhood. I have also been soaking up other plants virtually, through social media. Monstera Mondays, Houseplant Hour, Black Botanists Week, Plantstagram and many other plant communities have flourished online during the pandemic. While some initially thought they might need to grow their own vegetables, others have drawn comfort and peace from caring for plants or simply observing them.

As I recently began to travel again, the practising plant biologist in me has been fascinated to encounter plants that have also endured, and were likewise endeavouring to emerge from challenging times.

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I have seen devastated plant communities, destroyed alongside the humans living in the same spaces. In late 2021, I encountered many of the hundreds of trees in Iowa whose entire top canopy had been severed by a derecho in 2020. This long-lasting storm ravaged parts of the Midwest, causing a tragic loss of human life and massive physical damage to buildings and natural spaces. I saw evergreen trees with completely flat tops, as their distinctive points had been obliterated. The abruptly shortened trunks of deciduous oak and maple trees were more stark evidence of the damage caused by the storm.

Many of the millions of trees damaged by the Midwest derecho, one of the most costly storms in US history, were removed due to the threat their skeletons posed. Other badly injured trees are now on a path to recovery. For trees, an initial rest and recovery phase is followed by a period of actively forging new paths of branch and leaf growth.

Plants and trees in general are quite resilient – a number of the trees I encountered in Iowa had already initiated the development of callus tissue that results in a massive scab forming over the wound of a broken branch or severed trunk. This is evidence of healthy trees labouring to move forwards from trauma.

A recent trip to California brought me into contact with vastly scorched tracts of forests damaged by massive blazes in the past couple of years. Groves of giant sequoia trees in the state have been decimated by fires, and Redwood Mountain Grove in Kings Canyon National Park was largely destroyed.

Giant sequoias are adapted to fire. They can withstand – and indeed depend on – low-intensity fire for reproduction. But climate change and human interventions are changing the frequency and intensity of forest fires that ultimately lead to massive sequoia losses. When killed by fire, these large trees become huge skeletons that are hard to ignore. Such remnants are a key reminder of the impact of disasters on our communities that can be forgotten when we are understandably focused on the devastation affecting human lives.

War, too, is both a humanitarian and environmental crisis. Watching Russia’s attack on Ukraine unfold, and mourning the lives senselessly lost, I also notice the damage to pine and hornbeam birch trees, as well as to vineyard and orchard landscapes, in images from sites of conflict.

When forest fires, derechos or hurricanes occur, it is our natural response to concentrate on the loss of human life and the economic damage. We sometimes make note of the impact of such events on flora and fauna, most notably the economic fallout due to effects on crop plants.

But while we may not focus on the loss of vegetation in times of disaster, our capacity to recover is deeply affected by the equivalent abilities of our plant neighbours, including the contributions these organisms make to the production of oxygen and to food supply. In the 2020 growing season, more than 12,000 square kilometres of farmland were destroyed by fires in California, affecting many vegetable, fruit and nut crops.

The plants living right alongside us often escape our notice. ppp3.10153 Human plant awareness can be limited outside our regular cultural engagement with them at times of celebration and grief. Yet these beings are our living neighbours. Finding a way forward through crisis is made easier if we can see all of the lives that are negatively affected, including those plants sharing our communities. We have to see them in their fullness – both how they add beauty to our existence and are essential to it – to work to save them, just as we seek to save ourselves.

Beronda’s week

What I’m reading

South to America: A journey below the Mason-Dixon to understand the soul of a nation by Imani Perry.

What I’m watching

I am revisiting High on the Hog: How African American cuisine transformed America

What I’m working on

I am revising my next paper on lessons we can learn from nature about equity in community.

  • Up next week: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

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