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Plant Blindness: My 20/20 Vision

January 12, 2020

Do you ever find yourself in another city or country, taking pictures of the architecture and everyday objects, in absolute awe of their beauty? Then back home, walk down an equally beautiful street; but, one that happens to be the same street you have walked down for years – your head down, a million things on your mind other than the buildings? Well we do the same with plants.

The topic of ‘Plant Blindness’ is a common, ongoing debate within horticultural circles. The term was first coined by two botanists, Elizabeth Schussler and James Wandersee, back in the 1990’s and has been the subject of many discussions since. They essentially summarised the phenomenon as the failure, of many human populations, to notice the plants that are present in their own environment (Wandersee & Schussler, 1998)

The below extract, taken from their 2001 Plant Science bulletin, lays out the symptoms and effect of plant blindness. (It’s a bulky quote but it serves as a perfect introduction to the topic and issues associated with it – so please read!)

“We defined plant blindness as: the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment—leading to:

(a) the inability to recognise the importance of plants in the biosphere, and in human affairs;

(b) the inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features of the life forms belonging to the Plant Kingdom;

(c) the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration

We have proposed that persons afflicted with the condition known as plant blindness may exhibit symptoms such as the following:

(a) failing to see, take notice of, or focus attention on the plants in one’s daily life;

(b) thinking that plants are merely the backdrop for animal life;

(c) misunderstanding what kinds of matter and energy plants require to stay alive;

(d) overlooking the importance of plants to one’s daily affairs;

(e) failing to distinguish between the differing time scales of plant and animal activity;

(f) lacking hands-on experiences in growing, observing, and identifying plants in one’s own geographic region;

(g) failing to explain the basic plant science underlying nearby plant communities—including plant growth, nutrition, reproduction, and relevant ecological considerations;

(h) lacking awareness that plants are central to a key biogeochemical cycle—the carbon cycle;

(i) being insensitive to the aesthetic qualities of plants and their structures—especially with respect to their adaptations, coevolution, colours, dispersal, diversity, growth habits, scents, sizes, sounds, spacing, strength, symmetry, tactility, tastes, and textures.”

(Wandersee & Schussler, 2001, 3)

Vital information about botanical life is being lost from a collective instinct on a daily basis. This did not happen overnight, but rather a gradual cultural problem that has developed within the modern world. I recently read an article about how the Oxford Junior Dictionary has dropped definitions of words like ‘acorn’ and ‘buttercup’ in favour of ‘broadband’ and ‘cut and paste’ in their printed products (Flood, 2015). Whilst this most likely reflects a changing society rather that an intentional attempt to jettison the natural world from our vocabulary, it highlights our ignorant attitude towards plants and their vital existence in our lives. As somebody with a passion for horticulture, I would confidently argue that the capacity for learning about plants is endless. Even a master in their own field, could not know all there is to know! But rather than exploring this, we seem to go the opposite way and simply take for granted the botanical world around us, leading to a gradual loss of plant knowledge from generation to generation (Winfield, 2018). Alas, resulting in an inability to acknowledge plants within our own environment.

I like to think that I admire each and every garden in its’ own right, but have often found that out of season, it can be difficult for people to notice and appreciate gardens unless they have an understanding of plants. A gardener, who works on a daily basis nurturing and observing plants, has a firm grasp on how sites (and nature) work. In my own personal experience of walking and exploring with friends in the winter months, most – if they even notice any plants in the first place – see a ‘twiggy, brown mess’ rather that appreciating and understanding the seasonal die back process. And whilst for teams of gardeners, this ignorance to the cycle of gardens can be frustrating, it is actually part of a wider problem. Charles Lewis (horticulturalist) contends that those who live and work in natural trades, must observe nature’s signs, as “changes in foliage colour would be a strong indication that preparation for surviving the long winter should begin” (Lewis, 1996, 22). On the contrary, the modern world is built to protect and comfort us from the brunt conditions of the natural world and its’ elements. Whilst the evolution of these concrete fortresses we reside in is an excellent development of human survival, nowadays we are born into these conditions, thus take them for granted and many would be completely lost if we were ever without our luxuries. The truth is, the relationship between plants and people is profound, affecting nearly every aspect of our lives. The very roots of human culture are deeply intertwined with plants. They have, and will continue to, influence the trajectory of human civilisation (Balick & Cox, 1996).

