Aromatic Plants of the Future
An article about how aromatic plants of the future may change, adapt, or die out. A snapshot provided by gardener, herbalist, and aromatherapist Sharon Falsetto Chapman.
As Earth Day approaches each year, we are reminded of the fragility of our planet and how much we depend on plants to give us life, heal us, feed us, and sustain us. The importance of Earth Day is highlighted by the fact that, prior to the first Earth Day celebration, it was legal for industries to dump toxic waste into rivers and streams and pollute the atmosphere with toxic waste. Little thought was given to the devastating and long-term effects these actions would have on the survival of plants and animals, and ultimately life on earth.
Interestingly, Earth Day was established in my year of birth and led to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in that same year. But plant life which was around 50+ years ago is in some ways different to that of today. And what about the plants of the future? Which plants, and what will their growing conditions be like, be around in another 50 years’ time?
Why Plants are Important to the Environment
Plants are part of the biodiversity system which is vital to the survival of life on earth; plants have many uses, some more apparent than others, but each just as important. Plants are important to the environment for a number of reasons; these include:
- Plants are food for many animal species which become endangered when plants are destroyed.
- Plants act as shelter for both humans and animals.
- Plants can be made into tools.
- Plants act as a valuable medicine resource.
- Plants provide a source for many products such as paper and rubber.
- Plants provide clean air and water through photosynthesis and complex ecosystems.
- Plants control the climate.
- Plants prevent erosion.
- Plants literally help us to breathe.
How Plants Are Affected by Destruction of the Environment
According to the web site World Centric, it has been estimated that plant and animal species are dying out one thousand times faster than the natural rate of extinction.1 In addition, eighty percent of the world’s original forests have been destroyed, with a loss of 91.4 million acres of tropical rain forest destruction in Brazil between 1980 and 1990.1 Five to ten per cent of tropical rain forest species will continue to be destroyed every decade if changes are not made.1
The Effect of Climate Change on Aromatic Plants of the Future
Photosynthesis is one of the most important processes carried out by plants; basically, photosynthesis is the process through which a plant produces oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide, “cleaning” the atmosphere for life to survive. A change in temperature and precipitation affects a plant’s capability to carry out photosynthesis.
With a few exceptions (such as desert plants), an increase in temperature affects the ability of most plants to function well. Plants do not grow as they should, and the effectiveness of photosynthesis is impaired. Both excessive drought and excessive rainfall have a detrimental effect on plants. Plants become stressed and, in many cases, die. Climate change has a huge impact on the survival of plants and subsequently animal and human life.
Plants of the Future Conference
In 2019, plant scientists discussed how plants of the future would look like, how they would survive, and how they would need to adapt to a changing world, at a conference in New York, Plants of the Future, co-organized by Nature Genetics and New York University.2
A summary of the topics discussed include:
- Is it possible that all plants can fix nitrogen like the legume family to avoid the overuse of synthetic fertilizer? Can non-legume plants establish a mutual relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria?
- What are the effects of humidity and temperature on plant pathogen infection?
- How do we optimize photosynthesis in plants and carbon fixing?
The Future of Aromatic Plants
It is estimated that plant species could be lost by as much as 33%3 in the next century on the current trajectory of climate change predictions. However, new species, as history has taught us, could also be formed. What this looks like is an educated guess by scientists. But Donald Levin of the University of Texas speculates that “If tolerance to environmental change is independent of growth habit, the proportion of herbaceous species is likely to increase and that of woody species decline, because polyploid species are more prevalent in herbs than in woody species (Stebbins, 1971).”3 His paper discusses in depth how (and why) polypoid species could rise to the top of the pack under climate change.
This might be good news for our herbaceous aromatic herbs such as peppermint (Mentha × piperita) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris) but doesn’t bode well for trees and shrubs such as rose (Rosa spp.) or walnut (Juglans spp.).
Of course, there are many known (and unknown) factors, and a lot of uncertainties ahead in the next 50 years. Plants may adapt and produce different cells and genetics to survive, some may become extinct whereas others will die out.
If we want to ensure the future of our aromatic plants, and associated medicines and oils, we need to educate ourselves on this huge subject matter now. Tomorrow might be too late.
Learn More About Aromatic Plants
If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more, enroll in our Certificate in Community Aromatherapy Program and discover how plants can heal us on a daily basis!
- World Centric web site, Environmental Destruction, accessed from: https://www.worldcentric.com/journal/environmental-destruction
- Plants of the future. Plants5, 767 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-019-0506-9
- Annals of Botany, Volume 124, Issue 5, 9 October 2019, Pages 769–775, https://doi.org/10.1093/aob/mcz108
About the Author:
The author of this article has been working in the health care industry since the 1990’s and in the aromatherapy industry since the 2000’s. She is a UK-certified aromatherapist, a NAHA Certified Professional Aromatherapist®, a gardener, and a certified herbalist with several years of study. She is also a botanical perfumer, working on launching her first fragrance line.
Sharon is both a published author and editor in aromatherapy, a consultant, and custom blend formulator. She is the author of Authentic Aromatherapy and the current chief editor of the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal. Sharon works from her garden studio in Sedona, Arizona, where she gardens and distills plants from her own aromatic gardens, surrounded by natural fauna and flora on an original pioneer homestead property.