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

Photo of Shutterstock / Jর্গrgen Bauer

Spring is starting in Michigan, where I live, and I’m scheduling frequent walks to welcome the wildlife that will soon bloom – beautiful white trillium, marsh marigolds and bright red wild columbine.

After working at home for almost two years due to the epidemic, I am confined to my own home, observing the flower and vegetable gardens and the plants growing in the vicinity. I have practically soaked other plants through social media. Monstera Monday, Houseplant Hour, Black Botanist Week, Plantstagram and many other plant communities have developed online during the epidemic. While some initially thought they might need to grow their own vegetables, others found comfort and peace in caring for plants or simply observing them.

Since I recently started traveling again, the practicing plant biologists within me have been fascinated by encounters with plants that have also endured, and are similarly trying to get out of challenging times.

I have seen destroyed plant communities, destroyed alongside people living in the same place. Towards the end of 2021, I encountered hundreds of trees in Iowa whose entire upper canopy was torn apart by a deraco in 2020. This prolonged storm has devastated parts of the Midwest, causing a catastrophic loss of human life and extensive physical damage to buildings and natural sites. I have seen evergreen trees with completely flat tops, because their distinct points have become extinct. The sudden short stems of deciduous oak and maple trees were further evidence of the damage caused by the storm.

Many of the millions of trees damaged by Midwest Derecho, one of the most expensive storms in U.S. history, were removed because of the threat of their skeletons. Other badly injured trees are now on the way to recovery. For trees, an early rest and recovery phase is followed by the period of actively creating new paths for branch and leaf growth.

Plants and shrubs in general are quite resilient – all the trees I have encountered in Iowa have already begun to develop callus tissue resulting in a huge scab forming on the wound of a broken branch or detached stem. This is proof of the hard work of healthy trees to move forward from trauma.

A recent trip to California has brought me into contact with a large portion of the forest that has been damaged by wildfires over the past few years. The state’s giant sequoia groves have been destroyed by fire, and much of the Redwood Mountain grove in Kings Canyon National Park has been destroyed.

The giant Sequoia is adapted to fire. They can resist – and indeed – rely on low-intensity fires for reproduction. But climate change and human intervention are changing the frequency and intensity of forest fires that ultimately lead to huge Sequoia damage. When killed by fire, these large trees become huge skeletons that are hard to ignore. Such remnants are a major reminder of the effects of disasters on our communities that can be forgotten when we focus on the destructive effects that affect human life.

War, too, is a humanitarian and environmental crisis. Seeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and mourning the loss of life unconsciously, I notice the loss of pine and hornbeam birch trees as well as vineyards and garden landscapes in the images of the conflict sites.

When wildfires, derecos or hurricanes occur, our natural response is to focus on the loss of human life and economic loss. We sometimes note the impact of such events on plants and animals, especially the economic downturn due to the impact on crop plants.

But while we cannot focus on plant damage during disasters, our ability to recover is deeply affected by the equivalent power of our plant neighbors, in which these organisms contribute to the production and supply of oxygen. During the 2020 growing season, wildfires in California destroyed more than 12,000 square kilometers of farmland, affecting many vegetable, fruit and nut crops.

The plants beside us often escape our notice. Human plant awareness may be limited outside of our regular cultural engagement with them during celebrations and mourning. Yet these animals are our living neighbors. Finding a way forward through the crisis becomes even easier if we can see all the negatively affected lives, including the plants that divide our community. We need to see their fullness – both how they add beauty to our existence and what is essential for it – to work to save them, just as we want to save ourselves.

Beronder Week

What am i reading

South to America: A Journey Under Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation By Imani Perry.

What i see

I’m revisiting High on the Hog: How African American food has changed America

What am i doing

I am revising my next research paper on the lessons I can learn from nature about equity in society.

  • Next week: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

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