Beauty’s Place in an Ecosystem

The first winter we lived in our house, we cleared about a dozen holly trees lining the road front of our house. Neighbors were pleased: the previous occupants of our house hadn’t paid these trees any mind, so the neighbors had taken to pruning them themselves to prevent the spiny leaves a holly tree is known for — waxy, evergreen, alternating along the branch — from scratching their cars as they drove down the narrow lane. But as we were working, another neighbor stopped by and told us how she used to come by every winter and clip a few branches off to decorate her house for Christmas. She was joking, mostly, but did seem to be at least slightly disappointed to be losing her free source of seasonal holly branches.

holly leaves and berries

Our property having no small number of holly trees, I was cutting another female tree down the following winter (like the trailing blackberries native to the Pacific Northwest, holly trees are dioecious, so only some, the females, will ever bear their bright red fruit) and sent our neighbor an email letting her know that I’d leave some branches out front for her if she wanted them. She was either delighted or too polite to let me know that she didn’t want my yard waste. “They’re so beautiful, aren’t they?” she asked. It took me a moment to realize she was sincere. I had ceased to look at holly aesthetically. Forgotten in my single-minded zeal to remove them that they even could be considered aesthetically pleasing. (I learned later that a sustainability organization in the area does a holly branch giveaway each holiday season, connected to an education drive to let the community know how invasive they are — she’d still have access to branches if she wanted them, with or without me.)

Holly is one of the only evergreen trees native to the British Isles, so of course Europeans brought it with them to North America, a reminder of home. But as these things are wont to do, it has become highly invasive on the West coast of the United States and Canada, where the climate most closely matches that of the British Isles but the tree lacks its natural predators. Not only does holly spread by seed, which they produce prolifically, but when its flexible branches droop and touch the ground, they can root and shoot up new trees, forming impenetrable thickets, spiny leaves rejecting you before the density of branches and trunks have a chance to.

And as is so common among invasive species, eradication is exceedingly difficult. Even cutting the tree down entirely doesn’t kill it. Cutting it repeatedly still won’t kill it, in the absence of poisons added to the mix. It will sprout anew, both from the stump and root network, leaving you not with one tree to replace the one you cut one down, but with an entire hedge if you’re not careful. Would this hedge be beautiful?

Salmonberry bushes, on the other hand, are ugly. I know what people mean when they say this: a mature salmonberry bush is eight to twelve feet tall, and woody. The leaves are a pale matte green and don’t change colors in autumn: they shrivel and turn brown and fall, no endearing red or orange in between, refusing even to die beautifully. The leaves are concentrated at the top of this shrub that grows taller than you or me, which means that what you see at eye level and all winter long is just the woody parts, with fine thorns all along them. Woody, leafless stems are not particularly inspiring, and we expect inspiration of nature. They are native and thrive in riparian or wetland areas.

Salmonberries do naturally fill in the layer of forest understory just above the salal, fern, and Oregon grape, all of which are evergreen and typically allowed to remain because they’ve surpassed the arbitrary “ugly” threshold. Naturally, these plants are able to co-exist together with salmonberry interspersed, meaning there’s still visual interest year-round. You don’t have to choose one or the other when it comes to forest layers, but I suppose it’s not clear to many people what, other than clutter, salmonberry is adding to this vista, and that’s why they’ve been left out (or more likely, removed with considerable effort).

So too with osoberry: I’ve not heard it explicitly called “ugly” the way I have with salmonberry, but no one goes out of their way to plant or maintain one. They are often one of the first shrubs to leaf in the spring, which brings me great joy after months of gray, but more importantly, brings early spring food to hummingbirds and native bees, their small white flowers hanging face-down. It is also one of the first to yellow in…well, not quite fall even — their leaves begin to turn in July. There follows a month or two where about half the small, oblong leaves are green, and the other half yellow, leaving a mosaic pattern that leaves the unwitting wondering if the tree is healthy. The berries are edible: good if you are a human and willing to pick out the rather large seeds, excellent if you are a bird and hungry in the early summer before much else has fruited.

Both salmonberry and osoberry — the fruit, as well as the leaves and bark — were commonly used by native peoples in the Pacific Northwest as both food and medicines.

