Undergraduate Highly Commended: Plant blindness – the botanical bias that no-one has heard of

Plants are all around us from urban parks to the rolling countryside to the insides of our own houses, however do we as humans fail to fully recognise and ‘see’ these plants in the same way we do other living things? For example, what is your favourite animal? Almost everyone has a favourite animal and many of us even have a long list of them. But what about a favourite plant? That question can end with people’s blank expressions or faces deep in thought. Many of us don’t think about plants in the same way we do animals and unless we are botanists or plant enthusiasts, few of us have a favourite plant. Another simple question is trying to recall the last plant we saw. Many of us would easily recall the last animal but it is rare to remember the last plant although they are in much greater abundance around us. But this general underappreciation of plants in today’s society seems puzzling considering plants are so important for life on earth from the air we breathe, to the places we live and the food we eat.

What do you see first? A kudu antelope surrounded by vegetation.
Photo: Taras Bains

What is plant blindness?

The term ‘plant blindness’ was first coined over 20 years ago by two American botanists (Wandersee and Schussler) and they used it to describe “the inability to notice plants in one’s environment” which extends to and results in an underappreciation of plants and a failure to recognise their importance(1). But why does this matter? It can in fact have huge consequences on a number of different areas from plant biology research to conservation and legislation. Many of those, who do not have a biological background, believe plants are boring and fail to recognise their complexity as they do not move around like animals, grow as quickly, or ‘eat’ per say but they do possess very unique physiological and ecological traits. Plants have some fascinating and amazing abilities which we often fail to acknowledge. One key capability is longevity and long life. Many groups of plants have life spans that are far greater than even the oldest animals and are one of the longest-living organisms on earth. There have been records of individual Welwitschia plants living for up to 2000 years in the deserts of Namibia but even this is dwarfed in comparison to the Great Basin bristlecone pines of California which can live for more than 5000 years. They have also evolved the ability to harness sunlight to produce energy which even the greatest human brains have taken decades to develop and even then, are far less efficient that the naturally occurring photosynthetic machinery of plants.

The Great Basin bristlecone pine which can live for more than 5000 years.
Photo: Rick Goldwaser

Why does plant blindness occur?

One of the key drivers to this underappreciation of plant life may be education and how plant biology is taught. Plants are relatively absent from pre-university education and even at an undergraduate level there are relatively few solely plant-based degree options. Many GCSE and A-Level curricula focus on human and animal biology and only very briefly cover plants and their biology while others do not cover it at all. This only works to further the notion that plants are unimportant and irrelevant and leads to many young people going on to study biology at a degree level having little interest in plants. There are far more specialist zoology courses than botany and the number of students taking zoology is increasing which is not the case for botany degrees(2). Some specialist botany degrees have also started to close with plant science modules instead being incorporated into general biological sciences degrees. However, this also extends to plant biology research. Plant biologists face difficulties in acquiring funding for research especially in such a competitive environment which is coupled with decreases in public funding for more traditional research areas like botany. Plant sciences also generally occupy a relatively small position in university research communities and funding for basic plant biology and taxonomy is being redirected to more applied research in areas such as agriculture and biotechnology(2). But this is surprising considering plant research is likely to be critical in the future and has led to many scientific breakthroughs in a number of different fields. Research into plant sciences is essential for ensuring food security for future generations through the use of crop genetics and wild crop relatives to make hardier and more genetically diverse food crops. Plants are also nature’s pharmacists and research has found that more than 25,000 plant species have compounds that are of medical importance for humans including anti-cancer drugs and derivatives of general pain killers such as aspirin(3).

The Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford, one of the few remaining dedicated plant science departments in the UK.
Photo: Oxford University

Along with social and educational factors that may contribute to plant blindness, scientists have also tried to uncover whether it may have a grounding in evolutionary history. Even in Palaeolithic cave paintings, animals and fellow humans are depicted but not plants. One explanation is that this may be partly due to the mechanics of the eye: The human eye is really good at seeing green objects and as plants are generally green and stationary our brains have the tendency to group many different species of plants together as one immobile, green object(4). On the other hand, animals were a big threat to early humans and were also harder to see so our eyes are programmed to look for any other colours apart from green first, then notice the green afterwards. We are also programmed to detect movement initially in order to assess whether it may be a threat to our survival.

What does this mean for plant conservation?

The fact that we are less likely to notice and appreciate plants also has significant implications on their conservation as we are more likely to care about things we notice and ‘see’. Members of the public are more likely to donate to conserve species that they believe they have a connection with or find attractive and the majority of these are animals. Plants in general are more at risk from encroaching human pressures and more are going extinct annually in comparison to their animal counterparts. Plant safeguarding and conservation programmes receive considerably less money and funding than animal ones and even then, are focused on a few notable or charismatic species. For example, within the USA plants make up more than 55% of the federal endangered species list but receive less than 4% of funds(4). Plant species are also more at risk from illegal international trade with six times as many plants as animals being listed on CITES (the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species)(5). According to the UN office for Drugs and Crime, the Rosewood trade alone accounts for more than 35% of all illegal wildlife trade(6). Plants are harvested and traded for a number of reasons from producing medicines and perfumes, to ornamental collection and building supplies. Certain groups of species can be under threat from a combination of these different factors, for example, cacti and cycads are particularly threatened by overharvesting for the ornamental plant trade which has resulted in cycads being the most endangered family of plants in the world(4). But despite this, many regulations and legislation fail to address this and instead focus the majority of work on the trade and conservation of animals.

Can it be ‘cured’?

There are methods which we can use to try and reduce the extent of plant blindness and become ‘less plant blind’. The introduction of plants early on in life will create a link between us and all of the natural world therefore making us more aware of both its diversity and its increasing decline in both area and quality. Introducing and getting children involved with plants early will also help them appreciate plants more when they are older and may promote an empathetic connection with the plant world.  One area, which is often overlooked, in which our connection with plants could also be highlighted is through art and culture(3). Artistic pieces such as paintings, drawings, stories, and architecture including green roofs and green walls can promote positive emotional connections and curiosity in how plants live and thrive.

The Gardens by the Bay in Singapore – a landmark inspired by the trees in a rainforest.

Whether ‘plant blindness’ is caused by innate biology or social upbringing and education, it is present in our modern-day societies and to decrease its effect we must change the way we look at plants and their importance. Only then will we able to fully appreciate the complexity and diversity of plant life and start to transition our outlook on both plants in specific, but also the natural world in general.

References

  1. Jose, S., Wu, C. and Kamoun, S (2019) ‘Overcoming plant blindness in science, education, and society’, Plants, People, Planet 1(3).
  2. Stagg, P. (2009) The Uptake of Plant Sciences in the UK- A Research Project. Technical report. Gatsby Charitable Foundation. Warwick.
  3. Ro, C., 2019. Why ‘plant blindness’ matters — and what you can do about it. BBC Future, Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190425-plant-blindness-what-we-lose-with-nature-deficit-disorder.
  4. Balding, M. and Williams, K (2016) ‘Plant blindness and the implications for plant conservation’, Conservation Biology 30(6).
  5. Margulies, J., Bullough, L., Hinsley, A., Ingram, D., Cowell, C., Goettsch, B., Klitgard, B., Lavorgna, A., Sinovas, P. and Phelps, J (2019) ‘Illegal wildlife trade and the persistence of “plant blindness”’, Plants, People, Planet 1(3).
  6. UNODC, World Wildlife Crime Report: Trafficking in protected species, 2016.

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Cite:

Bains, Taras “Undergraduate Highly Commended: Plant blindness – the botanical bias that no-one has heard of” ECOS vol. 42(1), ECOS 2021, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/undergraduate-highly-commended-plant-blindness-the-botanical-bias-that-no-one-has-heard-of/.

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