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What to Plant in a Warming World

Health + Wellness
What to Plant in a Warming World

With springtime in the air and the days getting longer, you may well be daydreaming about your garden or flower bed and the quiet weekend hours you hope to spend there in the weeks to come. But knowing what to plant as temperatures climb and precipitation patterns change around the world can be a challenge.

The planet just experienced the hottest decade (2010-2019) on record, according to NOAA, with 2019 itself ranking second-warmest year ever recorded.

At the same time, climate change's impact on precipitation patterns around the world has become a case of feast or famine. Warming is fundamentally altering the water cycle and shifting precipitation patterns. In many areas, rainfall has become either increasingly abundant or in desperately short supply, relative to longtime averages.

As we saw in Australia earlier this year, drought exacerbated by the climate crisis can lead to devastating wildfires. Elsewhere, in places like the American Midwest, extreme rainfall events are becoming more frequent, resulting in major agricultural losses that make the food supply we all depend on less secure.

That's some pretty heady stuff for a blog about gardening, we know. But it's vital to understand that when it comes to the climate crisis, business as usual will not cut it. Anywhere. Not in electricity production. Not in industry. Not in transportation. And certainly not in agriculture — right down to a home garden or flower bed.

Some plants are better suited to extended periods of high heat than others, while many can survive on less water (or conversely, can handle a little too much for a bit longer) than their pricklier peers.

Below, we've put together a few key tips on how you can adapt your landscape using plants better-suited for climate impacts in your area. As always, be sure to research what plant species are native to your region before buying and planting — your local biodiversity and natural resources, as well as the plants themselves, will thank you.

Drought-Tolerant Plants

When it comes to our changing climate, it's fairly safe to "expect the wet to get wetter, and the dry, drier."

If the region you live in is already a fairly dry one — like, say, the American West, Middle East and North Africa, and much of Australia — you're likely to experience even drier conditions and occasional drought as the world continues to warm.

These concerns, of course, have far larger implications than what you plant in the beds around your front porch or in your backyard. But that's not to say picking the right plants for your particular changing climate has no role at all in making you a better steward of natural resources at a time when it matters more than ever.

As just one example, according to the EPA, outdoor water use, including the watering of lawns and gardens, accounts for about 30 percent of all residential water use in the U.S., and that number "can be much higher in drier parts of the country and in more water-intensive landscapes." So it makes sense that opting for plants that are able to thrive in drier conditions can also help rein in your home water use at a time when water resources can become strained.

But which plants are less thirsty and more resilient during periods of drought?

Lavender is a particularly popular — and wonderfully fragrant — common plant that "has evolved to subsist on little water."

Cushion spurge (Euphorbia), with its pale green leaves and yellow bracts, is an especially good drought-tolerant plant for gardens in cooler climes. And ornamental grasses tend to be both aesthetically pleasing and drought tolerant, more generally. Feather reed grass, blue fescue, fountain grass, and big bluestem (called "Monarch of the Prairie" by some), in particular, will all survive periods of water shortage while still looking great.

If more conventional flowers are your thing, consider peonies, geraniums, butterfly weed, baby's breath, sedum, and coneflower, all of which require a bit less water than many other common garden flowers.

It's important to note that the perennials above are only truly drought-tolerant once they have been fully established. This means that in their first and sometimes second years, they will require a little more water and care. And as with all plants, if you are in the U.S., you should check to make sure it is a good fit for your USDA Hardiness Zone.

Heat-Tolerant Plants

"Worldwide, since 1880 the average surface temperature [on Earth] has risen about 1° C (about 2° F), relative to the mid-20th-century baseline (of 1951-1980)," according to NASA.

It's important to remember that's a worldwide average; many regions have experienced more warming than this on the ground. But any change in temperatures can and will change where a plant can be grown — and some plants are better able to deal with periods of extreme heat than others.

A few of the plants mentioned above as being drought-tolerant can also deal pretty well with higher temperatures, including butterfly weed and purple coneflower.

Celosia, with its bright, feathery orange, purple, yellow, red, and white plumes, is a favorite for many American gardeners — and is well-known to "remain upright and strong even in sizzling heat."

