The last time someone found the Queen-of-the-prairie — a pretty, pink rose-like flower — growing in Indianapolis, Indiana, was in a small damp spot at the edge of Water Canal and 52nd Street. The time was July 1935.
Urbanization has had an untold impact on local wildlife. Of the 700 plus species of plants found in Indianapolis, native species have long been replaced by invasive ones. What we see today makes it hard to imagine what we might’ve seen 50 years ago. But a new study, that also happens to be a fantastic premise for a local conservation photography project, might help with that.
Ecologists at the Friesner Herbarium in Butler University, Indianapolis, compared species composition of 2,800 dried plant specimens predating 1940 to plants collected by students between 1996 and 2006. They found a floral community drastically changed from pre-urbanized days. While the number of species was similar, about 700, about 168 (if my math is correct) native plants, including the Queen-of-the-prairie, have been replaced by non-native ones, such as the amur bush honeysuckle.
Honeysuckles don’t sound so bad, and the US Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service actually promoted the planting of it as a means to prevent erosion and feed wildlife. The plant has proven to do neither. The invasive honeysuckle now proliferates throughout the city along banks and wetlands and land managers pay hand over fist to eradicate it.
Perhaps the big take away from the study is that the plant changes caused by urbanization, at least in Indianapolis, is taking away their floral individuality, said the researchers in a press release.
So how does this turn into a photo project? The project by Butler University just screams visualization. I’m betting most urban areas have universities or museums with historical plant collections. They might even consider well-done portraits of these collections an asset to their archival and educational endeavors. Just think who you could partner with and what you could illustrate by creating a series of floral portraits comparing past and present plant communities in your city.
If you think a project like this isn’t important, keep these words from study lead and Director of Friesner Herbarium Dr. Rebecca Dolan in mind. “As cities continue to grow, urban green spaces are becoming important refuges for native biodiversity and for people. In coming decades, most people’s contact with nature will be in urban settings, so the social importance of urban plants has never been greater.”
You can find the study in the current issue of the Journal of Ecology.