Picky plants: Growing green in difficult environments - Planet Ark Environmental Foundation

Picky plants: Growing green in difficult environments

By Elise Catterall  August 3rd, 2017

Plants have a few basic needs for survival: light, water, air, nutrients. Not all environments in Australia can satisfy these needs, but there are ways to work around this.


Plants have a few basic needs for survival: light, water, air, nutrients. Not all environments in Australia can satisfy these needs, but there are ways to work around this.

A recent article in The New Yorker introduced us to an innovative product invented by Dutch Engineer Jurriann Ruys to restore vegetation to arid and barren landscapes.  It also got us thinking about how challenging the Australian environment can be for new tree growth. 

The Cocoon, produced by Ruys’ company Land Life, is a donut-shaped waxed-paper shell that is buried underground, protecting a tree-sapling and supplying it with water. It biodegrades at just the right point so the tree has enough root growth to reach groundwater and survive on its own in its harsh environment.  Now three years old, it has been implemented across Mexico, Cameroon, Malawi, Peru, Chile, China, Greece, Israel and Dubai, both in direct partnership with villages, and in partnership with organisations like the United Nations and the World Wildlife Fund. 

Cocoon incubates the tree until it establishes a suitable root system, but alongside this, Land Life – guided by local experts - chooses and plants species of trees that will best suit the environment.

Even in the harshest environments, there are certain trees and plants that will grow and even thrive.  Plants native to an environment are more likely to thrive purely because they have adapted to the soil, climate and other environmental aspects of the area, compared with other plants.

In environments where water is scarce – common in Australia – plants have adapted to survive through several mechanisms.  Root length is one; roots of all plants need to reach groundwater, but in arid environments, this water storage is harder to access.  Many plants, including species of eucalyptus, acacia and oak, have adapted very long roots for this purpose.  Foliage is another mechanism.  As we see in cacti and succulents, some plants have developed water storage systems in their leaves, which allow them to go for long periods without rain.  The waxy coating and thick leaves of eucalypts also work to prevent water loss.  Yet another adaptation can be the life-cycle itself – some plants (including mesquite and some acacia species) grow, flower and seed in a matter of days when water is available and then will remain as seeds or rest until water is available again. 

Although a lack of sunlight is rarely a problem in Australia, plants have also adapted to survive with limited sunlight, for example in rain forests.  Plants grow multiple leaves to increase their surface area for photosynthesis, grow tall to compete for light, climb the trunks and branches of trees to reach the sun and even photosynthesise with less sunlight. 

Aquatic plants have also adapted to suit an environment that has less sun and, at times oxygen, than other environments.  Adaptations such as broad, floating leaves with large surface areas, and funnel-like stems to draw oxygen down to the roots, make many plants suitable for aquatic environments.

Guides and advice are available to help you plant and grow the best adapted plant for your environment, so reach out to your local council or native nursery or find your local branch of the Australian Plants SocietyBushcare, or Landcare group.

Positive Actions

  • Watch the video introducing Land Life’s innovative product, the Cocoon
  • Join a Landcare or Bushcare group and get involved local environmental projects.
  • Choose plants that are water friendly and environmentally appropriate with this fact sheet
  • Learn more about some amazing adaptations in Australian plants 


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Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.  


By Elise Catterall

Elise is a writer, photographer, and naturopath with a passion for nature. She completed a Master of Public Health in 2017 through the University of Sydney. Her photographic work focuses on flowers and plants as a way of celebrating nature. She has been writing for Planet Ark since 2017, sharing positive environment stories, personal environmental experiences and perspectives.

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