Green Guardians: Plants That Could Save the World

BackKernzaBambooAzollaChestnutSedumAlgae

There's no denying that plants have a hugely important role in our lives. From providing us with everything from food and clothing to medicine and shelter, plants are a key factor in how we continue to live and function from day to day.

But as it turns out, there may be even more that certain plants can do — not just for us individually, but for our whole world.

This year, our SmarterU Releases are honoring six of these planet-saving plants.

Kernza

What is it?

Kernza is a strain of perennial wheat that has been developed by researchers at the Land Institute.

How could Kernza save the world?

Common grains like rice and corn are annual crops. They’re planted and harvested all within a few months, and then replanted. But each time they’re planted, they must use large amounts of water and fertilizer to remain productive, plus the constant replanting will eventually lead to soil degradation.

However, Kernza is a perennial grain — once it has been planted, it will remain productive for two or more years, growing year after year without needing to replant the crop. Therefore, it would require only a fraction of the water and fertilizer to cultivate this grain when compared with annuals.

Bamboo

What is it?

Bamboo is an evergreen flowering plant, part of the grass family. It has a jointed stem (culm), which is typically hollow. It’s also one of the fastest growing plants in the world, and certain types can grow up to 3 feet in one day.

How could bamboo save the world?

Bamboo is a very versatile plant. It can be used for a number of things, such as food, biofuel, construction, textiles, and it can act as a biodegradable alternative to plastic.

It’s also a perennial grass so, like Kernza, it can be harvested again and again without needing to replant. 

Azolla

What is it?

Azolla is a type of small aquatic fern, naturally occurring in wetlands. Individual ferns are only a few centimeters across, but they’re considered one of the fastest-growing plants in the world — depending on conditions, they can double their biomass in under 10 days.

How could Azolla save the world?

Azolla ferns have been used as a bio-fertilizer by humans for years, but is now finding use in sustainable production of livestock feed. It’s rich in proteins, essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, and according to studies, when fed to livestock such as dairy cattle and chickens, there was a reported increase in milk and egg production.

Chestnut

What is it?

Chestnuts are a group of several deciduous tree and shrub species, named for the nut which grows on them. There are 4 commonly known main species of groups: American, Chinese, Japanese, and European.

How could chestnuts save the world?

Put simply, chestnuts equal food! They’re low in protein and high in carbs, making them ideal to use a staple food, unlike other nuts. Chestnut trees thrive in the less agriculturally-hospitable areas — dry, infertile soils, where other crops can’t easily be cultivated. 

This means that chestnut trees have the ability to turn less fertile areas into forested areas — and there are very real and eco-friendly benefits associated with forests, such as nutrient recycling and air purification.

Sedum

What is it?

Sedums are flowering plants, characterized by their succulent leaves and stems. They’re found mainly in temperate zones, thriving in the drier and more extreme climate conditions and require little water due to their strong water-storing leaves.

How could Sedum save the world?

The fact that sedums can live through intense heat or cold make them ideal for use as a covering on green roofs (a roof that is partially or entirely covered in vegetation).

Some sedums can also be used as food, such as a leaf for a salad or herb, and is said to have a slightly sour taste.

Algae

What is it?

Algae are mainly aquatic-based plants, ranging in sizes from unicelluar microalgae to massive organisms that can grow up to 50 meters in length.

How could algae save the world?

Algae have many uses, depending on the specific species — food, organic fertilizer, biological filtration and sewage, but most importantly, biofuel.

With an incredibly fast growth rate and the ability to grow in shallow or salt water, it possible to produce algae-based fuel very quickly and on land that would be otherwise unsuitable for other crops. 

“It is estimated that 15,000 square miles of algae production could supply the United States with all of its fuel needs – that’s about 1/7 of the land currently planted in corn in this country. Some algae fuel is already being sold and experts predict that by 2025 the technology will be refined to the point where the price per gallon will break even with the cost of petroleum.” Source