And zinnias, gaillardia, purslane, and cosmos are all prolific, heat-loving annuals.

When it comes to perennials and other shrubs, if you live in a largely temperate area that experiences occasional periods of high heat, consider adding viburnum to your landscape. Its fragrant clusters of delicate white blossoms arrive fairly early in the season, often in May and June, and it does a famously good job of standing up to late-summer heat, providing birds and other wildlife refuge in the shade created by its eight-to-10-foot average height and broad, leafy boughs.

Yucca, a broadleaf evergreen, is native to some of the warmest and driest parts of North America, so it's no surprise that, according to Bob Vila, "When other plants begin to wilt in the heat, yucca stands tall and strong."

For a smaller shrub that does particularly well with higher humidity (it is a longtime stalwart in gardens across the American South), consider lantana.

Rain Gardens

Like we said earlier, "expect the wet to get wetter, and the dry, drier."

Put as simply as possible, climate change impacts our weather largely by putting our water cycle into overdrive. As temperatures around the globe climb, water from land and sea is evaporating faster. Making matters worse: Warmer air can hold more water vapor.

More water in our atmosphere means more intense precipitation and more intense storms. It's called a cycle for a reason.

So, if you are in a region experiencing more and more precipitation, and are looking for a great way to soak up some of the extra rain while keeping your landscape looking great, consider a "rain garden."

But wait. What's a "rain garden"?

"A rain garden is a garden of native shrubs, perennials, and flowers planted in a small depression, which is generally formed on a natural slope. It is designed to temporarily hold and soak in rain water runoff that flows from roofs, driveways, patios or lawns," according to Groundwater.org. "Rain gardens are effective in removing up to 90 percent of nutrients and chemicals and up to 80 percent of sediments from the rainwater runoff. Compared to a conventional lawn, rain gardens allow for 30 percent more water to soak into the ground."

It's important to note that rain gardens are not ponds, water gardens, or wetlands. They are meant to collect and hold rainwater only during and for no more than 24 or so hours max after a rainfall event. Designing them this way goes a long way to keeping another persistent climate pest at bay: mosquitos.

Rain gardens are typically placed on the downside of a slope — the best location for them to collect excess rainwater runoff — and at least 10 feet from a house or other residence. Building the garden itself is a bit of a process, one with more than a few moving parts (luckily, Penn State Extension offers a fantastic primer on getting started). The good new there is that most work associated with rain gardens happens up front; once the garden is established, it typically requires minimal maintenance.

Just as some plants are drought-tolerant, other vegetation can easily withstand temporary excesses of water — and these are the plants you want to seek out for your rain garden. Be sure to seek out a mix of shrubs, perennials and grasses, and flowers that are native to your region.

Some shrubs that "are tolerant of inundated (flooded) conditions … [and] can tolerate standing water for a period of time" include elderberry, silky dogwood, winterberry, and swamp azalea. American beautyberry, red-osier dogwood, and Virginia sweetspire can handle pretty wet conditions too, but don't love it when standing water hangs around quite as long.

In the perennials, grasses, and ferns department, look to marsh marigold, switchgrass, goldenrod, cinnamon fern, and blue flag iris (among many others) for the wettest areas of the rain garden, and evening primrose, threadleaf coreopsis, blue mistflower, and boltonia for the corners that get a little less swamped.

What's Next

Here at Climate Reality, we've long had a keen interest in climate-smart agriculture and the ways farmers and gardeners can do their part to help turn the tide on climate by taking action to fight this crisis.

It's important to remember that you don't have to manage a thousand acres to do something real for our climate. From edible landscaping to "lasagna gardening" and so much more, you can be the change you want to see. You don't even have to leave your own backyard to get started!

And when your neighbors, colleagues, or family members ask what you're up to, tell them you are taking action for the planet. Sometimes, the most powerful climate action you can take is simply talking about the crisis and the ways we can fight it and win together.

In the meantime, sign up below to join Climate Reality's email list and we'll keep you posted on the latest developments in climate policy and how you can help solve the climate crisis.

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By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."

Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

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Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.