Native Plants: Essential “Terroir” of Place

Walking between my hotel and the conference center for Colorado's first annual Native Plants in Landscaping Conference yesterday morning, I crossed a large expanse of boring turfgrass lawn, an even larger parking lot, and then a smaller area of closely-mowed grass. As I traversed the mowed area, I looked and listened for signs of the shortgrass prairie that once stretched from horizon to horizon, defining the High Plains.

Over the roar of traffic from the nearby interstate, I heard a familiar flute-like whistle: a male meadowlark, tuning up for spring–a true prairie sound. I looked down at the soil underfoot and saw dots of sunshine yellow: an alyssum, a tiny prairie mustard in bloom already. 

I set down my briefcase and book bag and bent close to admire these first prairie flowers. The plant's small leaves sparkled in the sunlight, thanks to their water-saving and insulating cover of star-shaped hairs. The miniature flower stalks barely rose two inches above the sun-warmed soil, each miniature four-petaled blossom blooming brightly before spring has even come, bright yellow to signal their presence to pollinators. My mother would have called them "belly-flowers," dwarf wildflowers best admired from a prone position. Like alpine plants, these prairie natives hug the soil both for warmth in the harsh climate of the open plains and for protection against the constant wind. 

I thought of those tiny wild alyssums as I gave my keynote talk, persisting even as the prairie around them is scraped away by development after development, proclaiming that whatever we do with the landscape, it is still prairie and will always be. 

Their tenacity and fidelity to place illustrate for me why native plants matter to we humans. As I said in my talk,

I've come to think of plants as the living vocabulary of landscapes, the language that lends colors, shapes, and structures which define and give character to whole regions, the way words shape, color, and construct our language. Plants are the pioneers in constructing and also reviving the language of nature in any place. 

Native plants provide the core of that language. Their gifts include aesthetics (their beauty through the seasons), biology (they are durable and adapted to the conditions of their specific places), health (both in terms of ecoystem health and the very real benefits we humans derive from time spent in nature), and what I would call "terroir" or dialect. 

I am borrowing the word "terroir" from the French word used to denote specific wine regions and meaning roughly "the flavor of the land." It's a word now applied to local food as well to denote the unique taste that comes from soil, sun, climate, and the whole community of nature characteristic of particular places or regions. It seems to me that native plants speak the terroir of their specific landscapes and regions. Think of the towering redwood trees of the fog-draped Pacific Coast for instance, or the raised-arm saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert in the southern Southwest and Northern Mexico. Those plants clearly evoke the spirit and particulars of their places. 

A saguaro cactus, its silhouette unmistakable at sunset, in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. 

I believe that making space for native plants in our yards, parks, and nearby landscapes is essential for human survival, not just for the beauty and aesthetic benefits, nor even for native plants' powerful ability to reweave the fabric of healthy nature and healthy communities.

It is that connection to terroir that touches me most deeply. The cell-deep recognition within each of us of these rooted beings as the vocabularly of place, the very ‘flavor’ of soil, environment and landscape, and the connection they give us to the earth right where we live. 

As I said at the end of my talk,

If plants are the living vocabulary of landscapes, those lives that restore the structure and function of healthy nature, native plants are the vernacular, the dialect, the terroir of individual places. In our gardens and landscaping, these “local” voices not only heal and transform, they reconnect humanity—breath, cell, and soul—to this singular, living planet. They bring us home.

As I walked back to my hotel, across the mowed expanse of not-yet-subdued prairie, I stopped again to admire the tiny alyssums, dots of sunshine hugging the sun-warmed earth. And thanked them for connecting me to prairie and meadowlark, sun and sky, to the wild world that sustains our lives on this astonishingly green planet.