The importance of plants in ecology and field guiding
BY: Tasneem Johnson-Dollie
What’s the importance of plants in ecology and field guiding? Well, field guiding and ecology both depend on nature, and there would be no nature without plants!
Natural spaces don’t just need plants because they bring splashes of colour to the outside world. There are tons of plant functions that are essential to the maintenance of natural spaces – which are the offices of field guides across the world.
But, because they can’t squawk, roar or hiss, plants can often be overlooked and underappreciated.
So let’s take a closer look at the greenery, and learn more about the ecological importance of plants on Earth and why they’re an essential part of field guiding.
What is ecology?
Ecology is the study of how living things interact within natural environments.
This area of conservation places the focus on plants and animals, and the processes that keep ecosystems going.
It also includes work aimed at understanding how human beings interact with ecosystems. But how does that relate to the works of field guides?
The importance of plants in field guiding
By going on a field-guided tour, urban-dwelling individuals can have a meaningful and informative experience in nature.
And, because of the important role they play in nature, it’s important for field guides to be knowledgeable about plants. This helps them to provide a comprehensive guided experience.
Field guides need to understand not only the biological functions of plants in nature, but how plants and animals interact and the importance of plants in every ecosystem too.
And, one of the most important jobs a field guide has is to act as a link between human beings and nature and encourage the conservation of natural spaces through education and awareness.
This can’t be achieved if field guides aren’t clued up on the importance of plants to humans and to life on Earth as a whole.
And, by adding to the appreciation visitors have for plants, field guides can inspire even more people to get involved in the conservation of the environment. So, let’s take a closer look at how plants fit into our ecosystems.
The importance of plants in ecology
Ecological processes – interactions between plants and animals – are key in keeping any ecosystem going, and plants play a major role in these processes in a number of different ways.
In every area, plants contribute to the resources, regulation, support and culture of the ecosystem and surrounding community.
Here’s a closer look at how each of these roles adds to the ecological importance of plants.
Plants provide a whole host of resources that are essential to life on Earth.
Here are some examples of the ecological importance of plants as resources:
- Plants are sources of water, fibre and nutrients.
- The wood and fibrous material that comes from plants is still used in the construction of dwellings and vessels.
- Plant matter is also an important source of fuel and medicine for many communities.
- Plants are major players in soil production.
The ecological importance of plants also stems from their ability to regulate ecosystems.
Plants are responsible for cycling and regulating the water, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in an area.
Here are some examples of how they get this done:
- Plants absorb water from the air. In this way they’re part of the regulatory system that controls the humidity in the air.
- Carbon dioxide is an essential ingredient in plant survival and plants absorb tons of this gas out of the air to use in photosynthesis.
- Most living things on Earth need oxygen to survive and plants are the world’s main oxygen producers.
These important functions of plants allow water to continue moving around Earth – making it available to those who need it – and keeps the carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere at levels that allow humans and animals to survive.
Plants form the basis of the food chain in every ecosystem, so they support the survival of all life in an ecosystem. How do they do this?
Well, it’s simple enough to see that herbivorous animals couldn’t survive without the shrubs, fruits, vegetables and trees that are present in natural environments.
But, even carnivorous and omnivorous animals depend on plants too. This is because many of the animals that carnivores and omnivores prey on are herbivores. So without plants, meat-eating animals would go hungry too.
Other creatures like insects also depend on plants for food, water and shelter. Some life forms are even known to form symbiotic relationships with plants. For instance, the growth of some bacteria and fungi is promoted when they grow on plants.
And, besides the fact that plants can fill an empty stomach, plant-based diets include some of the most nutritious foods on the planet. The vitamins, minerals, fibre and energy that animals and human beings get from plants is essential for our survival.
Many people interact with natural environments on a day-to-day basis, and some even live within them.
And even for those who are surrounded by urban terrain, visiting nature is still a big part of the culture of human beings today. Be it in the form of hiking, camping, or even a spiritual retreat, interacting with nature is, well, second nature to human beings.
Because of this link between people and plants, nature influences our recreation, education and spirituality.
And, even the plants we encounter in our day-to-day lives through the foods we eat and the spaces we travel through add to the way we experience the world. Think about how the food you cook or buy is influenced by the types of fruits and vegetables available to you. Or, consider how you’ll choose a travel route according to the scenery it provides.
So nature is an inseparable part of human culture today.
The importance of native plants
The plants native to an area are able to grow and thrive there because they develop in a way that allows them to make optimal use of the soil, sun and water that the area provides.
And the importance of native plants should be celebrated, since scientists have shown that many of the fruits and vegetables that are indigienous to an area offer better nutritional value than imported options.
And, by making use of the native plants available to them, communities can benefit economically too. As a natural source of food, they are less expensive to cultivate, and surplus food can be sold for extra income.
Many native plants are able to continue growing in the region where they come from even in extreme weather conditions – like droughts, floods and heat waves. This means that these plants can continue to offer resources, regulation and support even in tough conditions.
How to learn even more about the importance of plants
Bushwise Field Guides offers Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) courses where you can build on your environmental know-how in a meaningful way.
You could choose to travel to South Africa to learn about its natural spaces and contribute to the conservation of its plants and animals. In this way, you’ll get to learn about the importance of plants in a real-world setting.
Or, you could opt for an online FGASA-accredited course where you can start your learning at home with the option to complete practical hours in the field.
Both of these options mean that you’ll be engaging with field experts and learning from individuals with years of experience working in the field guiding industry.