Synopsis of “Plants: how we use ’em, and how we don’t lose ’em”

By Julia Turan

Last month, at the usual classy, mood-lighted Geek Bar, Jessica B. Turner, plant researcher and enthusiast reminded listeners not to forget about the plant kingdom. These photosynthesizing organisms are essential to our lives and our planet.

As part of C2ST’s monthly Speakeasy event, Dr. Turner spoke about the vital and innovative conservation efforts happening around the world and her research on conserving the man-shaped root, American ginseng.

Vital vegetation: How do we use plants and what roles do they play on our planet?

The next time you come across a water lily, perched atop a pond, realize that you are looking at the world’s oldest flowering plant. This species has taken part in 160 million years of the Earth’s history. As soon as we turned up on the scene, we started not only eating and building with plants, but also incorporating them into our culture via rituals. Egyptians, Victorians, Native Americans and many other cultures performed rituals using various plants.

Beyond this cultural role, “plants are responsible for keeping the earth the way we know it and the way we like it,” Turner said. They keep soil in place. If soil isn’t tended to and plants die, dust storms like The Dustbowl in the 1930s can result. Plants prevent erosion, regulate nutrient availability, and influence weather.

Plants even contribute to our energy stores. “Next time you turn on your light switch, thank the plants,” says Turner, because coal comes from plants, not dead dinosaurs. Over millions of years, certain components of dead plants have piled up along with soil and water, forming what Stephen Colbert calls diamond’s younger, hotter sister, coal.

Saving shrubbery: How do we preserve plant biodiversity?

The world is experiencing its sixth major mass extinction as we speak. Land use change is a major contributor to this loss of biodiversity. Even attempting to restore the ecosystem and usage of the land will not ensure that the same plants will grow there. Surface mining is a particularly concerning example of land use alteration. For example, Appalachia’s surface mining is endangering the high number of species unique to that area.

Maintaining diversity is not just important to keep our planet colorful and captivating. There are vast practical implications. For example, the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s devastated potato crops because they were genetically too similar, allowing potato blight disease to wipe out the majority of the plants. Limiting variety makes plants, and the entire interdependent ecosystem of our planet, more vulnerable in this way.

Despite all the doom and gloom, people are using innovative conservation strategies to save these species. Researchers conduct ex-situ, or off site conservation in the form of seed preservation in a seed bank, storing away a range of species. Diversity includes both between species, but also within. Ecotypes are groups within species that may have adapted to a specific site they are growing in, and will not grow as well elsewhere even if it’s a similar environment.

The seed bank on steroids, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, is located 810 miles from the North Pole on a Norwegian island and is buried 390 feet inside a sandstone mountain. To protect it even if the ice melts, it is 430 feet above sea level. It is built in the middle of nowhere to protect it from human activities, most notably, war. The seeds are inside four layers of bags, deep sealed, and the whole vault is protected by a robust security system. In addition to such off-site conservation, many scientists, like Turner work in the forests, fields, and mountains themselves to keep plants alive and well.

Turner’s work: pampering the American ginseng

The American ginseng used to be a common plant, but it is becoming increasingly rare. This is due in part to harvesting done out of season and unsustainably. This kills the plant and prevents its population from naturally increasing. Surface mining in Appalachia is also hurting ginseng populations.

Ginseng is used as a panacea in Asian culture and is purported to increase energy and to be an aphrodisiac. Today, the root sells for around 800-1000 dollars a pound. Taken together, this makes ginseng culturally and economically important. Turner studies how we can reinvigorate ginseng populations in the United States.

By looking at plants living around ginseng, she can figure out which plants ginseng is typically surrounded by. These nearby species are known as indicator species. Equipped with a ruler, calculator and gas money, Turner collects data across 30 different ginseng populations. She has found that scientists have been erroneously making recommendations to plant near species that are not helping the ginseng grow. Only one of the species near the ginseng served as a positive indicator. When planters now reintroduce ginseng, they have a more complete picture about how to ensure its survival.

Getting a little sentimental as she brings her talk to a close, Turner reminds us that plants can have the power to bring us together. “Cultures can connect over this one plant,” she says, “Plants shape the human experience. We need to make sure we keep them around.”

Julia Turan is a science writer and C2ST volunteer. She has a degree in neurobiology from Stanford University.

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