Pin the Plant on the Triangle

This semester, one of the classes I’m teaching is herbaceous plants, and I’m taking the class beyond the usual discussions of annuals and perennials.  From studying herbaceous plant communities, one of the most useful concepts that I’ve learned in recent years is the classification of a plant’s survival strategies.  

I’ve written about it before here and here.  As a refresher, Grime pitched that plants had three strategies based on environmental factors.  

  • COMPETITORS are plants that take advantages of any and all resources they can muster.  They grow tall and wide to take out the competition.  Usually these stalwarts are perennial in nature, and they grow where stress and disturbance are nil.

  • STRESS-TOLERATORS are plants that have adaptations to ensure survival when stress arises and conditions deteriorate.  They are usually perennial and can take many years to flower from seed.

  • RUDERALS are short-lived annuals or biennials that are frequently exposed to some type of disturbance, which has selected for plants that quickly produce seed.

Usually, this strategy is visualized using a triangle (much like the soil texture triangle!) where a certain species can be shown to be—pulling some numbers out of the air—say, 70% competitor, 20% ruderal, and 10% stress tolerator based on the characteristics they exhibit.  

A figure of Grime’s triangle from    Pierre et al. (2017) titled A global method for calculating plant CSR ecological strategies applied across biomes world-wide   . As you can see the authors attempted to classify plants across the globe based on their tendency to be a competitor, stress-tolerator, or ruderal.

A figure of Grime’s triangle from Pierre et al. (2017) titled A global method for calculating plant CSR ecological strategies applied across biomes world-wide. As you can see the authors attempted to classify plants across the globe based on their tendency to be a competitor, stress-tolerator, or ruderal.

How do you take this concept from theory to application for students? Much research and data collection is needed to be able to precisely place a plant on the triangle.  Can it be done in a more simple fashion?  

After we covered the CSR theory in class, I did an activity with students.  I gave small groups (three to four) a list of seven different herbaceous plants and asked them to look up information and pictures online and try to determine where on Grime’s triangle it would fit.  I drew a triangle on the board labeling the sides and gave them markers and half sheets of paper for writing plant names.  

I then challenged them in pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey fashion (no blindfolds or sharp objects though!) to figure out where on the triangle the species would go by searching for it online.  Students looked for tendencies to spread, cover large areas, form large clumps, and/or have rhizomes (COMPETITOR); tendencies to produce copious amounts of seed, occur in areas of disturbance, and/or be short lived (RUDERAL); and tendencies to live in a stressful habitat, take a long time to flower, and/or have storage organs (STRESS-TOLERATOR).

One by one they started coming up and making educated guesses.  I stood by the triangle to offer advice and suggestions.  Some hit the nail on the head while others needed a little bit of coaxing to the right place.  

At the end, we went over the 20 or so species I provided as a challenge.  Again, I explained that while some species neatly fit into one group, some straddle the fence like Liatris elegans.  It has a corm (a stem-derived storage organ indicating some level of stress toleration) yet produces copious amounts of seed (traits of a ruderal).  

Pin the plant on the triangle—a fun game to teach students about plant survival strategies. Based on your plant knowledge, how do you think they did?

Pin the plant on the triangle—a fun game to teach students about plant survival strategies. Based on your plant knowledge, how do you think they did?

As gardeners it’s very helpful to think about flora in this way.  It helps us anticipate how plants will perform.  It explains why Gaillardia and Aquilegia don’t live long as perennials (ruderals), why Mentha and Monarda spread like crazy (competitors), and why Trillium and Narcissus  take 3–7 years to flower from seed (stress-tolerators).   It also allows us to envision how to combine plants.  Maybe put that runaway competitor in a drier spot to keep it from taking over creation?  Or, sow some ruderals in between the stress-tolerators to keep weeds down.  

If students can decide approximately which section of the triangle plants fit in during a 15 minute activity using search engines, then we can by watching how plants grow over the course of a year. 

