The rise in demand for exotic houseplants is damaging the environment. We need to make sure our gardening is green, writes Beronda L. Montgomery
4 May 2022
OVER dinner with friends, one half of a couple proudly declared that his resourcefulness in finding local, sustainably caught fish had allowed a watershed for him, a carnivore, and his partner, a vegetarian-leaning pescatarian. Sustainable fishing is of critical importance, because demand for seafood has caused populations of fish and shellfish around the world to become endangered, as well as leading to habitat destruction.
When I mentioned that discussions of sustainable practices for harvesting plants and gardening are also increasingly recognised, and likewise hotly debated, my friends seemed surprised. However, gardening practices and the growing of houseplants can have significant sustainability issues.
A surge in interest in gardening occurred during the pandemic. In response, many people began to sound the alarm about myriad unsustainable ways that coveted, and sometimes exotic, houseplants were being obtained, from the energetic costs of commercial glasshouses and transport to the destruction of plant communities and ecosystems due to poaching.
Recent accounts of plant poaching abound. Plants targeted include in-demand Californian succulents, carnivorous pitcher plants found in the Philippines and endangered species such as succulent button plants and lithops in South Africa.
Since 2010, the slipper orchid has been rapidly depleted; less than 1 per cent of its original population remains, threatening it with extinction. And habitats are often damaged or destroyed by those illegally harvesting plants.
While the economic benefits for the poachers are driving much of the illegal trade, the long-term economic implications have yet to be fully counted by most.
The removal of plants by poachers isn’t always a careful operation and it can result in physical damage to ecosystems and disruption to the soil. The roots of plants are important for maintaining soil structure and contributing to soil health. When roots are disturbed, soil erosion is accelerated.
The plants that are removed are also members of communities and their departure means the entire community is disrupted. This leads to a decrease in plant diversity.
The impact spans far beyond the immediate loss of plants. Plant removal affects the insect and bird populations that pollinate the plants and rely on them for food and habitation. And soil erosion, coupled with the reduction and potential extinction of plants that sequester carbon, can ultimately accelerate climate change.
What can you do to contribute to sustainable practices and still engage in a love for plants? My favourite option is to propagate plants through cuttings obtained from fellow plant lovers.
Many plants can regrow roots from a cutting – sometimes simply by placing the cutting in water and waiting. So if there is a rare plant I love, such as my prized variegated Monstera, I try to find someone willing to share a cutting rather than buying a specimen, especially if I can’t determine whether the seller obtains their plants sustainably.
Another option is to buy locally, and to choose plant varieties endemic to the area. I have a sentimental attachment to the fragranced, bright red and orange trumpet-shaped flowers of the cross vines (Bignonia capreolata) grown by my grandmother and mother in Arkansas, where I was born and raised. But living in Michigan, some of the species that hark back to my youth can’t be sustainably grown, as they need more water and fertiliser, or may be invasive.
Instead, I grow clematis varieties with large, beautiful flowers that are red, pink or wine-coloured, which are more ecologically friendly yet still strongly remind me of the beautiful blooms of my youth.
I also pay close attention to whether plants will require me to enrich my soil with peat – a major unsustainable gardening product that is found in almost every gardening centre – or if I will be able to use more sustainable compost.
Peat is derived from wetlands – moss-rich areas in some cases, or decomposed leaves and tree parts in tropical areas. It is often harvested faster than it can be organically replaced, thus leading to significant habitat erosion or destruction. Peatlands function as carbon sinks, so their destruction or overharvesting contributes significantly to climate change.
If our love for plants accelerates damage to, rather than honouring and protecting, the ecological niches in which they reside and thrive, then we need to question the roots of our love. We should cultivate a needed reciprocity, in which we care sustainably for the environments from which our beloved plants are derived.
What I’m reading
The Cooking Gene: A journey through African American culinary history in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
What I’m watching
At my sister’s prompting, I have been watching the brave kids on Old Enough!
What I’m working on
I’m editing a thesis and dissertation for graduating students – a time to celebrate all they have accomplished!
- Up next week: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
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