"Few people are aware of the alarming rate at which plants are dying off or being extirpated from their natural environments in North America," writes Kara Rogers in the Introduction to The Quiet Extinction. "The realization that the iconic trees of Western North America are disappearing, that the great old-growth hemlock forests of the Appalachian Mountains are being felled by an invasive insect, or that the continent's native goldenrods, asters, orchids and other flowers are experiencing potentially disastrous declines has slipped silently by."
Rogers profiles over two dozen of these disappearing species, from big obvious ones—whitebark pines, sentinels of upper treeline throughout much of the Rocky Mountains; and Fraser fir, the classic farmed Christmas tree of the eastern US, now vanishing in the wild—to the obscure, including Fickeisen plains cactus and parachute penstemon, two diminutive wildflowers perfectly adapted to thrive in challenging cold-desert environments of the arid West.
She elucidates each plant's life, its habits, key relationships with other species, range, and how that plant intersects with human culture and economies. Each chapter is like a scientific detective story, summarizing the findings of many experts, chock-full of fascinating and vivid details, and laying out compelling reasons for saving each of these unique species.
An example: whitebark pine, with its heavy, fat-rich nuts that are dispersed far from the parent trees to establish new stands by Canada Jays, whose pointed beaks (perfect for prying apart cone scales to get the nuts) are so long that "William Clark, who saw the bird in 1805 during his expedition with Meriwether Lewis to the Pacific, mistakenly concluded the animal to be a kind of woodpecker." The jays stash dozens of the pine nuts in a pouch below their tongue, and cache thousands of them for winter food. Uneaten nuts sprout new whitebark pine trees, which also act as windbreaks that accumulate the snowpacks providing water for the region's streams and rivers on which millions of people depend. With whitebarks dying en masse due to the stress of warming climates and a deadly fungus, western forests and watersheds are in big trouble.
Or Fickeisen plains cactus, not discovered until sometime in the 1950s, growing on extremely inhospitable environments of the Colorado Plateau where rain may not fall for months. After blooming in spring and producing a flower almost as big as the 1.5- to two-inch-tall plant, the tiny cacti survives months—or even years—by "retract[ing] into the soil, either pulling themselves completely beneath the ground or sinking in until the crown is even with the soil surface." Think of what this diminutive cactus' drought-survival technology could teach us about adapting as climates change.
When these species disappear, writes Rogers, "the value of what we stand to lose ecologically, culturally, and economically ... becomes immeasurable."
This thoughtfully researched book is illustrated with a sprinkling of Rogers' drawings, which bring the plants alive in a way that words cannot. I only wish there had been more drawings to enhance Rogers' text.
The Quiet Extinction is a cogent call to action to conserve native plants, those often overlooked beings that support our lives and weave the living web which makes this green planet home to us all.
Kara Roger is the senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. She holds a B.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology, and is a member of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). She the author of Out of Nature: Why Drugs from Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity (University of Arizona Press, 2012). Read more on the NASW website.
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