So, that’s your homework for the season. Draw a triangle and see if you can’t plot where the species in your garden fit.

Sprout Germinates

Colorful lettuce grows in neat rows in the Sprout garden.

Colorful lettuce grows in neat rows in the Sprout garden.

I’ve been at Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) for a year and a half now, and in the haze of starting a new job (and, a wonderful haze it has been!), I haven’t had a chance to record the progression of thinking I’ve had on garden projects at SFA.  Thus, I wanted to start doing a series of blog posts to bring myself (and you) up to date on my activities.

I was so thrilled when I got the job at SFA.  Teaching about plants and horticulture has been my career goal since I was at least a freshman in undergrad.  The biggest challenge I would face at SFA was student enrollment.  The number of horticulture students were at a lull (much like they are across the country), and my colleagues were trying to discover a way to increase enrollment.   They shared with me that a fresh face would help, but I knew that we had to do more that just be present.  We had to visibly show the students that we were relevant and that we cared about their lives and their futures.

While I was pondering how to engage with more students, I was also trying to see where I fit.  I’ve had the herbaceous plant craze for several years, and I knew that there was an opportunity to beef up the perennial collections.  On top of that, SFA already has a large woody plant collection, and several of my colleagues across the nation are doing great work with woody plant breeding and evaluation. So, in the spirit of zigging instead of zagging, I starting laying the groundwork for working with herbaceous plants.

That was also the time when I realized there was a way we could weave edibles into the mix.  In conversations with Dawn Stover, the research associate at SFA Gardens, I discovered there was an edible garden on campus, the SFA Sustainable Education Community Garden.  This garden's original focus was to grow produce and then donate it to the community, but eventually, the garden produced so much food that some of it was being sold at a small farmer’s market behind our ag building on the SFA campus.

I quickly realized that this garden was it.  This garden is how we could begin to bridge the gap to help connect horticulture with students.  If we couldn’t at least engage their hearts, we could bridge a connection with their stomachs.

And, of course, I don’t have to belabor how big edibles are right now with young people.

I offered to take over the garden and revamp it since SFA Gardens had many other projects on their plate.  Right off the bat, I knew that the SFA Sustainable Education Community Garden needed a mission (and a shorter name).  But, I hate the word mission because so many organizations have missions but never really follow these framed statements on the walls.  We would have a story as Ty Montague describes, and our day-to-day actions would tell our story, a story I hope would attract both students and people from the community.  

Plants were an obvious choice to be part of our story.  But, which plants?  I chose to focus on edibles and 21st century relevant herbaceous plants (plants for zone 8, urban areas, designed plant communities, etc.).  I felt that both areas would help us to be relevant to students.  We could grow the plants, evaluate them, use them in classes, and report our evaluations to the public.

I wanted our story with the garden to also focus on students.  One thing that I heard over and over at SFA is that they wanted students to have more hands-on learning, and I saw the garden as an opportunity for tangible growth for students.  I wanted the garden to be something that students enjoyed and be designed to get students talking and engaged.  We as a people are ultimately social organisms, and one of the best ways to engage people with horticulture is to get them excited and share ideas with their friends.

The community was also a central focus.  Dawn told me that one of her favorite parts of the farmer’s market was that we had the opportunity to connect horticulture with a different audience on campus.  And, I saw that we could do more events and tours to help educate, inspire, and connect with people in the community even more.

Plants.  Students.  Community.  And with that trinity, we rebranded the garden as Sprout—a garden for tangible growth for plants, students, and the community.  Not too shabby if I do say so myself.  I even doodled a new logo for the garden.

We also have one more part of our story woven into all three of those parts.  Fun.  We want to teach people that gardening is fun and enjoyable and adds to the quality of life.  And, we try to embellish everything that we do in the garden with that philosophy.

I hope that my brain dump will help guide you if you are faced with a similar situation in your career.  Thanks for reading about the start of Sprout.  Soon, I will do a post about our first year successes and failures.  Until next time, keep growing!