Chernobyl Plants And The Exotic World Of Ruderal Species

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is…. nothing. –Oliver Kellhammer, Ecological Artist 

There’s a lesser-known field of botany called the study of ruderal plants, or plants that grow on waste ground, ruins or rubble. Borne by birds, wind or other animals, the weed-like species are the first to colonize lands disturbed by wildfires, avalanches, construction and other ecological disasters. The plants self-sow in abandoned areas, forming impromptu gardens and forests over time, in a clear demonstration of what Mother Nature can do when left to her own devices.

I’ve always been fascinated by this area of study that attempts to understand how these pioneering plants came to be. Back in 1643, the Roman botanist Domenico Panaroli (1587-1657) was interested, too, when he began compiling the world’s first inventory of plants growing in the ruins of Rome’s Colosseum. Of the many species he observed, he discovered that most originated not in Italy, but in North Africa.

Inside view of Rome’s Colossium

In his book titled Flora of the ColosseumPlantarum Amphytheatralium Catalogus, Panaroli identified 337 ruderal plants growing in and around the different climatic zones of the 6-acre colosseum. The lush vegetation, which was thriving without apparent need for cultivation, exhibited a dynamic intermix of native and nonnative species. The surprising findings led Panaroli to hypothesize that the foreign plants had traveled in with birds, or by wind or possibly on the coats of animals brought to fight in the ancient arena.

Daniel in the lion’s den

Two hundred years later, an English doctor named Richard Deakin recorded a total of 420 species growing simultaneously in the ruins. The plants, which he documented in his 1855 book Flora of the Colosseum of Rome, included figs and vines, wild roses, orchids and dianthus, many of which had naturalized in the microclimates of the Roman forum. He wrote:

The object of the present little volume is to call the attention of the lover of the works of creation to those floral productions which flourish, in triumph, upon the ruins of a single building. [ ] Though without speech, they tell of that regenerating power which reanimates the dust of mouldering greatness.

Wild rose, Rosa canina

Today the list of species from the Colosseum has grown to 684. Of these, over two hundred of the species first identified by Panaroli still remain.

Chernobyl

In our lifetime, or at least mine, one of the largest ecological disasters occurred in 1986 in Ukraine when an explosion and fire in the Chernobyl nuclear plant released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The catastrophic nuclear disaster contaminated an area of approximately 1000 square miles in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. It is now referred to as the Exclusion Zone.

Chernobyl nuclear power plant

In the first decade following the accident, though, scientists began noting an important development in the composition of the area’s microscopic organisms. As a result of their exposure to high levels of radioactive contamination, the bacteria had started mutating more rapidly. And they were beginning to create new radiation-proof forms of life.

The worst-affected woodland, composed primarily of Scots pines, is today known as the Red Forest. (The name comes from the ginger-brown color the trees assumed after absorbing the intense doses of radiation.) Although the majority of the pines were bulldozed and then buried in trenches, today scientists are observing what they call an unnatural selection. New types of plants have started growing in the forest and their biodiversity is increasing.

Plants growing in an abandoned amusement park near Chernobyl

In fact, in the last ten years, the M.G. Kholodny Botanical Institute of NAS of Ukraine has recorded intensive processes of reforestation as well as the presence of more than 40 different trees that have begun appearing in the Red Forest. These include some entirely new species.

Black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, is now growing in the Chernobyl area.

Left undisturbed by humans, aggressive ecologies of native species, including several new kinds of natural lichen and grasses, have developed. As they commingle with other nonnative groups, the Chernobyl plants are combining to form species that have never before been envisioned. Some of the plants and animals have even evolved a tendency to produce more cancer-fighting antioxidants to help them resist the effects of pervasive radiation: attributes that may one day help humans develop some of their own.

Oliver Kellhammer  is an artist, educator, activist and writer. Through his botanical interventions and public art projects, he seeks to demonstrate nature’s surprising ability to recover from ecological damage. His evolving body of work has taken such forms as small-scale urban eco-forestry, inner city community agriculture and the restoration of eroded railway ravines.

Concrete Island by Oliver Kellhammer

In 2006, Kellhammer created a botanical garden of ruderal plants for the World Urban Forum, which was held in a former heavy equipment plant in Vancouver, British Columbia. For his exhibition, Kelhammer chose a disused corner of the site, a concrete rectangle, where a variety of weeds and other plants appeared to be flourishing. Rubble, garbage and other debris had provided the perfect conditions for ruderal plants such as scotch broom, cottonwood and Himalayan blackberry as well as several species of mosses and grasses to grow.

Kellhammer noted that the plants comprised both native and nonnative species; a reflection of sorts of the city’s Asian, European and native British Columbian inhabitants. To call attention to the plants, he installed botanical labels on the various species with the option to push on a button to connect visitors’ cell phones to recorded information. The Concrete Garden provided interesting insights into the workings of ruderal plants as well as nature’s incredible resiliency.

Yes, Mother Nature is full of surprises. One has only to look to the Colosseum, Chernobyl and innumerable abandoned areas around the world to see the processes of her regeneration, proving that architecture, like all of us, is inevitably ephemeral.