Let the gardening games begin! For many of us, the hottest sport of the spring season is prettying up the yard or garden. Eager homeowners can be spotted across the country lining up at their local nursery to seize upon the brightest flowers, the shapeliest shrubs, and the most climbable trees. Most people limit their goals to finding something pretty and interesting that will grow well in the space. That it will be good for the planet is a given, cuz any plant is just as good as the next one in terms of environmental value, right?
Not so fast, competitors. While all plants do contribute to our world in some way, whether by producing oxygen or sheltering wildlife, some have way more perks than others. Some are ace water-savers, some clean the air like it’s going out of style, and some make pollinators positively swoon.
Real medicine only works when it’s made with complicated, manmade ingredients, right? Nope! For a closer look at our diverse options for healing, let’s head outside and explore Mama Nature’s surprisingly impressive pharmaceutical supplier: the mighty plant kingdom.
I haven’t always studied plants. When I was a kid, I thought I’d become a marine biologist or a zoologist. This led to great experiences doing reef surveys in Hawaii, and studying the stress level of endangered wild asses (no joke). It wasn’t long, however, that the siren song of plants called me into the shore.
Today, I am an outdoor enthusiast, amateur baker, and PhD student focused on conservation biology (how humans impact the environment and what we can do about it) and ethnobotany (the relationship humans have with plants).
For my day job, I get to study what I consider to be the most interesting plant in the world: American ginseng, a seemingly humble little plant that’s the star of a multimillion-dollar international industry.
People harvest the root of ginseng in the eastern U.S., and sell the roots for hundreds of dollars a pound for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine in Hong Kong.
One of the most overlooked ingredients in farming exists right beneath farmers’ feet—healthy, fertile soils.
Unfortunately, this vital ingredient is being degraded and eroded at unprecedented rates across the world. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 25 percent of the planet’s land is highly degraded and only 10 percent is improving.
Trees help make us cool in the face of global warming*. But, sturdy and steadfast as they may be, some species are showing vulnerability in our increasingly warming world.
“The effects of climate change on trees will be complex,” says Robert Fahey, PhD, of the Morton Arboretum, as they will face more frequent, increasingly severe storms, more instances of drought, and the potential for an increase in pest and pathogen populations.
The signs of impact are already clear in some areas. A study from the Canadian Forest Service on the forests of Siberia, Canada, and Alaska found that many of the modeled predictions of forest change are now taking place, including a decline of certain species and a migration of some trees further north and upslope (like, literally, up the mountain, which, you guessed it, does have to end somewhere).