A further observation highlighted by plant blindness, is the dominant recognition of animals rather than plants within the human mind. Research on this has generally concluded that we do not perceive plants to be a threat in the same way we (and our ancestors) perceived wild animals to be. As a result, we tend to subconsciously see plants as a backdrop to animal/human life and perpetuate the resulting imbalance regarding the importance of ecological preservation. In the USA – plants account for 57% of federal endangered species, but plant conservation only receives 3.86% of the allocated expenditure (Furness, 2018). Yet the reality is, without plants, there would be no food, no materials, no animals and thus, no us. In his book, The Private Lives of Plants, David Attenborough argues that “plants live on a different time-scale from ours. Most of the time, their lives remain a secret to us, hidden, private events” (Attenborough, 1995). Like us, they develop through an intricate and sophisticated process of evolution that transcends a mere human lifetime. Our ignorance, impatience and notions of superiority within the ecological hierarchy, hinder our ability to recognise and appreciate the complexities of botanical lives on a day to day basis.

I could go much deeper into this issue as I am eternally fascinated by the concept of social identity and how our environments play a big part in our subconscious grounding. It is such a wide topic that I look forward to pursuing and contributing to the discourse on this matter, another time. In brief: I am a big believer that the rapid development of cities and ‘concrete jungles’, interferes with our long-standing psyche that connects us to nature. In the modern day, with so many distractions that prevent us from feeling a true connection to nature (or home), our identities as individuals and as a collective seem weaker than ever. Within the wider community, there is a sense of ‘loss of roots’ – as our feet, ironically, become less connected to the grass and soil of the geographical landscapes, in the place of tarmac and rubber soles. I do not mean to suggest that we all return to being hunter gatherers that walk round in bare feet and the hides of their latest kill. And I do not intend to present a nihilist, anarchical view of our modern society. But, certainly, hope to educate both myself and others on this ever-popular topic of ‘returning to nature’.

I hope this write-up serves, both, as a preface to my new blogging project, whilst simultaneously opening up conversation about what we can do to tackle ‘plant blindness’ in our communities and society. It seems alarmingly evident that we’ve become so self-absorbed in the artificial world that we have created, that we increasingly neglect the world that created us. At a time where efforts to effect change on the planet are at an all-time high, we cannot afford to neglect the conservation efforts of the botanical world. Promoting horticulture and our understanding of deep-rooted practices, is one way to tackle plant blindness, so that is what this blog sets out to do.


References:

Attenborough, D. (1995), The private lives of plants: A natural history of plant behaviour’ Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Balick, M.J & Cox, P.A, (1996), Plants, people, and culture: The science of ethnobotany, New York: W. H. Freeman

Flood, A. (2015), ‘Oxford Junior Dictionary’s replacement of ‘natural’ words with 21st-century terms sparks outcry’, The Guardian, Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/13/oxford-junior-dictionary-replacement-natural-words&gt;, Date Accessed: 12th January 2020.

Furness, B. (2018), ‘Plant blindess’, Youtube: Video Media, Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SuTkgcFjOWw&gt;, Date Accessed: 10th January 2020

Lewis, C.A, (1996), Green nature/Human nature: The meaning of plants in our lives, University of Illinois Press.

Wandersee J.H & Schussler E.E, (1998), ‘A model of plant blindness’, Poster and paper presented at the 3rd Annual Associates Meeting of the 15° Laboratory, Louisiana State University, LA.

Wandersee J.H & Schussler E.E, (2001), ‘Toward a theory of plant blindness’, Plant Science Bulletin Vol 47(1), The Botanical Society of America, pp. 2- 9

Winfield, A. (2018), Plant blindness, University of Bristol Botanic Garden, Available at: <https://botanic-garden.bristol.ac.uk/2018/10/15/plant-blindness/#more-33&gt;, Date Accessed: 11th January 2020

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