Climate Change Puts Native Plants Between “A Rock and a Hard Place”

What are the greatest threats to plant life on our planet?

For Lucinda McDade, there are two.

Climate change and habitat destruction.

These, she says, are especially apparent in Southern California. In fact, they go hand in hand.

“Think about it in the context of the Los Angeles basin,” says McDade, who chairs Claremont Graduate University’s Botany Department and serves as executive director of the California Botanic Garden. “Let’s say there are populations of plants and animals that need to move further north because their proper habitat is migrating north. How are they going to naturally move across the entire populated concrete and asphalt of the L.A. basin?”

The answer is simple: They can’t.

And while an increasingly concrete-covered landscape poses one obstacle, temperatures pose another.

“There is special concern for plants that occur at high elevations because, as the climate warms, these plants need to move higher,” she explains. “But if they’re already on the tops of mountain ranges, they have no place to go. They are literally between a rock and a hard place!”

A leading researcher in the field of botany, McDade’s recent accolades include the Liberty Hyde Bailey Award, which is the American Horticultural Society’s highest honor, and the American Society of Plant Taxonomists’ 2019 Asa Gray Award. Though she arrived at CGU in 2006, she’d known about the university’s program and the botanic garden for many years, never dreaming that she would one day become part of it.

“I had been enchanted by this garden since I first visited it in the late 1980s, owing to its dedication to native plants,” she said, “and so was thrilled to have the chance to work here.”

The garden not only includes beautiful conservation groves, a nursery, and a seed bank (which is the largest repository of seeds of California native plants found anywhere), but it is also home to CGU’s master’s and PhD in Botany programs.

While McDade spends her research time studying a richly diverse branch of the family tree of Acanthaceae with her students, she’s also worked hard to make connections among disciplines in a way that demonstrates CGU’s transdisciplinary philosophy.

“I’ve been able to build a good network of people who collaborate on projects together,” she says, “and we’ve got a lot of great things going.”

That ability of hers to juggle many tasks and priorities and work swiftly was something she developed during her academic training at Tulane and Duke universities, but one wonders if it doesn’t date to even earlier. As a child, she recalls, she learned something important after planting an avocado seed in the backyard of her South Florida home. The seed grew into a small tree that ruined her mother’s clothesline.

“I learned quickly that sometimes what you plant can come up quickly and grow bigger than you think,” she explains, “so you need to think through where you’re going to plant things.”

Working quickly and thinking carefully is a simple lesson that has caused McDade’s career, for lack of a better metaphor, to truly blossom.

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