Personal Thoughts: Share the Earth

submitted by Richard Brownscombe, Broward Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society

(Richard wrote this inspirational holiday appeal to help make Broward County a better place for all creatures, large and small. The same could be said for any county in Florida, or place in the world.)

The holidays engage us in the kind and generous inclinations of the human heart. We hear holiday stories of the world's needs and generous people doing something about it. In this era of climate change and species extinction, we think not only of other people, but the other species upon the earth. Some of the best we do for the environment and nature is in our home, yard, neighborhood, city, and our efforts in Broward County that celebrate nature and inspire us to create a sustainable community.

Dahoon Holly, Ilex cassine, Mary Keim
The paradigm for Broward should become sharing our land and resources, making space and leaving water for all the creatures great and small. As we set about evolving our homes and cities to be sustainable, we would do well to be a bit more modest than we have been about what we know. Our understanding of the natural world is quite limited, reflecting the amount of attention we have given it over the past few decades. Sharing the earth with nature is not so much a gift from us as a gift to ourselves. Some of what we need to know about sustainability already exists in nature. These Broward species have existed in this place for 5,000 years. Their lineage is impressive, billions of years. Within their structure, behavior, growth, resilience, and being, a lot is to be discovered about a very complex system that renews resources as it uses them (see How ecosystems work here includes their adaptation to our climate, our water resources, our natural disasters, our bedrock and the process of recycling, energy use, carbon sequestration, and more. Don't we want to preserve this rich legacy not only for its usefulness, beauty, and fascination, but because nature has a right to exist here with us?

Yes, like others I am very impressed by science and the fast rate of our discovery and knowledge (see Google Earth Time-lapse). Yes, discoveries about energy and carbon could be very important to us (see And yes, it is fascinating (see Daniel Csobot). The changes ahead are not just solutions for humans. To create a sustainable community, we need to step back far enough to see the gestalt of the ecosystem and planet, especially the place of other species that we so easily forget to include. Maybe we forget because we don't yet know much about them. There has never been an in-depth study of the species and ecosystems in Broward County. The public and school children don't see a lot of photographs or even anecdotal stories of what the species in our own nearby natural areas are doing.

We don't even have up-to-date inventories of our species, let alone understand the complex interdependence among them, or their effect on the air and water, or how insects are using the food supply and feeding others, or the overall energy exchanges taking place here. We don't know much. And we haven't yet engaged the public in very compelling ways about the beautiful and fascinating things happening every day and every night in the natural lands around us.

Butterflies in amber older than 65 million years,
Royal Society image in
Sandy Koi opened a small window for us to see some of what is going on. She talked about the complex use of plant poisons by a particular species of butterfly. Then told us how a different species employs different plants with a very different strategy to survive and reproduce. She explained that these specific and complex uses of chemistry and behavior have evolved between butterflies and particular plants over a period of tens of millions of years (from the time of dinosaurs)! We know this in part because of butterflies wonderfully preserved in amber.

Scientific detail isn't for everyone. Photography, short videos, drone photography, down-to-earth stories about wildlife, fresh and hopeful ideas, beautiful native gardens, pleasant trails, beacon technology (like signage, beacons tell your smartphone about the plants and wildlife in your immediate proximity), and local naturalists are other ways to communicate the richness of natural areas. A community determined to keep its last remaining natural areas will find solutions.

People like butterflies so we study them, but what about similar species-specific coevolution among other insects and plants, insects and animals (such as bug species being fed to hatchlings)? What chemistry and biology is going on there? And what is going on in the soil with fungi and bacteria? A lot of essential services (recycling, fertilizing, and cleaning) and likely even communication among plant roots is taking place in the soil. This is fascinating, endlessly complex, and helps us understand what nature needs. It also teaches us applied biochemistry, quantum biology, growth and self-organizing systems, and other useful stuff for understanding sustainable systems. There is a lot we don't know happening in the small places of wild Broward.

That's one reason the Broward Chapter recommends native plants for landscaping. We have no idea what microbes, fungi, countless insects, 200 wild bee species, indigenous and migrating birds, and all the other creatures are doing while we sleep and go to work, but it's pretty likely it's something good for the environment ... and therefore, for us. Native landscaping is something you can do to give much-needed land to nature. Urban Broward has left nature on remnant blocks or islands in a sea of homes and it's pretty tough to stay alive there without natural corridors. Many of our rarest plant species are still surviving in populations of hundreds or even tens of last remaining plants on these remnant natural areas.

Tragically, Broward's 40 natural areas are being overrun by invasive species. The rarest and most fragile populations of last-remaining populations are being strangled for space, light, moisture, and nutrients. George Gann, Chief Conservation Strategist for the Institute of Regional Conservation, hypothesizes that Broward may be the second most at risk county in Florida for species loss (local extinction). We could remove the invasive plants for about a $1 million, and then invest annually in our natural areas to keep them healthy, educational, and fun to visit. There is currently no comprehensive plan or funding to remove invasive plants from Broward natural areas. Would it help if we thought of our natural areas as Broward's living outdoor museum of last remaining rare species and other interesting plants and animals? That's not an inaccurate description. Incredibly, about 500 out of 700 existent Broward plant species live on the small (mostly County) properties within densely populated areas (see this map of yellow County parks, not all of them natural). Two hundred out of 700 species live in the vast unpopulated wetlands of the Everglades Management Areas. That is why it is so important to save them from the rapid invasive plant strangulation in progress.

Within the coming year, the Parks Foundation of Broward and the Friends of Natural Areas of Broward will have a fund and coordinate in-kind and pro-bono contributions so that the Broward community can come together to save Broward natural areas. Invasive plant removal is the first priority. We can do this if we take seriously the idea that Broward should be shared with nature. Call 954-661-6289 or email if you have something to give to this effort.

Since the holidays are fast approaching, visit one of Broward's native nurseries to pick out a beautiful shrub to decorate. Collect some native boughs for a holiday wreath. Buy some seeds for table gifts. Give a potted plant (with a copy of the Natives for Your Neighborhood species print-out tucked inside). Talk with friends and family about making Broward a community that shares its space and resources with plants and wildlife so they can continue to live here with us.


Unknown said…
Hi, Andrea at Biosphere Nursery in Winter Garden here. I save lots of posts on Facebook to visit later and just read this. I really appreciate your perspective and plan to share this on our Facebook page. (And that was before the bit at the end about buying a shrub, etc.... ;-)) Thank you for a well written and thoughtful article!

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