Commercial Horticulture

Is climate change the greatest opportunity ever?

A massive hurricane, amplified by climate change, hits the East Coast of the United States of America. Human casualties and hundreds of billions of dollars in property damage ensue. Money flows into the region for immediate disaster relief and eventual rebuilding. Paradoxically, the local economy is boosted by the infusion of cash.  Sound familiar?

A decades long drought, exacerbated by climate change, descends on California. Agriculture and horticulture adapt, as best as possible, to the new normal. Municipalities and the state government institute water restrictions. Some municipalities pay homeowners to remove their lawns and replace with water-wise landscapes. Sound familiar?

Because of climate change, dry regions get drier, wet regions get wetter, and precipitation events are more extreme. Ecosystems adapt and change. Plants and organisms of all kinds migrate northward and upward. Plants once well-adapted to a particular region struggle or expire. In the built environment, high maintenance, water-hungry landscapes become more expensive or even illegal. Governments, municipalities, businesses, and homeowners demand landscapes that are easy to maintain, resilient, have a low carbon footprint, and sequester greenhouse gases. Sound (somewhat) familiar?

Ornamental horticulture faces the greatest challenge and opportunity that can be imagined. Fast and slow-moving disasters, wrought by climate change, are profoundly changing both the palette of plants that thrive in a particular region, and their desired functions in the built environment. Furthermore, climate change will occur progressively, requiring a permanent state of ongoing adaptation and opportunity. As with the aftermath of the hurricane, a rethink, rebuild, and remodel of landscapes is urgent and necessary.  New varieties of plants must be selected and bred that are resilient to multiple extremes, yet maintain their aesthetic and practical functions. Research is required to understand and optimize the ability of urban landscapes to sequester carbon and to breed landscape plants expressly for this purpose.

Is commercial ornamental horticulture up to this task? Is it willing and able to embrace this opportunity and profit from it? Climate change is not going away. Society in general, and horticulture in particular, can embrace, adapt, and profit from the new normal. Or, we can continue with business as usual — into an uncontrollable future. Which future shall we choose?