Opinions, Column

Biodiversity over beauty

For one reason or another, Boston College has made landscaping a top priority. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. Just as finals season arrives in the spring, the tulips are planted, all the extremely green grass is mowed to perfection, and the bushes are trimmed and pruned within inches of their lives. Indeed, none of it ever fails to lift my spirits. 

But I do wonder—would it be better if we didn’t curate perfection on the BC lawns? 

“What would be better?” you might ask. To that I answer: biodiversity.  

Biodiversity is the variety of species in a defined area. Generally, more species in an area indicates high biodiversity in that area. To create a biodiverse space, it is necessary to landscape with native plants as much as possible because exotic organisms can starve out the native species or overtake an area as an invasive species, which all decrease biodiversity. Maintaining such an area supports the local animals and encourages bees, butterflies, and other pollinators to flourish. 

Further, rich biodiversity supports the ecosystem and provides important biological controls and services. Biodiversity supplies us with clean air, water, and nutrients needed to grow crops. Without biodiversity, ecosystems crumble. Think of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s—an ecological disaster caused by a lack of biodiversity in the farming industry. 

Unfortunately, biodiversity is greatly threatened by climate change and all its contributing human activities. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report of 2019, biodiversity loss was ranked as a top ten risk in categories of likelihood and impact. 

Like I have previously stated, our landscaping is truly breathtaking. But, it is not necessarily native nor biologically diverse. Grasses and garden beds are thoroughly weeded, and plants only sprout up where intended.

Weeds, which are normally regarded as stains on an otherwise picturesque lawn, are actually much better for the soil and microbial environment than a lawn of homogeneous grass. Monocultures are notoriously un-environmental: they damage soil quality, increase erosion, harm plant and animal populations, and simply, do not exist naturally. Only having one type of grass in a lawn is creating a kind of monoculture.

Other universities have already taken to implementing native plants into their campus landscaping to promote biodiversity. In Mississippi, Delta State University implemented a sustainability policy that calls for all new landscaping projects to prioritize planting native plants. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas started using drought-tolerant plants adapted to the arid desert climate of the area in 1986, and consequently saved about 55 million gallons of water annually, in addition to aligning their campus with the native ecosystem. 

Closer to home, Harvard University has been recognized by the National Wildlife Federation for its Harvard Forest, which is a wild area dedicated to studying biodiversity and conservation. 

In the interest of BC, wild indigo, milkweed, and bearberry are all plants native to Massachusetts that support pollinators. The summersweet, pussy willow, and mountain laurel are truly gorgeous, flowering shrubs that are also native to the state. These indigenous plants are more apt to control localized ecological crises, like coastal erosion and storm damage, while maintaining the natural beauty of our campus. 

There are also plenty of trees native to Massachusetts that would satiate aesthetic appetites. Campus currently boasts its Japanese cedar and Japanese red maple, both of which are beautiful, but the eastern red cedar and the red maple are alternatives that are more native. My personal favorite indigenous Massachusetts tree is the flowering dogwood, which blooms in vibrant pinks in May, just around the end of finals. 

Current BC flora, fauna, and landscape arrangements have been carefully chosen to evoke certain feelings. For instance, the trees around the memorial labyrinth are meant to inspire deep reflection and create a supportive environment. Similarly, the little leaf lindens lining Linden Lane have roots in the rich history of the school and its traditions, but are actually native to Europe. I encourage the school to continue to use nature as a way for students to connect with their emotions. But, I would also encourage any new landscaping projects to use, exclusively, native plants to accomplish this goal. 

In terms of the lawns, allowing the dandelions, yarrow, and other weeds to flourish for the sake of biodiversity is worth considering. We are working against nature in eradicating these weeds. Plants are meant to grow in communities with many other species. In time, allowing the native grasses and weeds to thrive will be economically beneficial too, because they create a more resistant ecosystem that is biologically suited to our climate. In effect, less funding will be needed in year to year maintenance and replanting. 

Nonetheless, I commend the work of the BC grounds crew. Like I’ve said, they do a wonderful job every year—year round—to ensure our campus looks as beautiful as we advertise it on brochures. The BC faculty who control allocations of funds in landscaping should consider incorporating native fauna when planting annually in order to foster a biologically diverse and native ecosystem on campus. 

And, as with anything, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Sure, weeds in the grass are not typically considered a beautiful sight. But, perhaps we just need to adjust our taste in order to have our preferences align better with what is best for our campus ecosystem. 

Featured Graphic by Liz Schwab/ Heights Editor

January 27, 2022