Plant Wars and Tinder Boxes

Sometimes it’s hard to get kids enthused about plants
when there are snakes around. “Vertebrates are cute and fuzzy, and we’re
vertebrates, so it’s easy to relate,” says plant ecologist Jocelyn Holt.
Nurturing a child’s sense of kinship with plants requires some effort.

Jocelyn works with the National Park Service to bring EcoHelper students from the Los Angeles Unified School District
to hike, pull weeds, and replant healthy native plant species. Students get
hooked on plants and keep coming
back. “Sometimes I wonder if we’re
getting through,” says Jocelyn. “It can take years, but you can tell
when it really
sinks in, and the students say ‘Hey, I understand this! Plants
are cool!'”

The Mediterranean climate that accounts for today’s
perfect weather also allows more than 1,200 native plant species to flourish in
Santa Monica Mountains. This natural diversity is
threatened by some 70 species of prolific non-native plants.

Why does it matter? Exotic “invasives” like
eucalyptus, storksbill, and horehound get a head start in the growing season,
towering over native species in no time at all, shading them out of their
territory and sucking up more than their share of water. Adding insult to
injury, when some invasives die, they create thick mats of organic material
that prevent native species from getting established. What’s more, many
invasives increase the rate and intensity of fires in these tinderbox hills.

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