Herbalism in an Age of Mass Extinction, Part One: Context, Concepts and Strategy

Trillium in spring.

by Janet Kent.  In February of 2016, we, the inhabitants of Earth, reached a milestone. Around the world, the average temperature was 2˚C higher than any year on record. This is the number scientists have cited as the tipping point for the global climate. After a 2˚C temperature increase, catastrophic change is unavoidable. While global temperatures met this mark on one day only, it happened decades before expected. Overall, February 2016 was the hottest February in recorded history. As each year continues to be hotter on average than the last, there can be little doubt that we are on course for irreversible climate change.

Though there are some disingenuous doubters out there, the scientific community as a whole agrees that this period of climate change is anthropogenic, that is, caused by human activity. In addition to the carbon humans release into the atmosphere, and its nasty counterpart, the acidification of the ocean, humans have left a geologic record of our time here in other ways, through deforestation, the vast development of land for agriculture and commerce, pollution of land and water, dams, the relocation of plant and animal species, overfishing and overkill of terrestrial and aquatic species. All of these factors contribute to what is commonly described as the sixth mass extinction. The previous five extinction events spanned several hundred thousand to several million years. Our current extinction event began only 12,000 years ago, but a moment in geologic time (Kolbert, 2014). While human caused (or exacerbated) extinctions began 12,000 years ago, there had been a leveling off of the extinction rate until the era of colonial expansion that began near 1500 CE. The exchange of species and infectious diseases, along with the resource depletion that accompanied the colonial endeavor, led to a massive increase in species loss, much of which went unrecorded. The Industrial Revolution with its increase in global trade and the ensuing impact on land, water and sky exponentially raised the global rate of extinction. As carbon emissions continue to rise, more and more tracts of land fall to development, and resource extraction proliferates, this process accelerates. Some scientists estimate a loss of 50% of all species by 2050 (Kolbert, 2014). The more conservative of their milieu extend the time frame to the end of the century. Half of all species. Take a moment to consider this loss. In our culture, this awareness is especially significant for herbalists and plant folk. We who spend time in the wilds and in the garden, who use botanical remedies to heal, experience the impact of this era of extinction directly. We are also specially situated to observe the changes to our world, to act on behalf of and to facilitate reconnection to the more-than-world.

Awareness of the current extinction crisis is overwhelming. The situation is dire and a certain amount of loss is now inevitable. Though there will be catastrophic changes in the coming decades, we herbalists and plant folk can support the Earth and the ecosystems we share. We are not powerless. Some conservationists consider discussing any strategy but emissions control to be giving in, even giving up. As an alternative, I will borrow a term from political activism, the diversity of tactics. This term describes the notion that there is no one right way to fight for change. We need many kinds of people with divergent approaches to have an impact. There are multiple ways we can act to support life on Earth through this transition. We must continue to prioritize emissions control, and even, as many would argue, work to completely dismantle our current socio-economic system (Klein, 2014).  But there are other acts, in our gardens, in the forests, on balds, in canyons, in abandoned lots, disturbed areas and waste places that we can perform to support adaptation, to protect ecosystems and endangered species.

Monarch cocoon.

Tending the Wild

To even know the problem well enough to act, we must begin with an informed observation of our environment. For example, scientists and naturalists throughout the Northern Hemisphere have seen and recorded the  Northern expansion of ranges of all species of plants and animals over the past few decades. Likewise, mountain species around the world are moving uphill.  Many species of trees expand their range up to one hundred feet uphill a year. This type of migration isn’t new.  Plants have moved with changes in climate since the beginning of the Pleistocene, 2.5 million years ago, as periods of glaciation alternated with periods of warming every 20,000 years or so (Kolbert, 2014).  However, plants moving North into glacial retreat had scant competition, as the glaciers left little in their path. Contemporary plants adapting to climate change generally move into full ecosystems. Some will find a place, some will not. Plants are at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to climate migration. Unlike animals, a plant cannot up and move to cooler climes; they rely on their abilities to reproductively disperse to extend their ranges. Unfortunately, just as human caused change impels species to migrate, it simultaneously creates obstacles to movement. In his seminal book, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, David Quammen uses research done on inherently fragile island ecosystems to demonstrate the precarious state of ecosystems worldwide. He employs the metaphor of a grand Persian rug. Intact, it is intricately interwoven and magnificent. If one were to cut the rug into pieces, one would not have many new small rugs. One would have disconnected, unraveling fragments. With our vast agricultural swaths of land, our dams, our mines, interstates and strip malls, we have cut the wilderness into pieces. We have, in effect, created thousands of island fragments, each piece weakened by disconnection from the whole (Quammen, 1996).  All of our changes to the landscape create obstacles for plant and animal migration. To understand the impacts of anthropogenic change, we must deepen our intimacy with the ecosystems we share, learn their complexity, diversity and interconnectedness. Only then will we notice changes before it is too late to act.

