I’ve been reading an important book. It’s not new – it was published in 2010 – but it is even more relevant today than when it was fresh off the press. It is Peter Del Tredici’s Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast.
Conceived of as a field guide to the plants you might encounter in a stroll through vacant lots and other neglected corners of our downtowns and industrial neighborhoods, it is implicitly something far more provocative. By treating these despised plants as a genuine flora, it invites us to take a second look at them, and their artificial settings. Ecologists and plant lovers are much more likely to value relatively pristine rural settings, but the fact is that more than 80% of Americans now live in urban areas (worldwide, the figure is something like 50% and increasing). Del Tredici’s unloved plants, in other words, are the daily point of contact with Nature for most Americans.
Nature lovers who strive to green the city environment routinely root out these plants, disparaging the bulk of them as foreign invaders. Considerable sums have been spent in New York City, for example, to eliminate these “invasives.” Yet, as Del Tredici points out, the landscapes they inhabit are something artificial and new, and the conditions that prevail are grossly unsuitable for the native plants that once flourished there. Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) has over-run the five boroughs of New York because it is far better adapted to their harsh, droughty, alkaline soils than any of the trees that preceded it on those sites. Cities, Del Tredici asserts, are human creations, and the plants that flourish there spontaneously, thriving and spreading without human intervention, are the “de facto native vegetation.”
This assertion is radical enough by itself. I cannot help wondering though, whether this definition of de facto native will have to be extended far beyond the city limits as humanity fosters ever greater disturbance to the natural environment. We are entering a period that scientists are labeling as the “anthropocene,” an era in which human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment. What is native to such an era is anybody’s guess, but I an sure it will look like nothing we have ever seen before. We will, I suspect, come to treasure the plants, of American origin or not, that can withstand its stresses.Posted by Thomas Christopher on February 20, 2017 at 10:25 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Science Says.