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The Q? Blog

The Tales that Plants Can Tell

by Devin Reese -- Jan 8, 2015

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

Ash-grey Indian paintbrush plant in Southern California. Image by Gary A. Monroe, EOL via CalPhotos, CC-BY-NC.
Ash-grey Indian paintbrush plant in Southern California. Image by Gary A. Monroe, EOL via CalPhotos, CC-BY-NC.

They are silent and stationary, but scientists look to them to tell stories about what happened in the past. Because plants are all around us, and specific in their needs, they are great indicators of ecosystem change. Just as an animal might move to a different place if conditions get rough, plants must adapt. Unfortunately, habitat changes are happening more rapidly than in the past and plants cannot adapt as quickly.

The ash-grey Indian paintbrush plant (Castilleja cinerea) above may not look like much, but hummingbirds and insects eat its nectar. The plant prefers a habitat called pebble-plains in Southern California. Because of its suitability for housing development, pebble-plains habitat is becoming scarce, and so is the plant.

Scientists who study plants (botanists) collect and store them in herbaria, which are research collections of pressed, dried plants. While a herbarium specimen may not boast the bright colors of a live plant, it still maintains basic features that permit identification. Botanists use herbarium specimens as evidence that describes ecosystems of the recent past. Knowing which plants were growing with what frequency paints a picture of an ecosystem and helps to identify how conditions have changed over time. New plant arrivals, such as nonnative species, often provide clues to recent, sometimes human-related changes.

Find out how plant specimens collected over 100 years reveal a history of change in Southern California. And see how teams of high school students assisted in these studies. Watch a “Smithsonian Science How” webcast titled Ecosystem Change: Plotting with Plant Collections on the Q?rius website. Rusty Russell, Program Director for Collections & Informatives in the United States National Herbarium at the National Museum of Natural History, will discuss and answer questions. Get teaching resources to support your webcast experience.