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When ecology meets art you get a dating site for trees

by Anne Brice

In 2015, as a Ph.D. student at UC Santa Cruz, Juniper Harrower was planning to go back to Costa Rica, where she’d been working in the cloud forests to study patterns of forest regeneration. But then she learned something — something heart-wrenching — that would change the path of her research.

“Scientists had just found out that Joshua trees were really impacted by climate change and could be gone from the National Park within 100 years,” said Harrower. “When I read that, it was such a gut punch.”

Harrower grew up in Joshua Tree National Park — a vast, protected area in Southern California, home to thousands of twisted, spiky Joshua trees. And hearing that the iconic species was in jeopardy, Harrower felt she had to do something.

“It started this whole trajectory of thinking about what species were really crucial for Joshua trees and how those interactions might change with the changing climate,” she said.

Berkeley News spoke with Harrower, now a first-year master’s student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Art Practice, about the power of art and science to spur social change and why she started a dating site for Joshua trees.

Berkeley News: You got your Ph.D. in environmental studies with a focus in ecoart from UC Santa Cruz in 2019, and now, you’re a first-year master’s student in the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley. What brought you to Berkeley?

Juniper Harrower: My background is in ecology, and I’ve spent the last eight years working as an environmental artist. I got my bachelor’s degree in plant biology from Berkeley, where I talked my way into some art classes. I was kind of jumping between science research and having a really visible art practice. I continued to have a very present art practice at UC Santa Cruz, where I created and still teach science art classes. I left Santa Cruz with a Ph.D. in environmental studies, but madly, madly in love with art.

At Berkeley, I’m thinking about how an arts practice that is connected to ecological research can impact social change.

Berkeley has such an incredible art department. There’s a very strong post-colonialist framework that people are working from, and I’m looking forward to having those conversations and dismantling some of my science background. To have the incredible privilege of making art for two years with the support of an art practice committee is such a dream.

What is your ecological research about?

I’ve been studying for many years now, both as an artist and a scientist, species interaction under climate change. The system that I’ve been working with the most is the Joshua tree down in Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park is basically the hottest, driest, furthest south place where Joshua trees can live. Joshua trees grow in parts of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. So, you have this testing ground of what’s happening at the hot spots, and we’re seeing at the hottest places where they’re growing, they’re not reproducing sexually.

The only way that Joshua trees can reproduce sexually is with this teeny tiny little moth. They pollinate the trees. It’s amazing. What’s even crazier is this moth is one of the only examples in the animal kingdom that does purposeful pollination. The moth visits and lays eggs inside of the flower, which becomes a nursery for the developing larva. They eat some of the Joshua tree seeds as they grow, and some of the seeds go on to become the next generation of Joshua trees. So, it’s this incredible story of symbiosis and millions of years of coevolution between these moths and these trees. It’s so wild.

We’re looking at how these relationships have so tightly coevolved over time and how tweaks and signaling in the climate can make it all crumble and fall apart. And then, poof! No more Joshua trees. This is just one story in all of the vast, giant species die-off that we’re going to be seeing.

While you were researching Joshua trees, you made a discovery about the way these trees communicate with each other. Can you explain your findings?

While I was doing fieldwork and lab work, I discovered for the first time that Joshua trees actually form these specialized fungal communities underground. They’d never been studied before. These fungal communities are critical for the tree in dealing with stress and climate change and drought.

I published an article on this research in the science journal PLOS One in August 2021 about the Joshua tree fungal communities. I’d been working on it for years and years. It was a ton of work. I’m the lead author and my co-author is Gregory Gilbert. He is on the faculty at UC Santa Cruz, and he was my adviser when I did my Ph.D.

In the paper, I’m looking at how Joshua trees have different fungal associations. Joshua trees and several other species of trees form a symbiotic relationship with several species of root fungi called mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae are these little fungi that live in the soils, and they form symbiotic interactions with plant roots. They grow inside the plant roots and then out into the soils in these vast underground networks. They forage for water and nutrients, and they take it in and then trade it with another plant in exchange for plant sugars because the fungi don’t photosynthesize. So, the plant is giving the sugars in exchange for access to all of this stuff underground.


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