Monday, May 13, 2013

Plants of the World: Every Plant is Native Somewhere

California poppy in California grasslands
California poppy
in California grasslands
Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
Tortuguero National Park
Costa Rica
      Every plant is native somewhere! That is a truth that eventually strikes the traveler. For me, it was seeing plants I knew as houseplants  growing up a tree in the rainforest of Costa Rica.  
    Whether the plant is grown as a house plant or raised for its fruit or planted as a shrub to brighten the yard, it has a home range somewhere where it can be found growing naturally. 

     (There are a few domesticated plants whose the wild relative has gone extinct, but those are exceptional cases and today I want to talk about the vast majority of the world's 330,000 species of plants.) 

     Where plants are native they don't need human help to grow and reproduce. There, they can be found growing in odd locations--along a fence, on an eroding slope--because they got there by themselves. 

    Do you know the homelands of the plants around you?







Coreopsis in the prairie
Coreopsis in the prairie 
Coreopsis in Iowa prairie
Coreopsis in Iowa prairie



 I grow coreopsis (Coreopsis spp., Asteraceae, sunflower family) from seeds I buy, but here it is, at home in a prairie in Iowa.


Saguaro in Arizona
Saguaro in Arizona
Saguaro in Arizona
Saguaro in Arizona
                                                                 


     Even if you’ve seen giant saguaro cacti (Carnegiea gigantea, cactus family, Cactaceae) in the western movies, they are awe-inspiring in their homeland. On a visit the American Southwest, to walk up to a saguaro where it towers above and realize that it belongs there is amazing. This strange form is alive and self-sustaining. It sprouts, reproduces and dies, leaving offspring that fit that environment equally well and has done so for millennia. 

     The world has major geographic regions, where plants have evolved separate from the other ones:  Eurasia, Africa, North America, South America, Australia. Ordinary plants in each region are strange and exotic outside those regions. In addition, living in mountains or deserts or forests or plains has shaped plants good at surviving in one but not so good in the others. So while Australians can see redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens, Cupressaceae, cypress family) in botanical gardens and Americans can see eucalypts (Eucalyptus globulus, Australians say blue gum, myrtle family, Myrtaceae) planted in California, redwoods grow natively on the coast and blue gums are at home in Australia.  
Sequoia sempervirens,
coast redwoods, California 

Eucalytus tree, Victoria Australia
Eucalytus tree, Victoria Australia
     





Auricarias in New Zealand
Auricarias in New Zealand
Pines in California
Pines in California
     As a professor of biology I taught about the plants that I had never seen in nature. I was particularly curious about plants native to the temperate regions of the Southern Hemisphere. Many of those have not crossed the tropics to enter the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere so are never native in the Northern Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere conifers, looking like pines but not quite, are one of those groups. Pines (genus Pinus, family Pinaceae) are Northern Hemisphere conifers. We grow Norfolk Island pine as a large houseplants, but Norfolk Island is off Australia and Norfolk Island pine, Auraucaria heterophylla, is an auricaria, not a pine (famly Auricariaceae). In New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and southern South America (Patagonia) auricarias and their relatives the podocarps are the wild trees of the hillsides, not pines and spruces. (Pines and spruces are Northern Hemisphere conifers. If you grew up in the Southern Hemisphere, they’d look odd to you if you saw them growing wild.)

Plant in Proteaceae, Victoria, Australia
Plant in Proteaceae, Victoria, Australia
     In 2008 I got very excited seeing my first plants in the family Proteaceae in the wild. The Proteaceae are a diverse family of plants, with their greatest numbers in South Africa but a few in South America, Australia and New Zealand. The flowers are quite distinctive and they are increasingly showing up as cut flowers in the US.  But there they were in nature, wild in Australia.

    In my front window is a laurel (bay, Laurus nobilis) plant that I have carefully nurtured. This is the plant of laurel wreaths, used to crown victors in Roman games. It is also the source of bay leaves for cooking--essential in my spaghetti. Looking out the window on the train from Florence, there were all kinds of small laurels growing as weeds along the fence. 

laurel, Laurus nobilis, Tuscany
laurel, Laurus nobilis, growing along railroad fence,
Tuscany, Italy
water hyacinth in the Amazon River
water hyacinth in the Amazon River
     I have a tiny pond. In the late spring I go to the pond store and buy floating plants to put in my pond because every fall, frost kills them. I tried to keep them alive indoors one winter but one by one they died. So I buy water hyacinth (Eichornia crassipesand water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) each spring to enjoy during the summer. 

water hyacinth, Eichornia crassipes
water hyacinth, Eichornia crassipes, Peruvian Amazon
  







  




    I was touring the Peruvian Amazon and there, drifting down the river past the ship were my water hyacinth and water lettuce.  Wild, abundant and at home. 

      What is native where I live that other people might enjoy seeing in their native habitat? Sunflowers, cacti, aspen, and multi-colored columbine, to name a few.


wild Opuntia flowering in the high plains prairie
wild Opuntia flowering in the high plains prairie, Boulder Colorado
wild sunflowers, Helianthus annuus by the roadside,  Ogallala Nebraska
wild sunflowers, Helianthus annuus by the roadside,
Ogallala Nebraska
Comments and corrections welcome!

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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