Climate can have a profound effect on where plants grow on the planet, and when the climate changes some areas can become off bounds for particular types of plants. On the other hand, some plants can naturally tolerate a broad range of climates.

For Professor Yvonne Buckley at Trinity College Dublin, the question of why plants grow where they do is one that needs more digging. She wants to assess the risks of climate change for different plants, and by looking at the life histories of plants that can survive ‘low desirability’ climates, she is hoping to find out some of their secrets of success.

“We are limited in answering these questions by a lack of data,” explains Professor Buckley. “So together with other experts around the world, we are compiling databases that record where plants are, the type of climate conditions where they are found and also their life histories, or how that particular type of plant grows and reproduces and survives.” So far, the project has identified tens of species where the life histories and climate ‘envelopes’ or tolerances of the plants can be compared. “We have information on hundreds of plants, but the data are not always collected in a way that they can be compared,” she says. “That’s why we are working on building a larger, more harmonised database of information where we can make those comparisons and see how plants survive, particularly on the fringes of climate conditions that suit them.”

Some plants have the ability to ‘regress’ to an earlier stage in their life history, explains Professor Buckley, and this might provide us with clues about how they overcome adverse changes in their environment. “Individual plants can’t run away or just move somewhere else when the going gets tough,” she says. “Instead, some species can protect themselves by, say going back underground and ‘hiding out’ as a bulb until the conditions are more favourable. We are hoping to see and learn from how plants use these kinds of strategies in climate environments where they are a little stressed.”

“We hope that it will be able to give us some answers about how plants can thrive and inform future conservation efforts as climates change.”

One plant that has proved its ability to thrive across a large range of climate conditions is ribwort plantain. It commonly found in lawns in Ireland but its range extends from the sub-Arctic conditions of Finland right through to the sub-tropical climate of Queensland, Australia.

Professor Buckley is leading a global deep dive into why ribwort plantain can withstand so many different climate conditions. “I have 40 collaborators at 70 sites around the world, and we are looking at the life history and environmental conditions of ribwort plantain very closely,” she says. “We hope that it will be able to give us some answers about how plants can thrive and inform future conservation efforts as climates change.”