by James P. Engel, © 2012
The natural world and all its organisms are under relentless attack from countless manmade causes: climate change, invasive species, habitat fragmentation. You want to help reverse this trend. You want to do something positive for the environment. You already recycle, make green choices and contribute to 5 different environmental groups. What can you do locally that actually makes a difference for the plants and animals that you care about?
There is a real need for human stewardship of our local plant communities and landscapes. Native plants are the foundation of a healthy world. The difference between a degraded habitat of low quality and one that is highly productive and biologically rich, is the difference in the plants that grow there.
Consider becoming a natural agent for change.
Plants are the lungs of the planet, producing all of the oxygen we breathe and serving to filter and purify the air we breathe. Plants supply all of the food that humans eat as well as the food that all other wild life needs for survival. Plants cover the soil, provide flood control, prevent soil erosion, lower air temperatures and reduce noise pollution.
But on closer inspection, not all plants are equal . Plants that are native to a region are the key to supporting wildlife populations. These are the plants that we want to encourage in our landscapes and natural areas.
The usual way of establishing plants is to purchase plants as seedlings or larger plants in containers and plant them in the ground. This is effective for small plots and on a small scale but planting seedlings in impractical and cost prohibitive when restoring multiple acres and large tracts of land.
Plants have thrived for millions of years without the help of humans and reproduced themselves with out the necessity of planting seedlings. All plants produce seed and plants are very efficient at reproducing themselves. But reproduction by seed is inherently inefficient means of reproduction. For a seed to grow into a mature plant, it must overcome enormous obstacles and survive tremendous odds. Seeds do not have a means of movement or means of selecting where to grow, so plants are dependant on random chance to find a suitable germination site. To choose the best site for germination, plants produce huge numbers of seed to increase the chances that a few will reach suitable sites for germination.
Plants use wind, water, birds, mammals and ants to disperse its seed. These are natural dispersal agents that help to disperse the seeds of plants away from the parent plant. But these organisms are not concerned with where or how that seed gets dispersed. You on the other hand, acting as a dispersal agent, can make intelligent choices about where and how that seed gets planted. An individual can easily harvest thousands of seeds in as little as an hour. Each seed has the potential to grow into a mature plant if planted in the right location. A person such as yourself, equiped with the knowledge of how and where to plant this seed can greatly increase the chances that this seed will have the best chance to germinate and grow to maturity. This simple step can make a huge impact in the shaping of the plants and plant community that occupy a particular site. If left to chance most disturbed areas will be occupied with exotic invasive species in short order, but if you help introduce the seed of native species the future outlook for the site can be very different.
Jim Engel operates White Oak Nursery, a native tree and shrub nursery, and is actively involved in all aspects of habitat restoration.
this page updated Feb 10, 2012