One controversial strategy for preserving endangered botanical species is assisted migration. Here, migration does not refer to the seasonal movement of fauna. Migration in the geologic sense means the movement of species in geologic time, usually in response to climate shifts. Some plants are better at dispersal and range expansion than others. As I mentioned earlier, plants under climate stress now move onto terrain that is already occupied and must move around human made obstacles. An obvious question arises, why not figure out which species have trouble dispersing and move them? The problem with this strategy is that we cannot predict the effects of moving a species north or to a nearby, less isolated ecosystem. Humans have caused untold destruction with our unintentional movement of species. Many scientists argue that it would be ridiculous, given this history, to intentionally relocate species. There is strong resistance to moving plant species into relatively intact ecosystems. Those who hold this opinion would argue, yes, we might lose some species, but that is better than the unknown effects of ecosystem disruption (Marris, 2011).

However, anthropogenic climate change already affects all of the ecosystems on the planet. Proponents of assisted migration suggest that we may as well intentionally affect fragile ecosystems rather than just wait to see which species survive. We must also face the fact that assisted migration is already happening, through the work of lay naturalists, gardeners and wildflower nurseries. An informed practice of selective assisted migration may be our best bet. Once again, keen observation and understanding of ecosystem interactions is in order. A nuanced approach to selective assisted migration would entail identifying endangered species with poor chances for dispersal, recognizing if they are good candidates for relocation, observing their habits, preferences and connections, and moving them to suitable habitats where we can observe them regularly. If they are not too disruptive and take to their new environs, we can expand this type of assistance. Along the way, we must share our results, the successes and the failures. An informed community of plant lovers and naturalists will better serve the wilds. For some, the idea that humans can know what’s best for the adaptation of Nature to climate change smacks of hubris, likening this hubris to “playing God,” moving species around, interfering, not leaving Nature to work itself out. As David Holmgren writes in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, until recently, humans (at least in the last few thousand years), have primarily behaved like bratty teenagers, stomping around the Earth, taking what they want, ignoring consequences and generally trashing the place (Holmgren, 2002). If we have to choose between playing the part of God or an unthinking adolescent, I’ll take the former. Luckily, we don’t have to choose between hubristic control and unconscious self-absorption, for this is a false dichotomy. In the middle, as is so often the case, lies the solution. Immersing ourselves in the more-than-human world, contemplating its intricacies, being receptive to its influence, becoming part of the web of life rather than acting on it is key. Thus we become part of and support the flow of life rather than attempting to control it. From this place, it is possible to responsibly choose species that are in danger and support them, even if that means relocating some individuals and observing the results.

Mimosa, Albizzia julibrissin. Invasive plant medicine.

Another difficult decision we face in this era of cataclysmic change is how we choose to deal with non-native, often called invasive, species. The introduction, both intentional and accidental, of non-native species around the globe has had disastrous effects on many ecosystems. Some non-native species, like eucalyptus whose leaves and bark are allelopathic, inhibiting the growth of other plants, completely alter the ecosystems they enter. Others have little impact on the systems they join. Yet, there is little distinction made between relatively benign and destructive non-native species.  While there is ample reason to plant and preserve native plants, the fight to purge ecosystems of plants that originated elsewhere is taken to extremes with countless hours of work and millions in tax dollars going to this one facet of conservation with mixed results. Much of the tax money allotted for the eradication of invasives ends up in Monsanto’s coffers for their notorious herbicide, glyphosate, a.k.a. Roundup,  with its runoff polluting the area surrounding the targeted plants. With these drawbacks, and with the limited success of much of the efforts to remove non-natives, one wonders, why the vehemence towards these plants? I would argue that the desire to completely eradicate non-native plants is founded on a form of projection. As those who are not Indigenous to this place face the devastating impact of human society on the planet, at least in the last few thousand years, many of us suffer from the weight of this awareness. Non-native species give us a concrete way to address the effects of anthropogenic change. Though a thorough consideration of the state of global ecosystems reveals that members of the species Homo sapiens, particularly those acting solely in the interest of amassing wealth, are the most destructive of invasive species, addressing that truth is difficult. It is easier to remove privet or multi-flora rose, even to eradicate kudzu, than it is to fight the scourge of urban sprawl, much less to dismantle global capitalism.

