Flowering plants and climate change: will they adapt?

Posted by John Zeaiter on

At this time of year gardeners always start to think towards the future. What to plant for the upcoming summer months, how to plan the garden for the New Year -- whether to put in that new garden bed, what to grow and how much tubestock to order from Evergreen Growers to fill those gaps in the hedge, beds and backyards.

However thinking fowards may also give the gardening fraternity pause for wider thought.

What about the big picture? We are about to be assailed in the New Year with more data, opinion and facts about what has been described as the "greatest challenge facing mankind": I'm talking of course about climate change. Whatever the cause of climate change (I'll put my hand up here and admit I'm no scientist) parts of the planet do appear to be going through a warming phase.

But at a scientific level, what does that mean for flowering plants? Can they adapt to a warming climate?

An intriguing study released just prior to Christmas co-authored by the University of Florida and George Washington University, gives pause for thought. The study, which also included input from our very own Macquarie University, delved into the way flowering plants developed mechanisms to cope with moves into colder climates in ancient times. The study painstakingly constructed an evolutionary tree of 32,000 angiosperms (flowering species) which included trees and plants. The researchers found that, while these flowering species originated in the warmer climates of the Earth, they had developed evolutionary characteristics that allowed them to survive in colder climates. These included three separate mechanisms.

  • Seasonal dropping of leaves (as seen in deciduous plants). This copes with colder water freezing the plant by shutting down the tree.
  • Dying back into the ground to await warmer conditions.
  • Narrowing of the cells that transport water from the roots to the leaves.

The researchers found that these characteristics were probably developed before the flowering plants marched into colder climates, perhaps in response to other climate stress situations such as drought. They proved to be very useful in combating the changes experienced in cooler climates.

But what of today's climate changes? With the trends towards higher temperatures, how will flowering plants cope?

The team plan to look at how these plants and trees will adapt to a warming climate however initial evidence appears to be negative. This because of the speed of the changes and the resulting lack of time to adapt.

What do you think gardeners? Do you live in a cooler part of the country that grows deciduous flowering plants? Do you think a warming climate will halt the spread of these plants? What will be the end result from the point of view of the gardener? Love to hear your thoughts either here or over at our Facebook page .

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