Wind is essential to natural processes
Whether it’s a blowing winter gale or a soft summer breeze, the wind has an effect on the ecology of plants and animals.
In the winter, we have biting winds that chill you to the bone. Conversely, summer breezes are welcomed to help us cool off when we are enjoying time in the sun. All year long, wind tickles our senses as we listen, watch and feel it blow as it works magic for plants and trees across Michigan.
Benefits of wind to plants
Wind has the ability to help things move, that otherwise couldn’t, around their environment. Seeds are one of the most common things that are moved by the wind. In fact, the term anemochory refers to the dispersal of seeds by wind. This includes milkweed seeds that use a parachute mechanism, dandelion seeds that use a pappus, maple seeds that use a samara and cattail seeds that use fine, silky hairs to disperse seeds from the parent plant using the wind. And these are just a few examples of plants that use the wind to disperse seeds and, subsequently, plant populations.
Other plants use the wind to create seeds. Many trees, especially pine and oak trees, use the wind to disperse pollen with the hope that the pollen will travel to and fertilize a viable egg where, under the right conditions, a seed will develop. Insects may help the process, but if you have ever lived in an area dominated by pine and oak trees, you’ve seen the generous amounts of pollen released by the male structures. It’s a natural mechanism to ensure that the genetic material in the pollen will fertilize as many eggs as possible, thereby passing on the legacy of the tree.
In addition, wind blowing on a small seedling or newly emerged spring plant helps the plant create a stronger stem. Each time a plant is pushed by the wind, it releases a hormone called an auxin that stimulates the growth of supporting cells. Research has shown that this is actually beneficial to the plant, and that plants that begin growth in the absence of wind tend fall over or break more easily than those grown in the presence of some wind. Anyone who has ever started garden plants from seeds has probably experienced this. The best way to avoid wind damage to seedlings is to place them outside for short periods of time each day, to “harden off” the plants from the effects of the wind and direct sunlight.
Benefits of wind to forest ecosystems
A few times a year, parts of Michigan experience straight line winds that knock down a patch of trees in a forest. Our natural reaction is to view the loss of trees in the forest negatively. Once we learn that no person was hurt, we can begin to see the benefit of the disturbance to the forest ecosystem. Healthy forest ecosystems typically include a mosaic, or patchwork, of trees that are of different ages. A mosaic forested landscape typically includes a larger variety of tree species and habitat that support a greater diversity of wildlife. Today, humans actively harvest trees to create these mosaic habitats, in an effort to mimic the effect of natural disturbances like wind and fire.
The next time you feel the wind on your heels, enjoy the breeze and consider the positive ways in which it benefits our natural ecosystems.