So, what is plant blindness?

If you’re here on purpose, you might already know the answer to that question. If you stumbled upon my blog by accident, I hope you will stay long enough to find out! But either way, I’d like to say welcome.

For those who don’t know: plant blindness is defined as the tendency not to notice plants in the environment around you. It’s split into four different characteristics: attention (not noticing plants), attitude (not liking or caring about plants), knowledge (recognizing the importance of plants…or not), and relative interest (how interesting you find plants in comparison to other organisms, like animals). It’s a complex situation, and a big problem.

Plant blindness might seem like it’s harmless until you think about how much we benefit from plants (and what they do) on a daily basis. Plants are sources of food, medicine, clothing, shelter, and even oxygen. We benefit from their existence and use in many different ways. But what happens when we rely on plants, but don’t acknowledge their importance or even notice that they’re around?

We can (and often do) become very disconnected from the ecosystem around us if we become disconnected from plants in this way. We start to take them for granted, and just when we do, they start to disappear. Plant conservation is an issue not just because plants are disappearing faster than we can identify them, but also because we aren’t the only ones who rely on plants… other animals do too. In fact, the vast majority of animals on the endangered species list are there because their habitats are disappearing. These habitats are mostly comprised of (you guessed it) plants.

Plants become even more important when we consider their implications for climate change. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis (the purpose of which is to create glucose, a type of sugar that is a source of food for the plant). We need oxygen to live, and on top of that, we need plants to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This need is especially pronounced because humans are responsible for a LOT of extra carbon dioxide, so there’s a lot more in the atmosphere than what could ever be considered, “normal.” I’ll get into the specifics of how plants can help us address climate change in a future post, but suffice it to say, they’re a major player. Unfortunately we keep clear-cutting them, tearing down forests to use for our own purposes, or to make room for agricultural efforts (again, more on this in a future post).

We seem to have conflicting interests where plants are concerned. We rely on them for so many things, which often requires us to tear them down. But we also rely on them for bigger purposes (absorbing carbon dioxide, producing oxygen) which means we can’t cut them ALL down or else we won’t be able to survive (not to mention the millions of other species on the planet that depend upon them too). Like I said, it’s a complicated issue, and we have no chance of solving it if we continue to be plant blind and ignore that it’s happening.

Some of you might be thinking: well how do we fix it? I’m a Ph.D. candidate in biology education, meaning that my dissertation is about trying to answer that question. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the topic and I can safely say this: I don’t know — yet. I do have some ideas, but it’s a complicated question with a complicated answer.

One thing is for sure: plant blindness isn’t doing us any favors. Not only does it hurt us for the reasons above, but it reduces our capacity to do research and find ways to support plants (and, by extension, ourselves and the rest of the planet). If students are plant blind, they’re less likely to learn about plants (or even WANT to learn about plants) which means they don’t go to graduate school, learn how to do plant research, and find the next big plant-related innovation. We’re cheating ourselves out of some very important and exciting scientific innovations, especially when you add in the fact that plant research gets funded less often than many other kinds of research!

Speaking of education, one thing we do know is that students who don’t have good experiences with plants and plant mentors early in life often develop plant blindness beginning in grade school, and continue this trend all the way through college. A plant mentor is anyone who takes you under their wing and teaches you about plants in a context outside of school. These people are often family members, but can be scout masters, teachers, friends, or anyone! So if you’re concerned about a student in your life becoming plant blind, here is one thing you can do to help: take them outside! Go to a botanical garden, go hiking, start a garden, anything that gets them outside and around plants can help ensure they recognize plants in their environment, and later on, they’ll be more likely to retain related information from their teachers.

Okay, that’s all I have for you right now, but here’s a look at what’s coming next. I am planning a wide array of topics to explore with this blog including things like: biodiversity, agriculture, climate change, GMOs, biofuels, gardening, plant mentors, invasive species, botany education, why plants have intrinsic value and so many more! If you have an idea for a topic I should cover, comment on this post and tell me what you want to see. Thanks for reading! And don’t forget: plant blindness is a problem that only people can prevent.

