Plant blindness is a fairly new term, coined in 1998 by the American botanists James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler. They define it as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment” and that can lead to “the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs”. Despite it being a new term, the majority of people, and especially those living in urban settings, suffer from plant blindness.
A plant-blind person essentially sees the green environment, even when it surrounds them, only as a backdrop. They don’t remark the individual plants. They might notice a lawn or a park, but would be hard pressed to pick out any individual plants that grow in them.
The plant blind likewise don’t notice a plant in distress. They literally don’t see that a plant is wilting from a lack of water, or turning yellow because it is under attack by spider mites. That means they generally fail to grow plants with success, leading them to believe they to have a black thumb.
Plant blindness tends to lead to an underappreciation of plants. The plant blind are unlikely to object when a green space is bulldozed or a virgin forest is cut. When you point out to them that there would be no animal life on earth without plants, that not only do they provide the food that animals and humans eat, but also the oxygen we breathe, they always seem surprised.
The plant blind almost seem afraid of plants and willingly accept any negative nonsense that might be said about them, like the outmoded concepts that climbing plants harm buildings, that tree roots attack foundations, or that houseplants suck up the oxygen people need to breathe. Certainly, they see gardening as being “complicated” and yet any good gardener knows that, when you give a plant the basic conditions it needs, it will literally grow all on its own.
It’s interesting to note that people raised in the country are less likely to be plant blind than those raised in urban settings. Most country folk experienced growing vegetables or harvesting fruit as children, opening their eyes to differences in the greenery around them. They had daily contact with plants of all sorts during their childhood. But these days the majority of people in many countries have lived all their lives in the city. City dwellers often have never taken care of any kind of plant, not even a houseplant. Many have no idea that carrots grow in the ground (I kid you not!).
Yet cities have always had parks and green spaces and they are in fact increasing in number, what with green walls and green roofs and, in many cities, obligations to put in green spaces when new buildings are added. But while city dwellers often appreciate these green spaces because they make them feel better (it’s a well-known fact that simply looking at plants makes people feel better about themselves), they never really notice the plants that make up the space because they were never taught to.
Schools don’t offer much support: their curricula are often nearly devoid of plant-based knowledge. When botany is taught at all, it is often from a textbook using illustrations and many students never even see a live plant during the course! How stimulating is that?
Primary schools use fuzzy, cuddly animals to attract children’s interest, but fail to mention that those same fuzzy, cuddly animals need plants to survive. Everybody, for example, wants to save the panda, but pandas are totally dependent on a bamboo forest that is facing extinction. Why is not “save the bamboo forest” a rallying cry rather than “save the panda”? Most kids don’t even know what bamboo is.
Studies show that early experience growing plants with a knowledgeable, friendly plant mentor is a good predictor of a student’s later interest in plants. So parents and grandparents who garden can make a huge difference. Teach kids how to grow vegetables, have them start cuttings or grow plants from seed. Just letting them help you harvest carrots or peas can make a huge difference. At least they’ll know that carrots grow in the ground even if their friends don’t.
Take them to parks and point out the intricate web of nature. They may be excited to see a bunny, so show them that bunnies eat plants and especially like clover. That clover supplies nitrogen to the soil, that nitrogen helps other plants grown and that clover is a necessary part of a healthy lawn.
Take a walk with them, even in the city, and look at the plants that grow there, even if they are considered weeds. Most have flowers that attract bees and butterflies and flowers produce seeds that birds and animals feed on. Even ubiquitous squirrels need trees to nest in and acorns to eat. All that will be news to many children.
It’s so easy to interest children in plants once you get started. If we can produce a generation of nature-aware children, not only will that combat plant blindness, but raise their awareness of the environment in general, and that can only be a good thing!
Curing Your Own Plant Blindness
If you’re suffering from plant blindness yourself, recognizing that fact is the first step towards a cure. Still, it’s hard to open your eyes to plants all on your own. You really need a mentor.
You probably know a “plant person” in your neighborhood: they have the greenest yard or the greenest balcony. Ask them to show you how to take a cutting or how to start a few plants from seed. I guarantee they’ll be thrilled to be asked (passionate people always want to share their passion).
There’s bound to be a community garden nearby. Rent a lot and try your hand at gardening (and ask questions of neighboring gardeners). Or ease into it by joining a collective garden (communal garden) where, rather than having their own specific garden space, members share in the responsibility of planning, managing, and harvesting a communal space, then share the produce. The advantage of a collective garden is that you’ll always be either taught how to carry out each task or be paired with someone who does.
As you learn more, try signing up for courses on horticulture. They may be offered at a local public garden. Borrow a gardening book from the library. Join a horticultural society.
The first thing you know, not only will your plant blindness be cured, but you’ll find beginning gardeners coming to you for advice. How neat is that?