Posts Tagged ‘plants’

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By: Lindsay Hollingsworth

We’ve all seen them. The mosses creeping up foundations, the tiny leaves poking out from in between bricks, the young trees swaying merrily from their perches within gutters. And if you’re like me, you’ve probably taken secret joy in these tiny spots of green scattered throughout the city, even as those around you talk of untidiness and power washing.

While pursuing my master’s degree in Ireland, I had the opportunity to study these plants, hidden in plain sight in centuries-old stone walls. As I pursued my research, I learned that the scientific community has often overlooked wall plants as a point of potential ecological interest. Even as our understanding of cities as unique ecosystems has grown, wall plants and other urban botanicals remain a relatively underexplored topic. But there’s been just enough research done to give us tantalizing hints at a secret world of plants unfolding, like the frond of a fern, right under our noses – in the cracks and margins of our megastructures, and in the places that have become too ordinary to notice.

Wall rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria) growing on an ancient stone wall (Photo by Lindsay Hollingsworth)

Some research has suggested that, like forests, wall vegetation has successional stages. As city dirt accumulates and concrete and mortar weathered, walls are first colonized by lichens, then by mosses, and then by vascular plants. And as these tiny microhabitats form, wall plants provide shelter for insects and small animals, who in turn may carry seeds to new crannies and crevices. And in some cases, the unique environmental conditions of walls may provide a sanctuary for important local plant species, especially those that might normally make their homes in cliffs and rocky terrain.

It is unfortunate that we know so little about these plants, especially when we could learn so much from them. With so many of us living in cities, and more predicted to migrate to them in the near future, the question of how to make our cities more verdant and sustainable becomes increasingly crucial. 

And this question is perhaps especially pertinent to sprawling cities like Washington, D.C., where urban development covers so much of the surrounding landscape, and where there is an increasing push to incorporate green walls and roofs into our city infrastructure. Understanding the circumstances which allow plants to grow on walls without human aid may help us to more efficiently cultivate vegetation on our buildings. Currently, one of the biggest drawbacks to green walls is the expense and labor required to maintain them. However, better knowledge of what plants are naturally suited to wall colonization in a particular climate, and under what conditions they will do so, could help us better select plants that require little intervention to thrive. 

Green walls on an urban apartment building (WikiMedia Commons)

Moreover, an understanding of wall plants as not just a nuisance or a curiosity, but as an important part of urban ecosystems, may allow us to see and develop our green walls and roofs to support plants and animals beyond our cities. Green walls and roofs have already been deservedly celebrated for their ability to reduce air pollution, but the way in which animals seem to use naturally occurring wall plants for shelter raises some intriguing possibilities. Perhaps if we can explore the potential of green walls and roofs as refuges and habitat corridors, we could create fundamental changes to the types of animals that can use urban spaces. Perhaps instead of being obstacles for migrating songbirds and butterflies, they could be waystations. 

 The next time you see a cranesbill or hart’s tongue poking out from in between the stones of a garden wall or the bricks of the building, I encourage you to stop and take notice. Admire its fortitude, to grow in a place where so few can. Try and see what circumstances, what characteristics of this particular wall have made its small life possible. And remember that even in a city with no forests or fields, we live, always, side-by-side with nature.

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Lindsay Hollingsworth holds a master’s degree in Biodiversity and Conservation from Trinity College, Dublin, where she researched novel ecosystems, agroecology, and wall flora. She completed her undergraduate studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She currently works at an environmental consulting company, and volunteers with the local Potomac Conservancy.

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The holidays are almost here — which means that the season of eating is about to begin! DC EcoWomen board member Erica Meier shares how you can make a difference for our planet during this holiday season by choosing to eat a plant-based diet.  

By Erica Meier

The international scientific consensus is clear. Report after report paints an alarming yet sobering scene: Global warming is real, it’s happening now and human activities are largely to blame. 

The forecast is bleak: Worsening weather extremes and severe storms, disease outbreaks, altered coastlines, and more, with negative consequences on human health, particularly those in impoverished or marginalized communities. Specifically, according to Oxfam, women around the world, including in the US, will continue to be disproportionately affected by climate change. Which is why climate action must engage and benefit women and girls.  

As alarming as this message is, however, it’s not new. There’s been growing scientific consensus on this topic for years, if not decades, with environmental advocates and others waving red flags the whole time.

The good news is that there’s something more immediate and tangible we, the people, can do right now that will have a lasting collective impact: Eat plants.

There is widespread agreement in the research community, including reports from the United Nations, that raising animals for food is a leading cause of pollution and resource depletion. One of the most important actions each of us can take to reduce our environmental footprint is to choose plant-based foods. 

For example, did you know:  

  • It takes 420 gallons of water to produce just one pound of grain-fed chicken? 
  • The amount of manure produced on factory farms is three times greater than the amount of waste produced by humans — and there are no sewage treatment plants for animal waste? 
  • The production of animal feed, including pastures for grazing, takes up almost 80% of the world’s agricultural land resources?
  • The cattle industry is responsible for 80% of the forest clearing in the Amazon? 

In addition, hidden cameras are routinely capturing the immense suffering forced upon billions of animals each year behind the closed doors of the meat, egg, and dairy industries — and more recently the aquaculture industry.

Imagine how much more efficient and sustainable our food system could be if we ate plants directly rather than funneling them through farmed animals. A recent report by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences put a number on it: the production of plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy is two- to 20-fold more nutritionally efficient per unit of cropland than our current resource-intensive animal-based system.

As stated by the United Nations in 2006: “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.” In 2010, the UN further declared that “a substantial reduction of impacts [from agriculture] would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change away from animal products.”

More recently, a lead researcher on a report published in Science summed it up in The Guardian by concluding: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth … it is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”

And yet, the herbivorous elephant in the room remains largely ignored in discussions about how to fight climate change. The answer is literally in our hands: We can use our forks! 

As we continue to work towards policy change and corporate reform, we can also take direct action by diverting our monetary support away from foods that are destroying our planet and causing animal suffering, and instead green our diet with more plants. 

Without a doubt, our food choices matter. Every time we sit down to eat, each of us can stand up for the planet, our health and animals. We can start today simply by making our next meal a plant-based one.

Erica Meier is a DC EcoWomen board member. She is also the president of Compassion Over Killing, a national animal protection organization that hosts the annual DC VegFest and promotes plant-based eating a way to build a kinder, greener, and healthier world for all.