Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
This March I was fortunate to take a trip that had long been on my wish list – a visit to Tanzania to see the Serengeti (which translates as “Endless Plain” in Swahili) and the Ngorongoro Crater. I went, like most visitors to Africa, to see the great wildlife in their native, undisturbed habitat.
Watching the vast herds of wildebeest, zebras and Thompson’s gazelles on the move across the Serengeti is one of the greatest experiences the world has to offer. Watching cheetahs stalk a wildebeest herd, seeing a mother lioness leading her new cubs to water, catching sight of a jackal with its prey, not to mention observing majestic elephants and endangered black rhinos, were gifts I will treasure always.
Just as fascinating were the plants that support this wildlife extravaganza. Grasses like elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum) nourish the great herds and provide shelter for predators and prey alike. Plants have interesting ways of surviving in what can be a hostile environment. Acacias, the umbrella-shaped thorn trees that dot the African landscape, provide fodder for giraffes and other browsers, but their toxic chemicals are then released, causing the animals to move on.
The whistling thorn acacia (Acacia drepanolobium) has 3-inch-long thorns and houses up to four species of ants in the swollen brown pods that grow on some of these thorns. The ants obligingly attack animals who attempt to feed on those forbidding branches.
The fever tree (Acacia xanthophloea Benth), with its distinctive yellow bark, is so named because it was once thought to cause malaria and other fevers. In fact, the tree itself is innocent, but it happens to grow in wet, swampy areas that breed fever-bearing mosquitoes. We saw euphorbias – those giant, prehistoric cactus-looking trees that mostly originated in Africa – everywhere.
All of us were overwhelmed and awed by the richness of life that we witnessed – and concerned that it eventually could be threatened by population growth and its demands. Fortunately, at least for the moment, the wildlife and flora of the Seregeti and the Ngorongoro Crater are protected by the designation of these areas as national parks and conservation areas. And ecotourism, which contributes substantially to the distressed economy of Tanzania, is providing invaluable support for the long-term protection of the parks and conservation lands.
The trip renewed my appreciation of the work we do at the Wildflower Center. We are making a difference with our Sustainable Sites Initiative, creating tools for balancing growth and development with protection of our biodiversity. Our seed collections are providing insurance against losing entire species. Every day, we are battling the invasive species that are taking such a toll on wildflowers and other natives. And with sophisticated technology and old-fashioned commitment, we are educating people and spreading the word about the value of native plants. (By the way, that elephant grass I mentioned is very useful to the elephants chowing down in the Ngorongoro Crater, but it’s an invasive plague outside of Africa.)
Lady Bird Johnson often spoke of biodiversity. “I like it when the land speaks its own language in its own regional accent,” she said. It was her way of saying that we lose so much when we trade regional native plants for cookie-cutter lawns and often-imported shrubs. We lose the birds, butterflies and wildlife that depend on these plants for food and shelter. We lose fascinating interactions between species that are essential for their long-term survival.
In a world with so many urgent human needs, the state of the world’s biodiversity is often undervalued. There’s an understandable tendency to think that the plants and animals on which we ultimately depend will always be there. We focus our attention on problems that seem more pressing, assuming that we can deal with the loss of nature at a later time. But at the Wildflower Center, we know that the time is now. — Susan K. Rieff, Executive Director