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Traveling Plants: People lend a hand

By Amy Weiss

Sep 26 2019

Plants have lots of ways they can move and distribute their propagules (fruits, seeds, spores, and vegetative fragments). But when it comes to going the distance, people really lend a hand. As people travel, plants travel with them—either intentionally or accidentally. With the increase in globalization and trade over time, new dispersal pathways are becoming available to plants.

With a boost from humans, plants often utilize their existing dispersal strategies in their new homes to spread even further. The coconut (Cocos nucifera, seen above) is such an example. Coconut palms grow near the ocean and their fruit float on the water, using ocean currents to move them to new beaches.¹ But, people too have helped move the coconut around as they navigated the sea; they are an excellent, and portable, source of food and water. Coconuts can give us a glimpse into human cultivation, exploration, trade, and colonization.²  

The plants people move can become weedy and invasive, causing serious damage to ecosystems and people in places where they are not native. Introduced plants often leave behind herbivores, pests, and pathogens that might keep them in check. Or sometimes they bring these along, causing damage to plants without resistance. As new plants arrive or spread, botanists notice. Herbarium specimens can help track the introductions of plants through time and by locality.

Click on the postcards below to read examples of people helping plants travel.

¹ Ward, R., & Brookfield, M. (1992). The dispersal of the coconut: Did it float or was it carried to Panama? Journal of Biogeography 19(5): 467-480. Retrieved 28 Aug 2019, from 
² Lutz, D. (2011). Deep history of coconuts decoded. The Source. Retrieved 28 Aug 2019, from