How Plant Evolution Can Help You Become a Better Gardener

You might think that ‘resilience in gardening’ is about being a tough gardener. But, no, I’m talking about resilience from the perspective of the PLANT instead. By understanding how and why plant evolution takes place and how plants have evolved in their natural habitats, you can work to be a better gardener and have more of an understanding of the plants you grow and their needs..

Plant Evolution in Arid Climates

These are effectively desert climates, where rainfall is often too low to sustain vegetation, and temperatures can be as high as 130 degrees.

Desert makes up 33% of the earth’s land, so plants must either require very little water or find ways to store the water they come across.

CACTI AND SUCCULENTS

Succulents and cacti are perhaps the most well known of all desert plants. They can survive from many years just relying on occasional rainfall, storing water in the body of the plant.

The roots of these plants also spread to maximise water collection, and their spines protect the plants from animals, who may seek out the water source.

Rose of Jericho (Selaginella lepidophylla)

Plant Evolution: Rose of Jericho
Rose of Jericho

A well-known tumbleweed, these plants can stay dormant for many years, just blowing around the desert. They pack themselves up into a tight ball and ‘hibernate’. Once they find a water source or rainfall again, they bounce back to life and disperse their seeds!

SHRUBS

Shrubs have waxy leaves which reflect heat and slow down evaporation. They have small hairs on their surface to reflect desert light and keep the plants cooler. Their shallow roots also maximise water collection.

GRASSES AND SCRUB PLANTS

These plants tend to grow quickly and do their reproduction during a very small window, when conditions are at their best.

Plant Evolution in Polar Climates

These can often comprise the world’s largest deserted areas. They feature harsh, cold, windy and dry conditions.

Any water in the soil stays frozen most of the year, and areas are often only free of ice for around 50 days of the year.

In these climates, plants must carry out their photosynthesis during cold temperatures, sometimes beneath snow cover.

ALGAE, LICHEN AND MOSS

Plant Evolution: Lichen
Lichen

These plants often hide in cracks to protect themselves from the cold drying wind. They grow together and close to the ground, avoiding ice particles in the wind.

Their small structures mean less water is lost through their surface area.

Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla)

Plant Evolution: Pulsatilla
Pulsatilla

This plant’s leaves are cover in fine silky hairs which help to insulate the plant.

Bearberry

Plant Evolution: Bearberry
Bearberry

The bearberry plant feature leathery leaves, which protect the plant from cold winds.

Saxifrage

Plant Evolution: Saxifrage
Saxifrage

The saxifrage grows in low, tight, clump-forming plants to stay protected. Its flowers form above the snowline.

Plant Evolution in Tropical Climates

Tropical climates are warm, humid areas, often with excess moisture. Plants growing in these areas must make the most of the light that peeks through the forest canopy.

The plants must also find ways to resist the high levels of rainfall.

VINING PLANTS

Plant Evolution: Vines
Vines

These often have buttress roots, and climb up through trees to reach the sunlight above the canopy level. Their leaves often have drip tips to direct excess water away; this also protects growth of algae, which would block sunlight.

Swiss Cheese Plant (Monstera)

Plant Evolution: Monstera
Monstera

This is well-known houseplant. However, in the jungle, the holes in the leaves allow water to run off, AND let light in. It also prevents leaves getting ripped in the upper, windy canopy.

Begonia pavonina

Plant Evolution: Begonia pavonina
Begonia pavonina

The Peacock Begonia has iridescence colour-changing foliage which maximises its use of limited light.

Marcgravia

This plant assists its own pollination by attracting bats to do the job. The leaves have developed into satellites which help bats to locate the plants!

Plant Evolution in Temperate Climates

Temperate climates are areas with moderate rainfall. The seasons in these climates are distinct, with cold and warm periods.

Here, plants must maximise sunlight whilst it is plentiful. They must also attract a wide range of pollinators with bright colours and scents.

DECIDUOUS TREES

Plant Evolution: Deciduous trees
Deciduous trees

The broad leaves of deciduous trees capture sunlight. Their thick bark allows them to deal with cold winters.

These trees lose their leaves in order to minimise water loss, and their fallen leaves help to fertilise the ground with nutrients.

Brightly coloured berries

Plant Evolution: Brightly coloured berries
Brightly coloured berries

These are developed to attract birds, who then excrete them and consequently spread the plants around.

Dandelions and fluffy seeds

Plant Evolution: Dandelion
Dandelion

These plants allow themselves to be spread by the wind.

Burdock and sticky seedheads

Plant Evolution: Burdock
Burdock

These have cleverly developed to be spread by wild animals.

Plant Evolution: What to do next

Now that you’ve learned a little bit about the four major climates of the world, it’s time to cut plants some slack when planting them in your own garden! Plants spend many years building their ways of coping with their environment, so please be kind to them.

Always follow the rule of ‘right plant, right place’. I’m not saying don’t experiment, but don’t plant a Begonia into full sun and expect it to enjoy it!

Love your plant and give it what it needs, and you’ll reap the rewards!

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