SciSun: Rate of Return   Leave a comment

You wouldn’t expect, usually, plants to set aside much time for planning. They don’t have to schedule their days around meetings or appointments or dinners or ‘must see TV’; and they don’t travel much (new security regulations make it unreasonably difficult for a tree to get a passport); so you naturally wouldn’t expect the trees or grasses or shrubs to look too far into the future because for a plant, what’s natural is for Spring to follow Winter; the sun rises each day and sets each night; and your neighbors are the same native plants that have been living within the ecosystem for generations. Things should go much as they do every day and each year. Until humans decided they had a better way. Which often leads to challenges native plants were never prepared to encounter: Stress on natural systems; invasion by non-native species; widespread drought and wildfire; and the loss of entire environments. It was time for a Seed Strategy.

Before you picture a gathering of trees and shrubs plotting a root revolution (‘Today the park – tomorrow the world!), seed strategy is not a plan designed by plants, but a program developed to restore and manage native plants and environments in areas that have suffered from the introduction or invasion of non-native species. Aside from the purposeful addition of landscape and ornamental plants into the newly-discovered american environments (four hundred years ago the first English, Spanish and French colonists brought with them plants and animals from home, and the practice of installing ‘familiar’ plants has continued through much of the sidewalk and street landscaping we see today), following a fire, flood, or other devastating event fast-growing non-native seeds are usually the first to establish themselves in bare or disturbed soil. Whether spread by the wind or planted as something to grow in the raw and barren ground, virtually all non-native species out-compete and thrive to the loss of natives.

As the historic Dustbowl of the 1930’s (itself a product of poor farming decisions) covered much of the midwest and western US, leaving thousands of miles barren as cattle starved, water sources dried up or were reduced to mud-holes, and countless acres of top soil blew away, non-native Wheatgrass; Cheatgrass; and even Russian Thistle was planted or encouraged as easily-established, fast-growing ground cover and livestock feed. In the following decades as demand for livestock grew and the amount of available grazing land decreased due to development and climate change, even governmental organizations such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were pressured to provide fast-growing grasses, forbs, and other plants for cattle feed and to replace native species that had been depleted or over-grazed. In recent years widespread wild fires, particularly in the Western US, have destroyed tens of millions of acres of public and private land; in 2015 alone over 10 million acres incinerated. Almost a decade of fire destruction is creating in some western areas environments similar to that of the Dust Bowl years, but rather than loosing farms and topsoil, we are now seeing loss of unique ecosystems and wildlife habitat; soils that aren’t able to filter surface water resulting in streams and rivers that are un-livable for fish and other aquatic species; erosion; and sterile soils. In some areas only aggressive non-native plants can survive, which, ironically, are also among the most fire-prone and as these plants increase so does the threat of even larger, more frequent, and faster-spreading wildfires.

Five out of six native birds prefer native seed.  The sixth likes worms.

Five out of six native birds prefer native seed. The sixth likes worms.

The only solution to this round-a-bout problem is establishing native plants in burned, over-grazed, eroded, disturbed and barren land. Federal, state, tribal, and local government agencies, along with private farmers and organizations, are today working to establish Seed Banks to collect, store and protect inventories of native seeds and sprouts for immediate use and in preparation for the next natural or man-made emergency. Until very recently native seeds have been overlooked, unprotected and seed stock under-managed as part of comprehensive land-management decisions by government and private organizations. Working to create multiple locations where seeds appropriate to the surrounding natural ecosystem can be held at the ready, it will take years to develop the right seed mix, in the right amounts to restore a damaged environment, which should include a variety of species from among native grasses; forbs; shrubs and trees. Native plants generally produce fewer seeds, more slowly, than fast-spreading invasives, and the race is on as, stated by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, to fulfill ‘The right seed in the right place at the right time.”

As part of a seed strategy, plants might like the idea of seed banks. Where else would a perennial go to deposit their pennies? Or a tree apply for a home loan (which is ironic as trees, themselves, are often homes to other species so they would probably be more interested in remodeling rather than moving). But for today’s seed banks, the strategy isn’t to benefit one plant or one species or even one environment, but in the restoration and recovery of entire regions and eventual return of a healthy, native landscape. And that’s something worth investing in.


Michonne Says: Marmot strassetgy is to eat as many seeds we can find. And flowers and berries and sometimes leaves and grasses, too. And then the plants make more, maybe because they don’t have anything else to do. So everyone’s happy.

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