What is Plant Blindness, and How Does it Affect You?

by | Botany

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Plant blindness is a term to categorize a phenomenon in which people simply don’t recognize plants in their everyday life. After all, how could you be expected to notice or solve an issue that you don’t think about?

In this HerbSpeak article, we will discuss this growing ecological problem with how humans view plants. 

What Is Plant Blindness?

Plants have shaped the course of history. Not just human history, but the history of our planet.

Now, it may be an obvious statement to make, but how often do you really think about it?

Plants have been integral in the evolution of life across the planet.

Without algae, we would not have spores, and without spores we would not have seeds.

Without seeds, we would not have flowering plants, and without flowering plants, the planet would have evolved much differently from its current terrestrial ecosystem. Humans would have evolved differently in the way our guts and brains worked, and we would have little food resources on the Earth.

A lot of people are surprised to learn that as much of the world’s food supply – up to 75% – comes from a stunning 12 plant species. This means that only about 170 out of the nearly 400,000 recorded are used by humans for agricultural purposes.

The rest, unfortunately, go largely unnoticed in the world.

So then, why don’t we know more about the plants that we pass by every single day?

How come we are losing the ancient knowledge of plants that has been passed on through oral tradition?

Why is the value of ethnobotany diminished outside of agricultural uses, when our medicines and drugs are mostly derived from plants; when the wildlife and ecological diversity we depend on is supported by the other 399,830 known plant species?

Simply put, people are blind to plants.

Plant blindness is a real term coined in 1999 that showcases this phenomenon. (1)

This term was coined to help spread awareness of this pervasive viewpoint, especially in the Western world, where animals – mostly those with human-like faces as seen with many of our pets – are valued above plants, and humans above animals, rather than looking at our place in the world as a part of environment.

This plant blindness leaves us focused on our own internal makings of society, rather than seeing the Passiflora flowers blooming along our fence lines, or the medicinal Urtica along the riverbank.

This term represents an ever-increasing problem that we face: we don’t understand or appreciate the flora around us in everyday life.

Despite plants contributing a great deal to our primal survival, we ignore them, tread over them, and give them little regard as we prune branches and mow down acres just to please our own senses of cleanliness and orderliness.

Perhaps we’re doing some good by pruning invasive species back and making way for native plants again, but it is often unintended. Instead, we move through daily life without ever noticing the vast world of flora around us.

Why Plant Blindness is a Problem

This plant blindness is a real, conscious decision made by our brains as we participate in the hubbub of modern life. Still, it poses a great danger to our education of the natural world and how we treat our global resources. (2)

A recent cross-age study … recently revealed that those students, overall, were twice as interested in animals as they were in plants, with little change as age increased.

… While animals frequently steal the spotlight where extinction is concerned, one in eight plant species worldwide is currently threatened by extinction. Intellectually, we know that you don’t get pandas without bamboo plants, but culturally this is often forgotten.

James H. Wandersee, Elisabeth E. Schussler

The growing number of people who are “blind” to plants is a severe problem, especially as humans make largely irreversible marks on the health of our planet and the ecosystem.

Not only does this blindness mean we are paying less attention to the environment around us, but we are also paying less attention to the conservation efforts, studies, and overall scientific endeavors around everyday flora.

This means funding for scientists is drying up, conservatories are struggling for donations, educational classes are closing… 

Why Do We Experience Plant Blindness?

Our brains are excellent at getting the job done, which usually requires us to focus on what is important. There is so much sensory input in our environment that, for the brain’s own sake, it must filter out what is and is not important.

Even removing ourselves from the modern setting, our ancestors relied on this blindness to help them make snap decisions and keep them alive in times of danger, particularly when the body is stressed.

This bias is formulated around the idea that, if it’s not important to our immediate goals, the brain makes quick decisions about where we need to go, what we need to do – and rarely are plants a part of that factor as sessile organisms.

Furthermore, it is entirely possible that the concept of plants as a natural part of the living environment is new to you or to your neighbor. Studies have shown that for many people, they simply find animals more interesting than plants and it affects their attention span in remembering details about the latter.

Simply put, when we are late for work, our brains shift into “survival mode” to get us to where we need to go, which means the only things we see will be the car, ways we can maneuver through traffic, and the clock as precious minutes tick away and we plan our excuse to an angry boss.

In that moment, humans have continued their fight or flight response, adapted to modern needs as we understand an angry boss might mean a pay cut or another reason to get fired, taking with it precious resources of money, which translates directly into a home, food, or socialization.

That is plenty enough reason for the body to get the adrenal system fired up, causing anxiety, stress, and triggering a fight or flight response.