Ecologists now see that the relationship of non-native plants to original and adapting ecosystems is more complicated than once thought. In many transitional systems, non-native plants provide food for wildlife when former food sources are in decline. These plants can also fill niches as anthropogenic change disrupts an ecosystem. For example, in England, the blue tit, a songbird, faced extinction as warmer temperatures moved its hatching date up without altering the date of emergence of its primary food source during brooding, a particular caterpillar. Around this time, introduced Turkey oaks became established with their resident gall wasps, which the blue tit learned to feed its young. This new food source saved the blue tit from extinction. The removal of the non-native Turkey oak would have prevented this outcome (Marris, 2011).

Non-native species that appear invasive due to aggressive growth patterns also make excellent nurse plants. They cover ground while native, slower growing plants become more established. Their biomass accumulates nutrients, builds soil, prevents erosion. Their invasiveness is often short lived. Biologists have proposed the “reckless invader hypothesis” to describe what often happens with non-native invasives. These plants thrive at first, reproducing quickly and prolifically. However, in the plant kingdom, there is a trade-off between reproductive success and stress tolerance. Plants that are prolific in reproduction tend not to have time to develop defenses. Thus, over time, native species can develop ways to resist and compete with non-natives, animals learn to eat these new plants, and other stressors may appear. Eventually, ecosystems can find new balance (Marris, 2011). How much time and money do we spend fighting a battle that may resolve itself?

In Mark Davis’ book Invasion Biology, Davis calls for a less dualistic approach to non-natives. He urges scientists and lay conservationists alike to show less concern for a plant’s origins and  instead to identify which plants are causing problems and address them. We can and should identify problematic species and support the areas and species they threaten, especially if the ecosystems they affect are fragile or isolated. But we must pick our fights. To attempt to eradicate non-natives in an urban or suburban area is a losing battle. We should acknowledge the services these species may provide to wildlife, to the soil, to the aquifer, to humans as medicine, even to the atmosphere in the form of carbon sequestration. Once again, we must be observant of the ecosystems we frequent. Which plants enter the system without much disruption? How do the members of any given plant community, native and non-native alike, respond to change? Invasive plants are, above all else, highly adaptive. They are worthy of our attention. As anthropogenic change multiplies, becomes more disruptive and more difficult to predict, we would do well to study these resilient plants (Davis, 2009).

Why, you may wonder, in the face of persuasive arguments for a more nuanced approach to non-native plants, are many conservationists reluctant to soften their assessment of these plants and the ecosystems they inhabit? One element of this resistance goes back to misconceptions of Native land use before European conquest. For the most part, the land management practices of Native peoples did not conform to European notions of agriculture. In recent years, this misconception has been disproved as a bevy of scholarship has shown that large tracts of land across the continent were actively managed by indigenous tribes before European contact. Many tribes used controlled burns to favor oaks and hickories, facilitate vision and movement in the forest, and to make clearings to attract wildlife. Much of the west coast was maintained as an extensive wild garden, with useful plants tended and others weeded out (Anderson, 2007).