Beautiful (adj.): very attractive in a physical way. Very good or pleasing: not having any bad qualities

When we say things like “salmonberries are ugly,” and “holly are beautiful,” we’re not, could not possibly be, considering them in the context of an ecosystem. A deeper kind of beauty emerges, one that goes beyond the aesthetics of an individual, or a few individuals visually complementing each other. A beauty that is based instead on knowing what something is, it’s place on the land and within the history of the land, and knowing how it supports or hinders other things living on the land. It’s not possible to see that kind of beauty without understanding context and relationships. Learning the names of the plants, learning who each of them is and what their place is on the land, has allowed me to see beauty where I might not have seen it before.

This is a richer form of beauty, but also more complicated, less black and white. And it can also be used, if not against us exactly, certainly in ways we don’t anticipate, in ways that play off our emotions.

Conservationists trying to protect old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest used the Northern Spotted Owl to motivate and win their fight — they are beautiful birds, and have been severely impacted by habitat loss. They were listed as federally endangered in 1990, itself a major legal battle with long-lasting ramifications for the Northwest logging industry, but their populations have continued to decline since then. I’m sure the people who fought for them and for their habitat cared about the birds. Just look at pictures of them and you’ll care about them too, with their dark brown plumage and the characteristic white spots that give them their name, their uncommonly dark brown eyes. They weigh only a pound. They are unarguably beautiful.

Northern spotted owl

There is a term for their role in conservation — they are an umbrella species. This basically just means that they’re a stand-in. It doesn’t mean they don’t need conserving, indeed, that they need conserving is one of the things that makes them such a good umbrella species. It just means that they’re not the only thing that needs conserving. The idea is that if you do the things that it will take to conserve these umbrella species, you’ll save other things along the way. Maybe a salamander, maybe a beetle, maybe a mushroom or an understory shrub.

There are exceptions to every rule, but as a rule, things chosen as umbrella species are beautiful, charismatic. The list includes this owl, the right whale, the amur tiger and perhaps the most iconic, the giant panda. These are all creatures that people already know and love, and are willing to go to bat for. It’s easier to solicit money and ask people to make concessions for these things than it would be for the salamander that is hopefully also saved along the way. It stands out to me that the vast majority are animals — plants are apparently not able to elicit the same emotional response.

There’s a problem with the idea of umbrella species though: it doesn’t work. The diversity of the entire range of species that share an ecosystem on any scale necessarily require variation in their habitats. The bamboo-filled reserves at a high elevation that are perfect for pandas are not perfect for the similarly threatened Asiatic black bear and forest musk deer, which actively lost habitat in places where humans were striving to ensure that good homes for pandas were plentiful.

The Northern Spotted Owl requires old growth forests, and old growth forests are absolutely worth saving, both for the owl and in their own right. But if everything were old growth forest, other creatures that rely on forests in different successional stages, or wetlands or meadows, would not do so well. This makes saving the panda or the Northern Spotted Owl worthy fights, but insufficient ones, our reliance on charisma incomplete.

Which means we’ve come back full circle. One beautiful thing is not enough. One beautiful thing is beautiful, but we cannot focus on it to the exclusion of the more complicated beauty of a complex and diverse ecosystem that is made up of many small parts, some of which may not strike us as beautiful, some of which may indeed strike us as extraneous.

As Aldo Leopold famously wrote, “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Burnett RD, Roberts LJ. A quantitative evaluation of the conservation umbrella of spotted owl management areas in the Sierra Nevada. (PLoS One. 2015 Apr 23;10(4):e0123778)

Erica Fleishman, Dennis D. Murphy, & Robert B. Blair, Selecting Effective Umbrella Species (Conservation Magazine, 2001)

GregTheBusker, Northern Spotted Owl

Leopold, Aldo, A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press Inc., 1949)

Merriam-Webster, Dictionary, Online 2022

Native Plants PNW, Salmonberry: Rubus Spectabilis

Nuwer, Rachel, For Shielding Endangered Neighbors, Pandas Make Flimsy Umbrellas (The New York Times, 2021)

Sustainable Bainbridge, Invasive Holly and Giveaway

United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Fact Sheet: Indian Plum