Plant Communities: Self-healing & Restoration

Watching for fall colors in the Rockies was part of Don’s Sabbatical study of Plant Communities. “Watching” became more like “chasing,” as we roamed the high country in search of a perfect stand of golden trees. We arrived either too early when trees were still green, or too late—leaves had already turned color and blown away. The weather was in control until one fine day we drove into the Silverton, Colorado area and voilà! We found beautiful color. Our outing that day was filled with golden light and a special epiphany for me, which you can read about in my memoir, The Road to Beaver Park, Painting, Perception, and Pilgrimage,
p. 69.

My Story Quilt Tales continue from my last Blog about plant communities that form mutual aid societies, helping each other, offering support in myriad ways. It’s just like being in the same fishing boat; in spite of friendly competition to catch the biggest fish, everyone works together to stay afloat.

Quaking aspen are a favorite tree for this artist. The foliage rarely holds still; leaves quake or tremble in the slightest breeze and sound like they are whispering the daily news of the forest. The white trunks with black markings beg to be painted or sketched, along with branches that reach, twist, and gesture in tantalizing ways.

For the quilt I embroidered the above tree with two kinds of stitches. The leaves are detached chain stitches (my mom called them Lazy Daisy stitches) with each leaf separate. The trunk is filled with a variation on the chain stitch—linked chain stitches—which adds interest and texture to the fill-in design. For more variations of chain stitches, see p. 106 of Jacqueline Enthoven’s book, Stitchery for Children.[1]

Thickets of aspen are home to a ground cover of shade-loving herbaceous plants such as Colorado Blue Columbine, Sego Lily, anemones, other wildflowers and grasses. Tree swallows, sapsuckers, house wren, are among the local birds. We were on the lookout for deer, elk, bear, mountain lion, or even moose in some areas. Smaller animals like cottontail rabbits, snowshoe hare, long-tailed weasels, and meadow mice are also found in aspen communities.

Walking through the aspen forest immediately brought up the botanical topic of succession. Plant communities have an amazing ability to self-heal and restore themselves using the process of plant succession. Starting with ground cover, plants invade the damaged area and over years of time they work to re-establish the levels of forest. Succession ideally proceeds in phases, from pioneer to climax communities. Along with mosses and herbaceous ground cover plants, the pioneering aspen quickly take hold after a mountain fire, landslide, or other disturbance. Aspen are fast growing and “as true pioneers, quickly reforest scarred areas with a cover of delicate beauty.”[2] Aspen thrive from an underground root system that may have started from a single seed or may be an offshoot from a neighboring stand of aspen. Aspen pioneers soon share space with “settlers”, encroaching shrubs, such as kinnikinnik, serviceberry, and chokecherry add to  the understory. Lastly, conifers take advantage of the protective cover of aspen trees to begin growing into a climax community.

Our aspen forest was already in the process of change. Throughout the dense stand we could see conifers growing, some small, some as tall as I was. Sheltered by the aspen they looked healthy and vigorous. Click on this link for a vivid illustration. The conifers will gradually outgrow the aspen and become the dominant species. The result will be a climax forest of spruce, pine, or fir trees.

Succession occurs in two ways. Primary succession begins on bare landscape not previously occupied by plants (volcanic eruption, landslide, or other disturbance). Plain dirt has few microbes, fungi, or nutrients to promote growth. Building soil from scratch often takes several hundred years,[3] depending on climate or other environmental factors, such as, neighboring ecosystems.

Secondary succession occurs where the original vegetation was removed (clear-cutting, fire, human interference, development). Secondary successions may take decades, longer than a human life span.  Seeds and spores from surrounding areas help establish pioneer plants; or perhaps the soil itself is embedded with seeds. If fire has not destroyed the sub-soil, it may be able to contribute nutrients. Pioneer communities consist of fast-growing, hardy plants with a short lifespan and low biomass, requiring very few nutrients. They usually carry nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which is important for soil and organic material.[4] In the West, fireweed is often one of the first pioneer plants to be found after a fire. The seasonal bloom can be a stunning display of bright fuschia against the blackened landscape.


Watercolor showing a pioneering aspen forest with pioneer wildflowers
and the encroaching conifer succession

Is succession always that simple? No, of course not. Too many variables are present, such as unpredictable climate changes; unexpected plant species, often invasive, that appear and change the growth patterns; animal populations that influence the changes. As conditions change, new species of plants and animals thrive better than the old ones and displace them. Not all succession is progressive. Retrogressive succession can reverse or change the process to establish a totally different climax community. However, in general, succession does tend toward restoration and healing to re-establish a stable plant community.

The time required to re-establish a forest is beyond the life span of most people. How then shall we live as we reach out to the natural world? We may not live long enough to see the end result of the vegetation self-healing and restoration process. Can we look beyond ourselves into the future according to the Seventh Generation Principle of Indigenous people? It is estimated to be about 140 years from the present. Can we refrain from interfering with nature? Nurturing the vegetation processes will not only benefit the Seventh Generation, but also will improve the quality of our own lives as the landscape quilt recovers. As we nurture nature, it will nourish us.

Something we can do for nature right now is to adopt the 30×30 plan. What’s the 30×30 Climate Action Plan? It’s a national resolution signed by the U.S. President Biden to preserve and protect 30% of the natural world by the year 2030. Government agencies, environmental groups, and even foreign governments are establishing Climate Action Plans. How about the rest of us? Can we adopt our own action plan for personal property, church grounds, community parks and open spaces? Can we take time to support and protect nearby natural preserves, refuges, parks, and recreation areas? The year 2030 is only nine years away! We may still be alive. What can we accomplish? Where do we start? When?

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Nature Notes: Is plant succession happening in your backyard? Neighborhood? Local nature area? Is it in good condition? Make a survey. Take notes, sketch, photograph for your Nature Journal.

Gospel Lifestyle: Develop a Climate Action Plan for your personal world. Extend the love by joining with others to restore community natural areas, gardens, parks, right-of-ways, improve street-side vegetation, replace failing trees, et al. Remember, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Gen 1:31 NIV)


[1] Van Nostrand, Rhinehold Co.: 1968

[2] Nature in the West by R. & J. Rabkin (Holt, Rinehart & Winston: 1981) p. 74.

[3], p. 10


The Road to Beaver Park available:




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