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Are Plants Important?


Are plants important? If so, why?

These seem like odd questions considering my career, but they have been on my mind a lot lately. To me plants are part of who I am; I have no interest in a planet without wild areas, without diversity, these are the things that give life color. Recent conversations have indicated that many people do not feel this way and want justification for spending resources on plant conservation and habitat restoration.

I occasionally get labeled 'treehugger' (is that a bad thing?) and the assumption is made that I want to preserve plants for the sake of it, because I am emotionally attached. Is this the case or are there real reasons relevant to humanity as a whole to conserve and restore?

This is large topic, much too big for a blog, so I am just going to touch on a couple of things. I would love for others to give me their opinions too - are plants important to you? Why or why not?

Photosynthesis - Plants are the basis of the food chain. Animals cannot eat sunlight, plants can and we can eat plants.

Oxygen - Plants provide the oxygen we breathe.

Ok, so plants are important, but why do we need so many different kinds, wouldn't a few do the job?

No, not really, the fewer plants we have the more susceptible they are to disease and pestilence. Biodiversity offers the chance that whilst most of one species may be wiped out by a disease, there might be some that have evolved more resistance and make it through. Biodiversity helps to ensure that even if something becomes extinct in one part of the world an alternative may exist elsewhere.

Surely it does not matter if we lose a few species though?

Ecosystems are highly interdependent. Each time something goes extinct other species are threatened. Species are currently going extinct at rate never witnessed in human history - a rate similar to the time when dinosaurs went extinct.

What can we do? Most people reading this probably understand most of this -  this is after all a Botanic Gardens website. There are many people who do not - I think the easiest way to raise awareness of the importance of plants is to teach people to love plants. Bring your friends to the Gardens, show them why you think plants are cool. I have a hope that through visiting the Gardens and connecting with plants in their everyday life that no one will need to ask these questions and that everyone will intuitively understand that life without plants is impossible. If you want to be more active check out what our Research team is doing and consider volunteering with them.



Dominique, I enjoyed this blog. I would be interested to hear more about the interdependence you speak of and how killing off one plant species could be as harmful as you say.
Panayoti Kelaidis

Andy and Dominique, The subject of plant extinction is vast, and great numbers of ecologists and other scientists are trying desperately to fathom the enormous impacts we have had. I know that in my lifetime (albeit not so short perhaps) I have seen the population of Colorado quintuple, and have also watched the Mediterranean landscape alter immeasurably due to modern agriculture methods and vacation home development and tourism generally. I wouldn't want to speculate on how much pristine wild land I have actually observed be transformed into tract homes, shopping centers, garbage dumps and increased farmland (not to mention the countless acres flattened for energy development). And that's just me: I would suppose in my lifetime I have observed millions of wild plants obliterated. Maybe trillions. To speak of the need of conservation and preservation in this light is almost tragic, or at the very least quaint. I believe this is the most crucial item on my agenda, and one of the main reasons I have dedicated my life to botanic gardens. Shakespeare observed that "there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow". What providence is there, then, in the complete obliteration of natural ecosystems by the millions of acres in my lifetime? Let us do what we can to raise awareness of our tragic predicament. It is said that one can parboil a frog by raising the temperature incrementally (they simply don't notice it getting hotter). You and I, Dominique, are frogs who feel the heat!
Dominique Bayne

Andy, This is a very complicated issue which I know do not understand fully. I will attempt an answer maybe someone who understands this better can explain it a little more too. Please bear in mind that my answer is extremely simplified, there really are many more factors involved than I imply. Feel free to correct me if I have got things wrong. Everything in a native ecosystem has evolved together to get to where it is today. Each thing in the ecosystem helps keep everything else in balance. If one part of the ecosystem is destroyed something else dependent on it may either to proliferate or die. i.e. if a predator goes extinct a prey animal population can grow out of control. If a plant dies it might be the food source for an insect which is in turn food for an animal which is in turn food for something else. This of course does happen naturally in ecosystems and a little instability will eventually balance out again over time. Currently we are looking at many extinctions in a short period of time. Things within ecosystems cannot adapt fast enough to balance this out. Each time something else goes extinct the problem is compounded and escalated. Essentially diversity is good, monoculture bad – monocultures simply cannot perform all the functions that are required to keep things functioning well enough to provide clean water, stabilize topsoil etc. Because the ecosystems are a delicate balance and cannot react quickly to change mass extinctions will drive them towards lower diversity and monocultures (often of non-natives). For some reason this is all easier to picture with animals but it works for plants too. There are many insects which are dependent on only one species of plant for food or even for their entire lifecycles - Yuccas and their moths which pollinate them are a good example, the yuccas can only be pollinated by one specific moth. The moth then lays its eggs in the seed pod to complete its lifecycle, if one goes extinct so does the other. I hope this at least sort of answers your question. Dominique
Dominique Bayne

Panayoti, I am glad there are a few heat sensitive frogs out there!

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