Our approach to ecology must be about humans as much as plants we wish to save
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s Nov. 29 Ideas piece “Plants will save us — if we help them do it” underscores a fundamental truth about conservation efforts: Our approach must be as much about humans as it is about the plants we want to save. To protect plants threatened with extinction, we must also grow broad public interest in plants as awe-inspiring, grow new generations of community scientists, and ultimately empower a movement against plant species eradication and habitat destruction that sparks as much urgency as animal conservation.
The Arnold Arboretum is fully engaged in these challenges and believes a critical link is urban ecology – connecting people to the plants in their own community. The Arboretum’s living collection preserves nearly 1,500 plants of conservation concern and another 14,000 that are secure — for now — from threat.
We’re also located within Boston city limits amid the famed Emerald Necklace, a collection of spaces open to all, from casual passersby to K-12 students to plant scholars and beyond.
With plant conservation, advocacy truly can begin at home, starting with the simple act of noticing the beauty, power, and relevance of the plants around you. Human survival depends on it.
William “Ned” Friedman
Arnold professor of organismic and evolutionary biology, and director
Keeper of the living collections
The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University
We’d be better off if we just let grass be
Plants will save us — if we just let them grow naturally. With fewer plants — and we’ve been breaking sod and plowing away plants for 8,000 years — we upset the balance of planetary breathing dramatically, reducing the drawdown of carbon dioxide while increasing emissions.
Grasses are the best at capturing carbon dioxide. When lawn grass draws 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide out of the air, through photosynthesis, it manufactures liquid carbon. Some goes to metabolism; some goes to plant biomass; and 1 ton of liquid carbon is pushed out as root exudate to build soil. A healthy lawn can create an inch of soil, and 300 tons of soil per lawn acre, in a year.
That is, unless fertilizer is spread. Then the grass “greens up quick,” as the products advertise, with wimpy blades and roots sprawled on the surface leaving dirt patches — easy pickings for pests and weeds. This grass is thirsty for more fertilizer and for water that pollutes nearby waterways.
Massachusetts has more than 2,000 square miles of established lawns. If we just let grass be, or help by employing lawn care companies to replace impervious surfaces with grass, the water cycle would turn more cleanly, our planet would start to heal, and we could all breathe a bit easier.
The writer is the president and executive director of the Ocean River Institute in Cambridge.