I just read a very interesting article about native vs non-native plants put out by Yale Environment 360. In it, the author discusses how climate change is affecting the range of different plants and may be forcing us to reconsider what is worthy of conservation.
I thought to write my own post about this I would look up how native plants are defined, but it turns out that this is not a clear cut answer, nor should it be. What it made me think of was one of my classmates describing how, when he was an elementary student, his teacher was trying to teach them how to make tally charts. The topic she chose was “where are you from?” The other students all answered countries other than Canada, but all my classmate knew was Canada. His family had been here for multiple generations and he considered himself a Canadian. This was unacceptable to his teacher, he must be from somewhere, “nobody is Canadian”.
Native plants suffer from a similar bias. Why is it here? How did it get here? How long has it been here? How connected with the ecosystem is it? Does it do what we would consider harm to the environment? Does it have any economic benefit? The list of questions could go on. For a discussion of some of the definitions and criteria see “What is native? What is not? When does it matter?“
We don’t have clearly defined and agreed upon answers and then climate change enters the mix. The answers to some of those questions are likely to change as we see subsequent changes in wildlife both as a result of the climate and as a result of the changing vegetation. When the animals that rely on those plants also migrate, disappear, or expand, the plant will become ecologically connected.
The reality is that it will cost more money than has ever been allocated to environmental preservation world wide to maintain the “native plants” that we know today against a changing climate. This means that we are, by necessity, going to have to change how we view “invasive” or non-native plants – and other species. But I think we also need to remember that nature itself is dynamic. Stable in nature does not mean unchanging, although we often think about it as such. So, the problem is not that nature is changing but that humans have created a situation that is resulting in change that would not be happening otherwise.
Of course, we also can’t separate out the human induced from the natural changes so whatever the decisions and management options are they will apply to both. What is the ethical decision here? What is the ecological decision? Is more management the answer? Is less? Do we even have the language available to discuss this topic coherently?
Update: I’m surprised I didn’t talk about this the first time this post went up as I remember the experience quite distinctly from my PhD. Julian Agyeman came and delivered a presentation at my university and did a small seminar with a group of us. During that time he talked about how the language we use to talk about plants and wild species and what belongs where echos some of the language regarding racism and perspectives on immigration. Similar to how the whole discussion made me think of my classmate who wasn’t allowed to be Canadian. You can read more on his blog post People, plants and…..racism?.
Today, it also makes me think about a thread I saw on Twitter recently about the need to update the common names of species to remove the blatant racism and colonialism. We are starting to see how through both general human globalization and development and through climate change what once grew in an area might not actually fit the environment anymore. That plants that have been introduced at one point may now have been around long enough and become integrated to the point that it is part of the system. There’s an effort to change names. I try to use Prairie Fire rather than Indian Paintbrush regardless of what I knew the plant as in the past.
Nature is not static, we shouldn’t be either.