There are no plants that like being trampled on by humans or animals, but there are some that specialise in surviving in these tough zones. Ecologists describe these specialist plants as being ‘trampling-tolerant’.
Have a look at the photo above of a path in the Czech Republic.
There are three zones we can focus on in this picture.
- Areas where there is very heavy footfall, so heavy that the soil is bare.
- Areas where footfall is light.
- Areas where there is heavy footfall, but some plants are able to survive.
What we notice is that the plants are different and map each of these three zones.
In the first, 1, the very heavy footfall kills all plants leading to the bare earth, for example at the centre of the path.
In the second, 2, the light footfall means that one species finds it easy to dominate. In this habitat, the grass dominates. Notice how we only see one colour.
In the final zone, 3, we find the trampling-tolerant plants. These are the specialist plants that can cope with quite a lot of heavy feet walking on them each day.
In this niche zone these specialist plants, like dandelions and plantains, out-compete the other plants, like grasses.
One of the defining characteristics of these trampling-tolerant plants is that they tend to have wide, flat, spread-out low leaves, quite often forming a rosette around their base. These plants will often send a stem high up with flowers and seeds at certain times of the year, but for most of the year, they keep their profile low and tight to the ground.
Some examples of specialist trampling-tolerant plants:
Dandelions, plantains, clover and pineappleweed.
Trampling-tolerant plants are a good demonstration of a simple, important rule in nature:
Every organism specialises in something.
Nothing can survive in nature by being a total generalist. The only way to survive is out-compete the other species trying to thrive in each habitat. And to do that each plant and animal needs to have a competitive ‘edge’. Once we know what that edge is, we have a clue that can reveal useful information.
In natural navigation this is very helpful indeed. Each time we see a plant or animal we can ask a simple question:
What is your specialisation?
The answer to that question tells us the niche that the organism favours. And this niche gives us part of our map.
Trampling-tolerant plants map the places that animals and humans have been travelling. In the photos above this is fairly obvious, but in wilder environments it can reveal clues that most miss, but that our ancestors and indigenous peoples would spot easily.
Quite often in natural navigation we don’t need or want to re-invent the wheel – if the animals or people have worked out the best route from A to B, we don’t need to. We can follow that route, but first we have to spot it and that means knowing how to recognise the trampling-tolerant plants.
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