Endangered Species Handbook

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Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts

Benefits of Drylands

     Grasslands have great biological diversity and stability; they are able to resist plant disease and drought.  As such, they represent invaluable genetic banks.  This diversity is being studied by scientists around the world and consequently uncovering chemical and biological secrets.  Agriculture and other food production will profit from this emerging knowledge.
     Wheat, corn, oats, barley and rye ‒ the bases of most human diets ‒ are domesticated types of grasses bred from wild plants.  No longer perennial, they must be planted each year and have become extremely vulnerable to disease, insect predation and drought.  They are grown in monocultures, fields of a single species that often have insect pests or diseases sweeping through them.  Moreover, soil that is artificially fertilized and sprayed with pesticides and herbicides lacks the millions of invertebrates, fungi and other creatures that make wild grassland soil rich and resistant to insect pests and disease.  Wild plant genes have proven valuable in producing hardier varieties of domestic strains through cross-breeding (Chadwick 1995).
     Many perennial wild plants have the potential to become food plants because of their natural resistance to insects and drought.  These grains would not have to be replanted each year, which is a great benefit because plowing causes erosion and requires great amounts of energy.  Maize, a type of corn closer to wild strains, is a major food source in Latin America and elsewhere.  It is one of the most photosynthetically efficient grain crops in the world, able to transform the sun's energy into food very effectively (Viola and Margolis 1991).  Grown in North America and Europe mainly as livestock fodder, it has great potential as a human food source.  The Land Institute of Salina, Kansas, is working to discover new perennial grasses that might be sources of food (Chadwick 1995).  Eastern gama grass, for example, native to the American prairie, needs far less water than conventional crops (Chadwick 1995).
     Native peoples have traditionally utilized a wide variety of wild grassland and dryland plant seeds for food and other purposes, and many of these plants represent potential food sources.  Another dryland plant native to the Americas and a staple food crop, the potato, has wild ancestor species that contain natural insecticides.  Certain varieties of potatoes produce high levels of bitter, toxic glycoalkaloids, which make plants insect-resistant; native peoples of the Andes have long removed these toxins by cooking the potatoes with clay (Viola and Margolis 1991).  Domestic strains of potatoes are prone to disease, most tragically illustrated by the 19th century famine in Ireland it caused.
     Rainforest plants have been studied by scientists and pharmacological researchers for their medicinal value over the past few decades, but many grassland plants have been used for centuries by native peoples to treat various ailments.  Extracts of the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), for example, native to tallgrass prairies of America, have been found to be an effective treatment for symptoms of colds; they marketed as Echinacea in health food stores and pharmacies in the United States.  This plant was used by Native Americans for many medicinal purposes (Madson 1993), and compounds within it have been found to kill insects (Chadwick 1995).  So popular is this plant that many collectors have threatened the species by pillaging the last scraps of native grassland to dig up wild specimens that are reputed to have greater potency than cultivated plants. 
     Another plant being commercially marketed for its health effects is goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), a species of the buttercup family found in grasslands throughout eastern North America.  Native Americans used it as a tonic, an astringent and an insect repellent, as well as a yellow dye.  It is considered rare because its roots were overcollected (Niering and Olmstead 1979).  Blue (great) lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), a wildflower of eastern North America, was given its scientific name based on its supposed ability to cure syphilis.  While not effective against syphilis, its root contains alkaloids that cause vomiting (Niering and Olmstead 1979).  Other American grassland plants used for medicinal purposes include feverwort (boneset), prickly poppies, prairie larkspur, western ragweed and prairie goldenrod (Chadwick 1995).  A type of prairie nematode is being tested as a possible cure for Alzheimer's and other neuro-degenerative diseases (Chadwick 1995).
     American grasslands and shrub also home to Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), from which medicinal teas, beverages and infusions are made. Wild plants of the Cactus family have been used traditionally by Native Americans and Mexicans for food, medicine and beverages.  Some species, such as cactuses and baobabs, store water in their stems or trunks.  Aloes of many species in North America and Africa have been found effective in treating burns.
     Researchers seeking new treatments for human kidney problems are studying desert animals who recycle their own urine.  Should the physiology of this phenomenon be discovered, it might be applied to kidney patients to prevent the need for dialysis.  Deserts abound with poisonous snakes and lizards, whose venom has already proven to be medically important as pain killers and for other purposes.
     Many wild species that have endured the extremes of weather for eons and have traits that might be of great value to humans are in danger of disappearing altogether as humans take over their habitats for agriculture and development. Without conservation, they may disappear prior to discovery of their benefits.

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