Dig a Little Deeper

In my last post, I explored the topic of plant blindness from a broad perspective to better portray the variety of ways it impacts humans. This post explores the concept in more depth. As mentioned in my last post, I touched briefly on these four characteristics:  attention (not noticing plants), attitude (not liking or caring about plants), knowledge (not recognizing the importance of plants), and relative interest (finding plants less interesting than other organisms, namely animals). Now I want to examine each concept individually and explain how they contribute to plant blindness as a whole.

It’s worth noting here that the information I am using comes from several publications in the field of biology education research, so I often reference students. However, these components still apply to the public at large— they may just manifest differently.

This one seems straightforward: people don’t notice plants in their environment. However, there’s a lot more to the story. The attention characteristic of plant blindness is a visual cognition and perception problem. Our ancestors evolved to notice movement, probably because things that move have a higher chance of chasing you down and eating you. Mankind wasn’t always at the top of the food web, so we had to adapt and stay on our toes. When was the last time a plant chased you down to try and take a bite? I’m guessing (and hoping) never.

On top of that, plants are green and tend to get overlooked as a kind of big green backdrop. The notable exception to this rule is angiosperms, or flowering plants. They get noticed a bit more often due to their colorful flowers and, oftentimes, their scent. There is also an interesting phenomenon in which humans pay the most attention to items that are within 15 degrees above or below the midline of their vision. In fact, there is an entire scientific laboratory dedicated to studying this phenomenon called the 15 Degree Lab, directed by plant blindness expert Dr. Renee Clary. Because plants tend to grow low to the ground (grasses and herbs) or high above our heads (trees), we often don’t pay as much attention to them.

This one is fairly self-explanatory. Many students— and many people— just don’t like plants. It’s not a direct dislike or hatred of plants (unless they’ve had a case of poison ivy or bad allergies). It’s more like an apathy, one not often seen with animals. There are many reasons for this, and they almost always vary from student to student or person to person. I’ve heard students say they don’t like plants because they don’t do anything, they’re boring, or they aren’t relevant to their professional or academic goals. It’s at this point in the conversation that I make it a priority to demonstrate to my students just how much they need plants, and how relevant plants are to their lives, regardless of their careers. I sometimes succeed, but there are some people who don’t like plants no matter what case I make for them. However, even if they don’t like plants, I still try to make sure the students understand their importance.

The name of this one might be a tad misleading. It’s often labeled as knowledge, leading some to believe that knowing things about plants is vital to avoiding plant blindness. In this case, though, knowledge refers to knowing why plants are important. You may not know the first thing about how to garden, what xylem is, or how photosynthesis works. But if you know why plants are important— both to humans and to the ecosystem— you can still avoid the pitfalls of plant blindness. In my experience, this is the first hurdle to overcoming plant blindness, and one of its most important characteristics. I’ve found that students tend to notice plants more, care more about them, and find them more interesting when students understand why plants are important and what roles they play in human affairs.

Relative Interest
This characteristic refers to the level of interest that students have in plants compared to other organisms, namely animals. Often, students think that animals are more interesting than plants for the same reasons they tend not to care about plants: plants are boring, they don’t do anything, and they’re seemingly irrelevant to students’ career plans. In my experience, relative interest and attitudes are highly connected, mostly because students cite a lack of interest in plants as their reason for disliking them or not caring about them. My solution to this is to bring up a topic that applies to plants and has been experienced by students too, such as climate change. This usually helps them see that plants are interesting, important, and relevant to their lives.

As you can see, plant blindness actually encompasses an entire set of behaviors. As such, let me reiterate: plant blindness is complicated and finding a solution has (thus far) proven difficult. In all likelihood, there won’t be one solution because there isn’t just one variable at work here. But that doesn’t mean we should just give up— it means we have to work even harder. It will take several people and several approaches to make progress on this challenge. Remember: plant blindness is a problem that only people can prevent.