In Ticino there are middle school kids who, in their first 15 years of life, have never had anything to do with nettles. They don’t know how to recognize them and they don’t even know that they are stinging. This says a lot about plant blindness. By underestimating and ignoring the vital importance of plants in our ecosystem and in our daily lives, we risk not doing enough to preserve them. Instead, they are indispensable, much more than the cell phone: they dress us, feed us, give us the oxygen we breathe, even various medicines, help reduce heat in cities… For many they are just a generic green. This ‘blindness’ afflicts several generations, increasingly disconnected from the plant world, which is instead central to the survival and development of our society, especially in the face of the challenges that environmental and climatic situations are imposing on us here, in the Alps, one of the largest natural areas, rich in biodiversity and a reservoir of water for the whole of Europe. Our mountains are the sentinels of climate change: warming twice as fast as global averages, they help outline future scenarios. Cassandras of what, from an environmental point of view, will happen, because they can help us develop strategies to mitigate the effects of a pervasive and unpredictable process of environmental disturbance made of landslides, mudslides, desynchronization of life cycles, increased vulnerability to invasive species. Monitoring and understanding the dynamics of the change in progress is fundamental. Being blind and increasingly disconnected from ecosystems is like driving blindfolded towards the abyss. Let’s see why with two experts.

They feed us, give us oxygen, mitigate the heat

“The alliance with plants will be increasingly essential in the future, for example for the mitigation of urban heat zones, for food security, for the food production chain based on greater biodiversity of species. Perhaps few people know it, but the mountains are treasure chests of particular genetic varieties, each valley has unique and particular species”, he explains. Leonardo Azzalini. He is responsible for the Alpine School in Olivone of the Alpine Foundation for Life Sciences (FASV), which promotes knowledge among young people (over 2,500 students per year) of most of the natural sciences: from astronomy to geology, passing through botany. From micro to macro. From medicinal and aromatic plants to the molecules and active ingredients they contain. The famous Olivone herbal tea was created right here, in this Foundation! In fact, the Alpine School today resides in the original laboratory dedicated to phytopharmacology; for this reason the most loved and requested activities are those related to botany and herbalism.

At the Alpine School of Olivone, about 2,500 students a year immerse themselves in nature. Many of them observe a nettle for the first time

The Lost Time of Grandma’s Remedies

Over 2,500 students, from elementary school to university, participate in courses and workshops in the Blenio Valley at FASV every year. The lack of sensitivity towards plants emerges in all its drama: “When things go well, students recognize five out of twenty plants. While, out of twenty logos of digital, automotive or fashion companies, they don’t get one wrong. There are 15-year-olds who have never seen a nettle,” explains Azzalini. Video games have replaced garden huts. The consequences are clear: we buy fruit and eat it almost unaware of the culture that surrounds it (how and when to grow them, how to protect them from parasites…). “It is not unusual to see students who cannot recognize an apple tree from a hazelnut tree.” Ever more distant from vegetable gardens, gardens, fields and woods and from all that they offer: “For several centuries we have witnessed an enormous erosion of ethnobotanical knowledge, accumulated over millennia by trial and error and slipped away in total silence.” To be clear, those grandmother’s remedies passed down from generation to generation as compresses or syrups with medicinal herbs for all types of ailments. “They are more than home remedies. They were based on traditional knowledge but in a certain sense, also scientific. Today we are realizing the value of this heritage and we would like to recover it, but it is not always easy to find someone who can still teach it”.

In the laboratory

For Azzalini, among the explanations for plant blindness and lack of experience in nature there is also an economic aspect. “For many kids, having a relationship with nature has become a luxury. Where they are taken and especially, not taken, in their free time, is also linked to socioeconomic and cultural aspects.” So let’s welcome botanical gardens in the city, educational nature lessons in Val di Blenio with the Alpine School team and other projects to sow a new green awareness among the citizens of today and tomorrow, who are facing – and will have to face – arduous climate challenges.

With plants, their pollinators also move

The climate threat is the greatest challenge for the future of the Alps and is already reshaping our landscape, the changes are visible to the naked eye. Again Azzalini: “Due to warming, the tree line is rising, there is a migration of vegetation upwards, because plants are looking for environments more suited to their physiology. With them, butterflies, birds, worms, parasites and pathogens could move…”. In nature, everything is interconnected in a sophisticated and wonderful chain. “These are millenary balances, dynamic synchronizations that have worked for thousands of years and are now being compromised. We don’t know what will happen. If a plant rises higher, it doesn’t mean that its best pollinating friends will do the same. One of the big problems will be understanding the interaction between the various species”. He gives us the example of the palm (more precisely the Trachycarpus fortunei), an invited plant, before being invasive, introduced as an ornamental plant that, finding a favorable climate, has settled in the niches, at low altitude, left free by the indigenous plant population, emigrated higher. Climate aside, it also has advantages that have favored its settlement: not having predators and having a very competitive reproductive strategy.

Having more species is not necessarily negative. “In theory it is. We perceive the problem above all according to utilitarian logic, if they destabilize the species considered more useful”. Furthermore, beyond a certain limit it will not be possible to go higher. “The alpine flora, such as that of the Dötra area (in Alto Lucomagno) is in fact threatened; moving higher and higher, it risks having difficulty finding a habitat since the mountains are generally conical, the higher you go, the more the area decreases”.

Even various medicinal herbs have to adapt. “The active ingredients of plants vary according to climatic conditions. A root that was once harvested in September because it was at the peak of its active ingredients may not necessarily be ready in the same period in the future. Everything will have to be reevaluated.” For now, in this pre-Alpine area we are lucky, because we have a very broad biodiversity.

Among the many obstacles, the growing interest in herbal medicine is a source of hope. A return to the land, at least for a part of society: “Our courses on herbs are successful among adults, especially among a female audience. Also because everyone learns to produce zero-mile healing creams and can take charge of their own health”.

Mountains always in motion

And now we come to water. It is now clear to everyone, periods of summer drought alternate with torrential summers with deadly water bombs. “Floods and droughts are increasing dramatically and more generally, more than half of the world’s river systems have recorded anomalous conditions. All because of global warming. Glaciers are retreating before our eyes and the long-term water supply is threatened. According to the Swiss Commission for Cryosphere Observation (CSC), in the Swiss Alps in 2022 there was a 6% melting of the ice mass, in 2023 4%. In two years there was a 10% melting, equal to that produced over thirty years, from 1960 to 1990. The environmental engineer helps us understand these data Cristina Gardenghi who is part of the Alpine School team.

“The warming of the atmosphere impacts hydrological cycles, with changes in the distribution of precipitation throughout the year. Snowfall is moving higher and higher, last year it even rained on the Adula. Having fewer water reserves stored in the glaciers, we will be more dependent on rain. Periods of drought will alternate with floods and floods, as is happening in recent weeks”. The valleys are funnels, he continues, we will have to be ready, widening the space for river beds and building more shelters. Or perhaps as Avenir Suisse suggests, leaving forever some Alpine areas (which are also oases of coolness during the torrid summers) that have become too dangerous. The debate is on.

As the permafrost melts, the soil can also become destabilized, causing landslides, debris flows, or rock collapses. “Mountains seem unchangeable, always the same, but in reality they are always moving. Even with all the technoscience, one night of heavy rain is enough to take away all certainty,” concludes Azzalini.