Unfortunately, our primitive bodily systems have not yet adapted – or have adapted too well – to the demands of modern life. It is common for humans to feel this burden of stress or anxiety on a frequent basis, so we see less and less of the flora around us as we move from place to place rapidly.

How Can We Prevent Plant Blindness?

  • Support Public Gardens

Supporting botanical gardens will allow you to explore plants from many different types of habitats, simultaneously educating you and providing an authentic space to experience this flora, increasing your everyday awareness and natural curiosity about plants. This also helps fund the gardens, creating space for new public programs, and directly aids in conservation efforts.

  • Make the Conscious Effort to Look and Learn

It is going to take dedicated effort to identify and educate yourself on your local plants, even if it’s a casual effort.

Still, the conscious decision to look around you and learn about each of these plants is critical in combating plant blindness on an individual level.

You probably have a cell phone or tablet that you carry around with you. There are many apps available that will help you identify and catalogue plants.

Not only would you become a citizen scientist, helping report sightings of wild plants, but you would also learn the names of the plants around you in seconds, empowering you to do a few quick internet searches to learn more about their usefulness.

  • Seek or Start Plant Programs

Plants are important to every local community, including your own. If you’re lucky, there are programs that allow the public to interact with plants already in place.

If you have the botanical knowledge, or can connect with someone who does, you can also start your own plant programs.

Seeking funding from the public or from the town to cultivate a community project is a popular way to fund these interactive programs without the burden of it coming out of your own pocket. Likewise, if there are none available, you can begin a petition for your town to start enlisting help and offering these programs locally.

  • Cultivate Plant Awareness in the Younger Generation

As a parent or caretaker, you are an influential role model in a child or teen’s life. By encouraging plant awareness and teaching them about plants, you can help combat plant blindness in younger generations.

It may be as simple as passing your own knowledge on, or it might be providing the resources for them to explore the subject themselves, whether that’s books, public programs, or learning together. Show them a love of science by allowing them to work with scientific gear at their school or the local library and provide practical knowledge in a hands-on way.  

Why Overcoming This is Important

The flowering hydrangeas and lowly marshmallow root both get turned into an unnoticeable wall of green that only the most careful and deliberate observers with nowhere to be take note of. Or, botanists and plant enthusiasts.

If we want to take stock of where we are in the natural world and learn more about the life that shares our planet on an equally important hierarchal scale, then it’s important to take a look around you every now and then.

On a walk through the city, you might look down and see grass through the cracks in the concrete, or little yellow flowers peeking out from underneath fence panels. You might even get lucky and see a few iconic medicinal plants.

Continuing the walk, those plants blend into the background again, invisible in plain sight. Once you arrived at your destination, if you were asked about the plants seen on the walk, chances are, you would not remember a single one.

Your mind might have been focused on something else, so while you can visually see plant peeking through the underbrush or the cracks of the sidewalk concrete, your brain would glaze over the information, and it wouldn’t catch your attention.

Unfortunately, thanks to the genius of advertisements with bright colors and eye-catching details, our brains are getting even better at ignoring things that would have once caught our attention. Breaking through the noise, as it’s called in marketing, is making a few sales, but it’s also further diminishing our ability to notice our environment.

This is plant blindness in action. It takes conscious, concerted effort to begin truly Looking at plants, with a capital L.

Would you even know that little yellow flower was a dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, full of medicinal benefits and prized as a symbol of emotional healing and overcoming hardships? Or that patch of grass that you later discovered was wheatgrass, Titicum aestivum, the very same grass that you juiced and added to your morning smoothie?

Unsurprisingly, plant blindness leads more people to an under-appreciation of the plants around them in their daily environment.

Plant biology research is slowing, with fewer scientists entering the field and making advancements. Conservation efforts are limited both in funding and in interest, and thousands of years of inherent knowledge is being lost to a sea of new or “more relevant” information.

Beyond that, urbanization has led to a severe lack of flora in everyday environments, exacerbating the problem. Humans are only able to recognize what they understand or know, meaning that we are experiencing a cyclical problem: less interest means fewer educational resources. Fewer educational resources means less interest.  

References
  1. Sandra Knapp, (Opinion) Are Humans Really Blind to Plants, https://nph.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ppp3.36
  2. James H. Wandersee, Elisabeth E. Schussler, Preventing Plant Blindness, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4450624?seq=1

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About Destynnie K. Berard
I am a lifelong naturalist who believes a good sense of humor is essential to staying happy. ★ After traveling for years, I settled in New England, falling in love with the diverse landscape the Northeast has to offer, and began pursuing conservation in earnest. ★ My career background is in enterprise marketing and communications, which provides me with a unique perspective of ecological relationships.

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