Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Ornamental, Beneficial - and Vanishing? the Challenge of Protecting America's Wildflowers

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Ornamental, Beneficial - and Vanishing? the Challenge of Protecting America's Wildflowers

Article excerpt

One resplendent sign of spring comes with the return of delicate wildflowers that bloom briefly following the bleak winter. Though their ephemeral nature enhances the enduring popularity of such pretty plants, they paradoxically represent a beauty that our descendants may never see: within a few generations, many of these blossoms that lighten our hearts in springtime and serve us in important practical ways may be gone forever.

And the fault is ours.

Flowers continue to wither away

Humanity presides over a mass extinction of plants, not to mention other life forms. This is not a theoretical future consequence of global climate change, but is instead an event in progress, due largely to habitat destruction and overuse.

Extinction already totals several hundred times the normal historical rate,1 meaning that species are lost faster than new ones evolve as replacements.

Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a leading conservation biologist, predicted at the 1999 International Botanical Congress that if trends continue, "as many as 100,000 of the estimated total 300,000 [plant] species may be gone or on the way to extinction by the middle of the [2 151] century."2

Most species at greatest risk live in the biodiverse tropics or on islands, where destruction of a relatively small piece of habitat or the introduction of a single invasive species can wipe out vulnerable plants and animals.

In temperate climates, woodland wildflowers may be among the plants most in peril. For one thing, these plants thrive only in a certain habitat and are dependent upon the shade and stability of the forest for shelter. ( Inversely, because trees block out light, a small plant on the forest floor can be hard put to gain enough energy from sunlight to grow and reproduce. This is why many spring flowers bloom so early, before they are shaded out.)

Forests are tlireatened by logging and global warming. Severe droughts, which are predicted to increase in many areas including much of the Western U.S.,3,4 can cause devastating loss of forest trees.5,7 And if trees are lost, the plants of the forest floor cannot compete in a much sunnier and more disturbed environment.

Also, although the effects of climate change are still relatively minor, the earth has gotten warmer over the past century. This may expand the range of destructive insects7 and the plant diseases they carry.8 And several studies of phenology (the study of the timing of a species' activities or life stages) showthat warmer temperatures may induce some plants to flower earlier than they used to. % '" Spring-flowering plants, with their tendency to break dormancy at the first hint of warmth and flower soon tf iereafter, may be more affected than other plants."· I2 The point: disturbing the natural cycle may be harmful.

Ecologiste warn that the web of relationships among organisms could be disrupted if insects and other animals that pollinate plants or disperse or consume seeds experience different levels of phenological change. For example, a pollinating insect might begin to emerge in spring before or after the plant has flowered, rather than simultaneously.13

Losses mount when plants die out

When plants vanish from an area, or go extinct altogether, we lose more than beauty. Many wildflowers can be used as foods, herbal medicines, or dyes - sometimes all three. For instance, the ripe fruit of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is edible, while one of the active compounds in the root, podophyllotoxin, has been used to develop two cancer drugs, including etoposide. best known as part of the treatment that saved cyclist Lance Armstrong's life. I4 And goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) helps to treat sore throat and digestive inflammation and can be used to make a yellow dye.

Because most plants have not been studied at all, valuable applications surely remain to be derived from some. …

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