A blindness to Native land management gave European settlers a false notion of untouched wilderness. This notion eventually became codified in the efforts of early conservationists in the National Park movement, leading to the eviction of Indigenous people from Yellowstone, Yosemite and other parks (Marris, 2011). There was no place for humans in this new version of wilderness. Previously,  humans lived as part of nature, changing their surroundings and being changed by them in turn for tens of thousands of years. So it was when Europeans arrived on this continent. However, upon arrival, colonists brought much destructive change to the land, intentionally and unintentionally. Invasive species are an intrusive reminder that this land is not what it was 500 years ago. Many conservationists prefer pre-conquest ecosystems. This is the baseline they aim for with ecosystem management. Others would choose the pre-human ecosystems of the Pleistocene as a goal. (Though on this continent, humans have been here at least since the last glaciation, precluding a pre-human target.) Whatever the baseline, this is the basis of restoration ecology. Pick a target ecosystem and work to transform the current system back to the “original.” This goal gets trickier when we account for the turning point we inhabit in geologic history. More than half of the Earth not covered in ice, for now, has been directly transformed by humans in the form of cropland, pasturage, roads, cities, mines, dams, clear-cuts, the list goes on. In addition to these direct changes, if we factor in anthropogenic climate change, we have altered all of  Earth’s ecosystems There is no place left unaffected by human activity (Marris, 2011).

Boneset, Cattails and Pickerel weed in a wetland zone created by water runoff from a highway and mall parking lot.

A novel ecosystem is a system that is changing or has been changed due to human influence but is not actively managed by humans. This could be a piece of woods near a development, a clearing recovering from logging, part of a city no longer inhabited by humans, even an abandoned lot. As climate change proceeds there will be an increase in both number and types of novel ecosystems. Until recently, these systems have been ignored and even despised by many biologists (Marris, 2011). This is changing, partially due to an evolving understanding of ecosystems. For decades, the climax model of ecosystem succession held sway. In this model, ecosystems evolve in a linear way to eventually become as complex and established as possible for said system. This model has its limitations, chiefly that direct observation often contradicts its premise. Ecologists now counter the climax model with the pulse model of ecosystem development. In the pulse model, ecosystems are always in flux, there is no absolute stability for an ecosystem. Multiple outcomes are possible for any given system. Our environment is dynamic and elusive and any attempt at stewardship should take this into account (Holmgren, 2002).

This shift in thinking has led to a new approach to novel ecosystems. As Earth changes in unpredictable, chaotic ways in response to climate change, does it make sense to attack systems that adapt, even thrive? We would do better to study them, to see how they change. While the general prediction is that the introduction of non-native species inevitably leads to an overall decrease in complexity, to a homogenization of ecosystems worldwide, this is not always the case. Take, for example, Ascension Island in the south Atlantic. When Darwin visited this island in 1836, it was covered primarily by ferns. He declared it inferior to nearby, ecologically rich St. Helena. Seven years later, botanist Joseph Hooker recommended the importation of foreign plants to the island. What exists there today is far from homogenous. Ascension Island is home to a cloud forest that evolved from plants from myriad locations that did not originally evolve together. They have grown into a richer and more complex system than the one the island previously hosted, though they began as foreign invasives (Marris, 2011).

Instead of aiming for difficult-to-reach outcomes such as pre-conquest ecosystems, let us aim for specific outcomes such as complexity and diversity. How do we do this? Identify problematic species, native and non-native alike and create an appropriate response to those species. Prioritize fragile and isolated ecosystems and work to protect and strengthen them. Study novel ecosystems; look for emergent adaptations within these systems. There is much to learn from the way ecosystems change.

