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Wildflowers: The next eco-trend?

Alyssa Brown
Photo by Alyssa Brown

Environmental science graduate student Alyssa Brown spends most of her thesis research time in the mountains of Provo canyon, studying wildflowers.

Brown, who studied landscape management for her undergraduate degree, is completing two different studies for her thesis: understanding the seed germination of mountain wildflower species and how this seed germination is affected by Utah’s changing climate.

“Seeds develop dormancy traits based on environmental pressure from the area they’re in,” Brown says. “When a plant is first germinating, it relies on energy from the seed until it grows enough to become an autotroph, or self-sufficient. Thus, the timing between when a seed germinates and when it’s established and can photosynthesize (the dormancy period) is when a plant is most vulnerable.”

Brown explains that through natural selection, different seeds have developed characteristics that will allow them to germinate at the optimal time. Her research involved testing sub-alpine seeds from large enough populations to figure out how to break their dormancy period.

Brown knows the best way to grow seeds once the dormancy breaking point is found.
“Then you can do other research on the plants,” she says. “How to grow them better, to produce them, and how much water you can save in terms of introducing them into landscapes.”

Brown's second study involved collecting species of wildflower seeds from Provo Canyon—some from the same family as the sunflower. She collected seeds of the same variety from the base and the top of the mountain, then tested whether the differences in elevation affected their dormancy requirements.

Her results proved her hypothesis correct: seeds from higher elevations require more time under the snow before their spring germination.

Brown’s research is relevant because if Utah’s snow levels continue to dwindle, as they have been in recent years, then fewer of the mountain wildflower seeds will germinate and grow. Her research won a people’s choice award in the Three-Minute-Thesis virtual event this year.

“There’s so many different facets of the environment that are impacted by climate change in one way or another, so I tend to take my research through that lens,” Brown explains. “My goal is to try to understand those implications, because it’s always relevant.”

Brown hopes her thesis will be a part of a larger project that could include using wildflower meadows as an alternative to lawn landscapes. Grass lawns require significantly more water and are consequently a detriment to environmental conservation. Wildflower meadows, as indicated by Brown’s research, use less water, and could be a potential alternative to a lawn yard.

“We’re in a water crisis...but we tend not to act like it,” Brown says. “A lot of people like the look of a lawn, they want green. And lawn has functional purposes too,” she adds. Based on local yard legislation, many houses are required to have a lawn because alternative landscapes, such as xeriscaping (a growing style of landscaping design), aren’t done as well. Local-scaping, she explains, minimizes the amount of lawn and replaces it with plant beds containing local plant seeds.

“You want a mix of perennial wildflowers, perennial grasses, native grasses, and maybe some sagebrush,” Brown says. “But when people say they’re going to build wildflower meadows, they tend to just put a bunch of wildflower seeds down and don’t take into account the dynamic interactions—how much water and nutrients they need, how different species interact... often they’re overrun by weeds.”

However, when implemented correctly, wildflower meadow yards would use much less water while replicating natural meadows. This could be hugely beneficial to Utah’s current drought-affected landscape. Brown hopes to share her passions in ecology with others.

“People—whether they’re in science or not—should learn that when we’re in healthy ecosystems, they provide benefits to us as humans,” she says. “It’s not just about clean air. A lot of our ecosystems here aren’t resistant to fire because they’re not well taken care of."

Utah, she pointed out, has been seeing an increase in wildfires from the past few summers and dryer winters than average.

“Taking care of our ecosystems is something that’s so important,” Brown said, “because as much we depend on our environment, it also depends on us.”