I see plants as the constant of this earth. Whether you’re looking at the waxy Labrador tea of the Arctic tundra, the pillowy, billowy branches of a white pine edging a Minnesotan lake, the spikey ocotillo plant in the desert Southwest, or the slimy seaweed on an ocean floor, it’s there: a plant, a conglomeration of cells that’s capable of making its own food from sunlight itself. Having this is mind, I knew that the flora of Costa Rica would be (almost) entirely different from what I was used to in the Great Plains region of Minnesota or the North woods of Maine, but I also knew that they could provide me with a sense of familiarity, of stability, of comfort.
This was especially important to me since I consider myself a plant person. I’ve spent endless amounts of time in the woods since I could run around and now, after taking Plant Ecophysiology this past fall, I consider them one of the most interesting areas of study. In early September I arrived at the biological station of Las Cruces and was welcomed by endless gardens—so many new plants to look at! Every walk we took, every talk or lecture seemed to include plants. And so these little, big, green, leafy organisms fulfilled their role of being a constant to me, of staying present and therefore stable.
It is important, however, not to confuse this with a static existence on the individual nor the species level. Plants not only play important roles within their ecosystems—evidenced by the fact that they were a part of almost every conversation—but they also play active roles. In some cases more than others, plants have to overcome extreme deficiencies in some of their needed resources and harmful excesses of the others. One extreme environment that we had the opportunity to study and explore is the Costa Rican Páramo. The Páramo exists at elevations above 3,000 meters and is no easy environment to survive. The day presents extreme heat, and extreme sunlight while those same nights could be below freezing. Learning about this ecosystem reminded me of the desert Southwest, where plants have to shield themselves from sunlight yet still utilize it with whatever water they can scavenge to perform photosynthesis, all the while avoiding shriveling to death during the hot days and not letting the fluid in their cells freeze at night.
When so much has to be done in completely opposite directions, it becomes clearer how much of a role plants play in their own survival. They do not have the option of running down in elevation to avoid the cold nights or to huddle in the shade only when they have gotten enough sunlight. Plants are more limited than their furry or scaly or feathery visitors in countless ways. Yet in some, they have the upper hand. Plants have access to water that animals don’t through their collective miles of root systems; plants create symbiotic relationships with fungi to sequester nutrients they can’t gather themselves. Once this is in process and as long as they have some sunlight, they don’t need to go out hunting for their every meal, they don’t need to find ripe fruits or an unchewed leaf. They (for the most part) stay where they are and endure, thrive, exist. This means that they have to be incredibly specialized to reap as many benefits as possible from that one spot. Tiny adjustments like leaf angle to minimize sun damage, miniscule hairs on leaves to prevent freezing, or contractile roots to survive frost as well as drought are all not uncommon methods to survive this extreme biome. Plants do much more than is apparent from our viewpoint.