Nature is Everywhere

Osprey building a nest on a pylon. Photo by Walt Kent

When we expand our notion of Nature to include those ecosystems altered by humans, we begin to see Nature all around us, even in cities. I was thinking of this concept during a period of heavy conservation research earlier this year. Spring had not yet come to my mountain home, but down in the city where I run errands and see friends, the vernal shift had begun. On several occasions, I heard the song of the chorus frogs known as spring peepers rising up out of the urban sprawl. Once, I was stopped at a red light at a busy intersection; another time in the parking lot of a cinema multi-plex. Their lovely chorus told me that if I followed their song, I would find a bit of water, some hydrophilic plants and some saplings—a little ecosystem in the midst of all that pavement. As we open our eyes and ears to see and hear Nature even in urban settings, our possibilities for stewardship expand. Rare and even endangered species exist within city lines. Though we can’t tear up all the pavement (at least, not yet) or remove all the other obstacles that isolate plant communities and individuals, we can support them through working for reconciliation, rather than for restoration to a previous era. Reconciliation ecology is the term coined by Michael Rosenzweig, an ecologist at the University of Arizona, used to describe the creation and maintenance of wildlife habitat alongside human habitat. While Rosenzweig works primarily on the level of public planning and policy, we can use the concept of reconciliation as well (Marris, 2011). Cities and suburbs contain fragmented bits of Nature. For some of the plants and animals that find themselves in urban areas, these fragments can combine to act as a large, connected area. In other words, our yards, landscaped medians, parks, and forest fragments in cities combine to create a divided whole. In this type of setting, a larger group of plants or animals made up of smaller groups is called a metapopulation. For example, the cherry trees scattered around a city become a metapopulation for local bees to forage in early spring (Marris, 2011). As herbalists, and plant lovers, we can work to increase the number of individuals in urban metapopulations. This strategy has been employed by activists seeking to address the honey bee crisis with remarkable success. Organizations like BeeCity, USA encourage city dwellers to plant native plants that pollinators like. This helps the honeybees and wild pollinators alike. We can use similar tactics to encourage others to plant native plants whose natural habitat is threatened.

Carpenter bee on Crimson Bee Balm, Mondarda didyma. Photo by Dave Meesters.

If you live near or frequent a city, see what the urban plant communities need. Now, it’s time to employ some guerilla gardening tactics (Weintraub, 2015).  Find abandoned lots and empty land. Plant natives and useful non-originals, like mullein, burdock or calendula. Make seed bombs and throw them into empty lots behind fences. For species with trickier germination patterns, grow starts and plant them out. Overall, work to increase the diversity and complexity of urban plant communities. The counterpart of guerilla gardening is plant rescue. Pay attention to development plans and movement. As land is slated for development, rescue the plants that grow there and relocate them in the wilds in their appropriate plant communities. Or, make medicine from the plants so that you won’t have to harvest elsewhere. Plant rescue and guerilla gardening demand familiarity with the transitional ecosystems of your city, in parks, woodlands and lots. Get out and explore these novel ecosystems. You’ll be surprised what you find there.

Hooded merganser pair in the pond created from run-off from the Wal-mart parking lot. Photo by Walt Kent.

In my hometown, which has succumbed to the relentless sprawl of big box stores, there are, here and there, inspiring signs of life for those with eyes to see. Near Wal-Mart, there is a pond the city required the corporation to build to collect runoff from their vast parking lot. Since its construction, hooded mergansers and other waterfowl previously unknown to the county make their winter home there. My father, a passionate birder, visits this pond a few times a week in the winter. On one of our suburban birding expeditions, after stopping at the Wal-Mart pond we made our way to the softball field at my niece’s high school. There, in the telephone pole that holds up the light that illuminates the games, a pair of pileated woodpeckers have excavated a hole for brooding. This type of juxtaposition once saddened me—and of course, I’d rather see these magnificent birds in a big old growth snag in an intact forest. However, the present world, with the breadth of human expansion, does not contain enough forest for all of the animals and plants. These woodpeckers are adapting. I now find inspiration in their resilience.

Adaptive Gardening

As negative anthropogenic change continues to stress ecosystems and our plant allies, one strategy for herbalists is to grow more of our materia medica, to take some pressure off of the wild plants. Ten or so years ago, early in the history of our land project, I was talking to friend and mentor Joe Hollis of Mountain Gardens in Celo, North Carolina. We’d had another erratic winter and discussed changes to the wild ramp (Allium tricoccum) population he’d seen in 30 years of harvesting. He spoke, stoically as always, of their retreat north. The wild populations thinned and individuals made fewer seeds as winters were no longer cold enough for them. I fretted, new at this land management and gardening discipline and probably more prone to worry, and asked, “What are we going to do? It’s just going to get hotter!!” He calmly replied, “We just have to plant all we can and see what works.” In other words, we must diversify our gardens. There are several approaches to this. Look south and downhill to plant species that are tolerant of warmer temperatures. Plant some individuals hardy to one or even two zones warmer than your region. Of course, gardening itself is complicated by the unpredictable effects of climate change.  Even as the average temperature is warmer every year, the winters are increasingly erratic. In Western North Carolina, we still reach record lows for a day or two every few years despite the warming trend. The plants that are less cold tolerant will need more attention during these cold spells.

