The tales that plants can tell Ash-grey Indian paintbrush plant in Southern California. Image by Gary A. Monroe (CalPhotos, CC-BY-NC)
The tales that plants can tell

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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. Join us on Thursday, January 15, 2015 for a Smithsonian Science How live webcast titled Ecosystem Change: Plotting with Plant Collections, airing at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (EST) 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 appear live to discuss and answer questions. Get teaching resources to support your webcast experience.

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COMMENTS (10)
  • TaylorHartman-Ste
    1/12/2015 - 02:21 p.m.

    This article is pretty interesting because I never would have thought about how important plants are to us and to our past. I think that it is smart to look to plants for help on our past ecosystem changes.

  • shelbyf-Man
    1/19/2015 - 03:28 p.m.

    I didn't really like this story. It bored me very much. However, I do like plants, but only pretty ones. Scientists are really cool. They are lucky to have been able to have been brought to this world loving science.

  • shelbyf-Man
    1/19/2015 - 03:28 p.m.

    I didn't really like this story. It bored me very much. However, I do like plants, but only pretty ones. Scientists are really cool. They are lucky to have been able to have been brought to this world loving science.

  • shelbyf-Man
    1/19/2015 - 03:28 p.m.

    I didn't really like this story. It bored me very much. However, I do like plants, but only pretty ones. Scientists are really cool. They are lucky to have been able to have been brought to this world loving science.

  • samanthab-Man
    1/19/2015 - 03:34 p.m.

    I don't really pay attention to plants.I didn't know even the ugliest plants have something for animals or insects.So do all plants serve a purpose? Are there plants that don't serve a purpose there are just there....

  • ShaniaWentz-Ste
    1/19/2015 - 09:41 p.m.

    Plants are things that we put on graves of loved ones that have passed away, or that we give to our moms on Mother's Day. They come in all different shapes, sizes, and even colors. However, I never imagined that they would be able to tell stories. I hope that scientists continue to investigate this secret side of plants.

  • destinyman-Man
    1/20/2015 - 12:05 p.m.

    I think this is so awesome. I love plants, expecully if their really pretty.This specific type of flower is gorgeous. Flowers go way back, and prove where they come from and what their like. Most flowers are stinky and some smell really good.

  • raymondb-Koc
    1/25/2015 - 11:43 p.m.

    I chose to read upon this article because plants are something in which surround our everyday live. It's interesting to look upon a more in-depth look on how they got the way they are today. The article explains methods scientists use in order to discover why certain plants react the certain way they do, These scientists are known as "botanists". It even explains how certain plant specimens have adapted to the change over the world, over the past 100 years.

  • AllisonLogan1
    2/10/2015 - 11:12 p.m.

    These castilleja cinerea plants are becoming scarce because of their habitat. A good thing is that the scientists that study plants get these plants and store them in a collection of pressed, dried plants. A bad thing is that these plants don't adapt to a new habitat easily. A interesting thing is that these plants are unique in their own way.

  • briannac-DiB
    3/16/2015 - 10:47 a.m.

    thats so cool that a plant can do that. we find out the most intristing thing and learn more about them. more and more we learn new thing to help us in the futer.

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