How a landscaping perennial inspired Dune

The plant connection behind Frank Herbert’s Dune, and how a 1957 landscaping experiment by the US Agricultural department inspired it.

Dune (2020) trailer by WarnerMedia Entertainment

Dune trailer just dropped this week, and the buzz is electric. What’s easy to miss in the dazzle of star cast, the gorgeous cinematography, and the stellar background score by Pink Floyd, is the underlying story of ecology. One could even claim that the reality of soil erosion that inspired Frank Herbert make for a gripping thriller in itself. And it all starts in Oregon circa 1957.

Frank Herbert & the Dunes of Oregon

Herbert visited a government experiment in 1957 which left quite an impression on him. The program aimed to prevent the dunes from destroying landscapes, homes, and native vegetation. The ecologist in charge of the project — Thomas J. Flippin thought of using a novel solution to stop what Herbert called as

European beach grass: Flippin’s Trojan

Thomas Flippin used what can be called as an innocuous perennial — European beach grass to stop the movement of the sands. So how exactly does the grass work?

Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash

Basically the grass might not grow very tall above the ground, but has an extensive underground spread of 10 to 13 meters. The underground stems shoot out in all direction under the dune, binding it.

Since this perennial has evolved to survive in the sandy region, they grew fast all over the region after the experiment.

Story of Dunes today: Why native landscaping plants matters

As an invasive species, the European beach grass significantly altered the landscape of Oregon. Professor Sally Hacker teaches ecology at Oregon and analyzed the impact of the beach grass on local species such as the flowering plant silvery phacelia, and shorebird snowy plover. Professor Hacker discovered that these native species were pushed towards extinction due to the aggressive spread of beach grass.

Snowy Plover by Noah Boyer on Unsplash

As we strive to limit the most damaging effects of climate change, the story of Dune offers a remarkable insight into the role of construction, and urban planning in our future. We just cannot build sustainable landscapes, without taking into consideration the individual characteristics of urban trees and their interaction with other species. That’s a sobering thought to keep in the back of your mind when you watch Dune this December.

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