Shrubs are important to life in Colorado – Loveland Reporter-Herald

Shrubs diversify the plant world and thus provide the basis of life for many animals. They also grace private yards and public parks with an aesthetic appeal that illuminates our own lives.

As common as the term “shrub” is, don’t we all know a shrub when we see one? — The exact definition of what counts as a shrub eludes even the experts.

Culturally, the term “bush” is often used. So what distinguishes a bush from a shrub, or are they perfect synonyms? They are used in different contexts: A person might be described as having “busy hair” but no one has “busy hair”!

While the term “shrub” is commonly used, the term “shrub” is used in the academic fields of plant morphology, plant ecology, wildlife biology, and biogeography.

Botanists recognize five growth forms for seed-bearing plants, and both shrub and tree are considered growth forms rather than kin categories. And that presents the challenge of distinguishing a shrub from a tree. Both are woody plants, but what else differentiates them?

I have an academic source that claims that trees grow 13 feet tall or taller, implying that shrubs don’t grow over 13 feet tall. A second academic source puts that height at 18 feet, and a third source puts that height at 25 feet.

So which one is correct? Such imprecise measurement implies that a strong element of personal interpretation overshadows genuine botanical objectivity.

Consequently, knowing with certainty whether a plant qualifies as a shrub or a tree clarifies and enriches our understanding of both species diversity and ecosystem structure.

Taking this concept of understanding a little further, by distinguishing trees and shrubs we can determine how many shrub species grow naturally wild in Colorado and how many tree species grow wild here. These details serve as essential elements for understanding ecosystems, and understanding ecosystems serves as the basis for resource management.

Go to a mountain valley where there are no trees but shrubs abound. We call such treeless expanses “parks” in the biogeographical context. If one of perhaps three sagebrush species dominates shrub growth, sage grouse, sage thrush and evening sparrow will all inhabit that shrub area. If the sagebrush are too sparse or absent altogether, the sage grouse and threshers will not live there.

Such a predictable connection between birds and shrubs confirms the usefulness of the credo “find the plants to find the birds.”

Extensive areas where shrubs dominate the vegetation are referred to as “shrub areas”. Such places are important pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of ecosystems that make up Colorado’s living landscapes.

If shrubs, as distinctive growth forms of plants, are so important to the rest of life in Colorado, then surely shrubs must be important to us.

conversation about nature

The Loveland Public Library monthly nature programs continue in the Gertrude Scott Room. The year-long Alive in Colorado! series focuses on exploring the diversity of life in Colorado. The next program, Why Shrubs Matter, will be presented on Wednesday, February 1 at 10am. The free program, sponsored by Friends of the Loveland Library, explains shrub diversity in Colorado with a particular focus on how shrubs form ecosystems that other wildlife depends on.


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