I’m delighted to be here, and to share with you some of my passion for alpine plants. High Up in British Columbia’s mountains, above the treeline, lies the alpine zone. There, if you look carefully, you will find that alpine plants are a wonderful source of inspiration.
Alpine tundra – the ecosystem above the tree line – occupies about 16 % of BCs land area. Many of the plant species are found there, and nowhere else in the province.It is a land of harsh extremes. It's cold, windy, dry, rocky. Winter is long and summer is short. The light, when there is some, is very intense.
But somehow nature finds its way. Even in this inhospitable place, alpine plants inhabit all kinds of spaces in a ddazzling display of shapes and colours.In the alpine, we find that extreme environments lead to extreme adaptations.
If we study the adaptations of alpine plants, the plants can teach us lessons about living through rapid environmental change.My question today is 'what can alpine plants teach us about building a more sustainable world'?Let's have a look at a couple of examples.
If you look around at alpine plants, you'll find patterns that repeat themselves. You might ask yourself 'Why? How does that adaptation benefit the plant?'Here's a pattern that you'll see over and over again. Flowers that are shaped like a saucer, facing and following the sun. Seen here in the Arctic poppy.Arcticpoppy (Papaver radicatum)
And here in the mountain avens…
And here in the alpine buttercup
It even occurs in the leaves of this tiny willow from the arctic. Why is this shape so common? Actually, it serves several purposes – it protects the vulnerable flower parts from the wind. At the same time it reflectsand even focuses precious heat to keep the flower warm.Leavescup the Salixherbacea (snowbedwillow) from the far north. (Not a BC Plant)
What are some of the technological applications that use this exact principal?Satellite Dish, Solar Cooker, Solar ArrayLet’s look at another common pattern of alpine plants.
Another pattern you'll see is the mound or cushion.Alpine environmentscanbeverywindy places.No trees to slow it down.Plants dry outGetdamaged
Alpine environmentscanbeverywindy places.No trees to slow it down.Plants dry outGetdamaged
And here in a plant from the arctic and coastal British Columbia – 'seaside sandplant’(Honckenyapeploides). Whatisthat mound doing?
Aerodynamic – wind flows over them - reduced drying effectTrap bits of dirt, debris, dead leaves -soil building & stabilizingHeat – can be several degrees warmer inside a cushion plant - retains moisture - early spring growth
Where do we see this shape used to the same effect by humans?Igloo My Tent Hurricane Resistant Housing
One of our challenges as human beings is to figure out how to meet our needs for energy. Alpine plants have already got that figured out – even in the most extreme environment!Most of us know that green leaves produce energy from the sun. Solar inventors (like my friend on the left) are on a quest to reproduce the process technologically to create ‘artificial photosynthesis’ . A clean renewable fuel! One of the criticisms of solar energy is that they only work when the sun is shining.
But wait! If you look at alpine plants at the end of a long dark winter, they put out new shoots and leaves quickly, without being fed by new energy from the sun. Because the plant stores energy in its extensive roots and stems. These tissues act like rechargeable batteries for the plant. Maybe there’s a way to store energy like an alpine plant does to create an efficient, self-recharging, waste-free battery. And in fact, there are scientists and engineers in Scotland who, just last week, announced that they’ve developed ways to use plant tissues as batteries! They are looking for ways to apply this in home and industrial systems.
If we try to ‘think like a plant’, and understand them in a different way, who knows what we may discover?When we have an environmental problem, we can look outside – not just in the alpine, or just at plants – and ask ‘What would Mother Nature Do?Lets look at a few more examples…
Alpinesweetgrass (Hierochloealpina) sticks its flowerheads up into the wind on long single stocks. This lets its pollen catch the wind
Because there is so much wind, many plants take advantage of it for pollination and seed dispersal.
Did you notice it has a long stock and a single head that allows it to find the wind.Can you see the similarity in the wind turbines?The plant does this for it’s own purposes, but a similar structure allows people to harness wind energy.
As you know, dark colours absorb heat, and in the alpine, this function is critical to survival. The red coloration of some alpine species is a red pigment in the stems and leavescalled anthocyanin. This red pigment is more effective than green chlorophyll at usingsunlight to warm plant tissues. Some plants can actually give off enough heat to melt the snow surroundingthem. As we hike, we’ll look more closely at these characteristics in the different plantswe see.Arctic Bladder-Campion (Melandrium affine, Sileneinvolucrata)The arctic bladder-campion is a wide ranging, circumpolar species. The purple striped ‘bladder’ is quite distinctive.
Light colours also reflect heat., and the poppy on the right uses light to reflect light and dark colours to store it. PedicularisoederiVahl ex Hornem.Oeder's lousewortScrophulariaceae (Figwort Family) edicularis and papaverradiatum
Dark roofs could absorb heat in cold climates, light roofs could reflect it in urban areas.
When you look at a picture like this, you could ask yourself ‘what adaptations do you see?’ ‘what could it mean?’ ‘How did traditional people use these plants?’ and look for inspiration for sustainable design.
We could admire their ingenuity. Their persistence. Their extreme adaptations.Or we could just be inspired by their beauty.Here are a few of my favourites.
Now I’m not sure what adaptive advantage these plants get out of being so beautiful.Maybe it’s just the plant’s way of attracting insect pollinators and ensuring the continuation of the species.But it can certainly be a inspiration for us. Beauty can be a plant’s way of ensuring continuation of species. In many plants, colours and shapes co-evolved with insect pollinators. As humans, we can be inspired by this – art, photography, There are many plant species that are found only in BCs alpine and or the arctic tundra. This is the floral emblem of the territory of Nunavut.
beautiful blue lupine
Polygonumviviparum– alpine (viviparous) bistort.Instead of seed, it produces tiny little plantlets that fall off the plant and get a head start on the growth.
Through their adaptations, they thrive in a truly extreme environment.This is an arctic dandelion - related to our common lawn weed.
Outrageously oversized flowers compared to the rest of their body
On tiny plants Smallest rhododendron you’ll ever seeJust to give you a sense of scale, this plant isn’t much bigger than a penny. Rhododendronlapponicum (L.) Wahlenb. Heath family – Ericaceae.Smallest rhododendron you’ll ever see! In BC, you can see this in the northern rockies.
This adorable little flower – the white mountain-avens - has been around for thousands of years and teaches us lessons of the past, of adaptation, migration and survival through rapid climate change. Paleobotanists (who study ancient plants) discover its fossil pollen in unexpected places. It can provide evidence of past glaciations and track the response of plants to a changing environment.Long flourished for thousands of years – long enough to have a geological timeperiod named after it. It is considered a ‘fossil’ indicator plant of those times. The pollen from this plant is found in ancient lakebeds and provides information about THese are plants that to is a marker for timeperiods of
British Columbia’s alpine environments are shrinking. Now, more thanever, itis important to study the teachings of alpine plants. To look to the alpine for inspiration. For knowledge. For wisdom. And for beauty.It is more important thanever to understand the alpine environment and the changingecosystems of BC and the world. Wind Cold Snow and ice Water Intense light Short growingseason Nutrition ReproductionColonizingbaregroundRapidlychangingenvironment
Ironically, these masters of extremeadapation are losingtheir habitat as the climatewarms and the treesgrowhigher and higher up the mountains.
Ask the plants!
Extreme adaptation 12
Extreme Adaptation:Sustainable design inspiration from alpine plants
Those who are inspired by a model other than nature… … are labouring in vain. - Leonardo Da Vinci Biomimicry: The practice of developing sustainable human technologies inspired by nature. - Janine Benyus