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Jurassic Plants

August 15, 1993|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

The dinosaurs roaming the fictional Jurassic Park might have been reconstituted from paleo-DNA, but the landscape was not. You can still find plenty of plants from dinosaur days at the local nursery.

You won't find the poisonous Serenna veriformans, which, in the book, tipped off paleobotanist Ellie Sattler that not all was right in the park. Author Michael Crichton seems to have hybridized that one on his own.

But you will find ferns, cycads, horsetails, metasequoias, cypress, pines and ginkgoes. All of these existed around 200 million years ago, and still do today. Maybe they're not the exact same species, but they're often the same genera--close enough in appearance so that only a paleobotanist could tell them apart, and even they can't always be sure.

The problem with identifying prehistoric plants, explained real-life paleobotanist Bruce Tiffney at UC Santa Barbara, is that one seldom finds entire plants as fossils, just bits and pieces; a leaf here, a branch somewhere else.

But what they do find often looks just like some of the plants we grow today. And, as Larry Barnes, a paleontologist at the Los Angeles County Museum

of Natural History, pointed out, we can grow just about all of these prehistoric plants in Southern California, thanks to our mild climate.

You could actually plant a dinosaur habitat in your back yard, just for fun, or in case some genetic engineering firm does decide to clone pet dinos, an idea briefly contemplated by the fictitious InGen company in the novel.

A dinosaur garden has, in fact, been planted for children at the American Horticultural Society's River Farm in Virginia, laid out by paleontologist Peter Kranz. And at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia there is a huge collection of cycads, plus a few other prehistoric plants that grow well in our climate. The idea was to make it a dinosaur garden, but for of lack of funding, it never got off the ground.

Cycads and ferns predominate in fossil records.

Some paleontologists think that there were vast "fern prairies," akin to today's African savannas, feeding huge herds of dinosaurs. But paleobotanist Tiffney doesn't think so: "Ferns are great dinosaur fodder, but I don't find any evidence of them covering vast amounts of ground. Like today, they grow in low, moist areas."

Surprisingly, Tiffney thinks that much of dinosaur country probably looked like inland Southern California, or maybe the slightly rainier areas of north-central Mexico.

He thinks the vegetation was widely scattered, not dense, and that there were no great herds, just small roaming groups of dinosaurs. Recent dinosaur paintings that reconstruct the past are beginning to reflect this more sparse look in their background vegetation. The sticky-wet jungle-look is passing from favor, except perhaps in movies.

Of course, there were many habitats, not just one. Paintings often depict great forests, like the one preserved in Petrified Forest National Park, or the one still growing in Sequoia National Park. This was an age of big trees as well as big animals.

Or paintings show low swampy ground. At the dinosaur garden at River Farm, paleontologist Kranz created an authentic mudhole in the garden, complete with dinosaur tracks around its edge.

If you were making your own back yard Jurassic Park, you couldn't have a lawn because grasses didn't appear in the plant record until long after the dinosaurs were history.

You couldn't have many flowers in the garden either, because flowering plants didn't evolve until the middle Cretaceous period, after the Jurassic, about 115 million years ago.

But neither did the star attraction of Jurassic Park, Tyrannosaurus rex. He actually came along after the Jurassic period, in the early Cretaceous.

Change the name to Cretaceous Park, and you could include the greatest variety of dinosaurs, including T. rex, and the first flowering plants, because the two overlapped during that geologic period. The sycamore was one early flowering plant still growing happily in our local canyons. The magnolia was another.

You could surround your mudhole with ferns, horsetails and, further from the water, cycads.

Horsetails go back at least 300 million years, which makes them a genuine antique in the garden. And they look it, being simple hollow stems that easily pull part. They do have leaves, although they don't look like the leaves we are accustomed to, and all produce spores, not seeds, in cone-like structures at the very tip of the plant. Back then there were many more kinds, some assuming tree-size proportions, growing up to 65 feet tall in the fossil records.

Tiffney grows some of the present-day survivors in his own garden, although he keeps them confined in a open-ended sewer pipe set into the ground so they can't spread all over the place. You don't want horsetails to get out of their cage any more than Muldoon, the gamekeeper at Jurassic Park, wanted the velociraptors to get out of theirs.

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