Another strategy for diversification in the garden is the careful selection and maintenance of non-native plants. Bring in herbs that may not ordinarily grow nearby, but keep an eye on them if you live near relatively intact native ecosystems. Diversifying your garden allows you to diversify your apothecary as well. The more you grow yourself, the less you affect wild plant stands and the less you have to outsource.

Crimson Bee Balm, Monarda didyma

As you diversify your garden, plant with pollinators in mind. Our poor pollinators are under much stress from pesticides, herbicidal destruction of their host plants, and ecosystem fragmentation. You can support these essential creatures by planting the species they prefer, for nectar, anti-septic qualities, and as host plants. Consciousness of the plight of the monarch led to a nationwide campaign with noticeable results. Monarchs lay eggs exclusively on milkweeds. The wide spread use of herbicides in their migrational path led to an enormous drop in their population, from five to one million. Through the efforts of conservationists, individuals planted milkweeds along their path and there has been a noticeable rise in their numbers. This gain did not prevent a devastating loss in Monarchs from an unusually harsh winter storm in Mexico, but hopefully, as conservationists and lay naturalists continue to plant with them in mind, the Monarchs can reach a more resilient population number. Learn which other native and safe non-native plants your bioregional pollinators prefer and plant them throughout your garden. This helps the other plants in your garden by keeping pollinators around. This strategy has the added effect of making your garden more beautiful, as the qualities that make a plant attractive to a pollinator, also make it more attractive to humans. Why not fill your garden with Monarda, Salvia, Asclepius, Prunus, Melissa and Papaver? What feeds the bees feeds the spirit.

Bog Primrose, Iris and Pitcher Plant by our pond.

To extensively diversify your garden, it is helpful to create micro-habitats. If you do not already have one, I recommend procuring a permaculture book relevant to your bioregion. (You don’t need to take a permaculture design course to learn the basic principles.)  Permaculture practices are helpful for creating a diverse, resilient garden. One element of permaculture gardening practice that will become increasingly relevant as Earth becomes hotter and dryer, is the storing of water in the landscape. Through the creation of swales, ponds, berms and terraces and with the use of mulch, we can work to keep water in the soil. This leads to a more adaptable garden. Also, by landscaping with water storage in mind, we create more kinds of habitat and increase the types of plants we grow for medicine. These practices also contribute to an interesting and even more beautiful garden. For example, at our place, we built our house with slip straw, a natural building technique that involves digging clay to fill the walls. Then we dug much more clay to plaster the house, inside and out. This left us with two large holes in the ground.  We turned these holes into ponds with surrounding bogs. We introduced goldfish, but the wood frogs, eastern newts, water snakes and dragonflies found the spot on their own. Each year we watch the succession of blooms of the water loving plants we introduced: Pitcher plant, Water lily, Blue flag, Calamus, Sagittaria, Copper iris and Bugleweed. Once again, what is good for the garden, is pleasing to the eye, pleasing to the spirit.

Gardening and conservation overlap when we save seed from wild plants. Learn which plants and ecosystems are threatened in your area. Make places in your garden that recreate the conditions they prefer. Propagating wild plants takes pressure off the wild stands. And yes, wild medicine tends to be stronger medicine, but keeping even a few clients on tonic herbs takes an abundance of plant material. Some of these remedies we would do well to grow ourselves. When we plant seed from wild plants that are in threatened ecosystems, we also help preserve genetic diversity of these species. There may come a time when seeds from our plants will be needed to support remaining wild populations.

In our gardens, we must prepare for uncertainty and change. This, once again, requires observation. Pay attention. See what works, what needs to change. Be receptive to the adaptation you see in your garden. As Octavia Butler says in The Parable of the Sower, “the only constant is change.”

Dragonfly guarding one of the ponds.

A version of this essay first appeared in the proceedings book for the 2016 Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference where I first presented this material.  All photos by me unless otherwise noted. Next week I’ll post Part Two, Ecologically Minded Herbalism. The full bibliography will follow part two.



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