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63 Fuel for a Fiery Green Engine In a healthy prairie,carbon is king.It’s the carbon in the air that prairie plants are after, and as they breathe they expel oxygen just as we expel carbon dioxide following each deep breath. Photosynthesis is what we call the process that reconfigures the carbon into the glucose and other sugars required for plant growth and overall prosperity, just as the oxygen released into the atmosphere by plants fuels human growth and prosperity. It’s a successful association, resulting in success for a wide array of plants and the billions of people who can’t survive without them. Native grasslands also utilize carbon that would otherwise infiltrate the atmosphere and contribute to the climate change that is affecting our oceans,our weather patterns,our seasons,and in general life here on earth. Prairie plants provide for their food by collecting the electromagnetic energy we call sunlight and, through processes initiated by refined cells in the leaves, converting it into biological energy. According to my old biology textbooks, this chemical process takes place in leaf cells called chloroplasts, which contain pigments including chlorophyll . Microscopic openings in the leaves, the stomata, open to take in air. Plants withdraw the carbon, oxygen gets expelled, and eventually the carbon molecules provide the sugars and starches needed to 64 Fuel for a Fiery Green Engine sustain life. At the same time, the roots of each prairie plant soak up the water and minerals needed to complete this nourishing chemistry that began as simple sunlight and air. Historically, the results have been a healthy plant and a healthy planet. Botanists are continually isolating the methods that prairie plants utilize to provide for their own success, including how carbon interacts with available sunlight to instigate growth. Plants, like people, are always looking for a time and a place to excel. Over thousands of years, a complex community of prairie plants evolved various chemical configurations that allowed some to photosynthesize in cooler weather while others grew best as the sun climbed toward its midsummer zenith. As a result, we have grasses that complete their carbon or growth cycle during late winter and early spring, followed by grasses that begin the bulk of their growth as these cool-season grasses flower and prepare to go dormant. Essentially, as my college professors pointed out, a healthy native prairie can and will provide the robust greenery required for successful life on earth practically throughout the year. A biologically thriving prairie, as plant ecologist J. E. Weaver described it, contains two hundred or more species of native plants per square mile, all of them locked in a struggle to exist. Each plant faces a contest for light, water, and soil nutrients, essentials eagerly sought by numerous competitors. Weaver’s observations confirmed that while plants may be damaged by threats ranging from overgrazing to drought to late-season frosts, few mature, established plants are ever actually killed. Weaver was convinced that these complex grassland systems continue to exist through a sort of evolved alliance.Individual plants share the soil at various levels, obtain sunlight at varying heights, and make their maximum demands for light, water, and nutrients at different times during the year. He saw this symbiosis at work in the way that native legumes add nitrogen to the soil, taller plants provide shade for lower ones, mat-forming plants reduce water runoff, and sunlight inevitably reaches individual plants at a variety of levels. Weaver found that, compared to cropland, native prairies had far fewer fluctuations in soil and air temperatures, maintained humidity at a consistently higher level, and experienced less evaporation. It’s just basic biology that plants, like every other living thing, are engaged in a near-constant search for nutrition. Most of us don’t 65 Fuel for a Fiery Green Engine require a lecture to understand that humans lining up in front of a community soup kitchen are hoping to meet at least a portion of their daily nutritional needs. Prairie plants, on the other hand, search for nourishment mostly out of sight and mind since much of the mechanism involved in providing that nourishment is sequestered underground . Even so, Weaver grasped that a plant’s methods for obtaining nourishment are remarkably similar to many of our own as we work to appease our hunger and make our genes available to future generations . University of Alberta experimental plant ecologist J. C. Cahill, appearing on public television’s Nature series in...


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MARC Record
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