Plant Blindness - why it matters

I was listening to the radio the other day and there was a discussion about plant blindness.  I have hunted for the reference for which programme it was and why but have failed to find the specific one, it was on Radio 4 (no surprise).  I did however find quite a bit of information on the subject that I think is both fascinating and extremely worrying.

The term 'plant blindness' was coined by  Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee in 1998 when they started writing about the impact of plant blindness.  Plant blindness is not something I think I suffer from.  Obviously in my garden my focus is very much on the plants.  When out walking I know I am noticing all the plants, even the ones in the cracks in the pavements and walls as I walk by.  When watching television I am looking sometimes more at the background gardens then at the action I am meant to be watching.  I know I am not alone in this, it is something many plant/garden lovers do.  I think we also know that many people do not do this.  They seem to hardly see plants at all and invariably have huge feet that crush our beloved plants as they walk over them.  Yes they might be able to point at a rose and say 'rose', but pointing out other plants often meets a bemused glazed look (or is this just me boring my friends and family?)  This matters because if people do not understand/value what they are losing  they will not notice when it is lost.  It is hard to convince people that plants matter if they cannot see them. 

Plant Blindness, however, is a step more than just not understanding about plants; it is not even seeing plants.  This is not about wanton destruction, it is worse.  If you cannot see things then you will not even know you have destroyed them.  Most people understand that animals matter but we seem to be lagging behind on ensuring the safety of the plants of our world.

Not knowing what a plant's name is one thing and I forget more then I can remember, but plant blindness is about not even noticing that the plants are there.  There are scientific explanations for this.  Apparently we tend to not notice green so much as we are conditioned to look for movement/danger within the green.  We need to see the lion rushing towards us, not the pretty wildflowers it tramples in its path.  (In which case I am so dead).  Yet there is part of me that thinks this is only part of the story.  Whilst the narrative of hunter/gatherer is well rehearsed the gathering bit was crucial to survival.  If they did not have the plant foods they could not have survived on what they hunted alone.  No different to now really, few people eat only meat and nothing grown at all.  So I accept the 'I need to see a lion from a distance' idea, but I also think that people must have been understanding, growing and valuing plants.  They would have understood which plants were edible and beneficial and which to avoid.  Centuries of pre-industrial life relied heavily on knowledge of plants.

So how do we explain this divorce from our natural world, how did we become so alienated from the plants around us?  We of course want to easily blame computer games because this is easy and again a little simplistic.  The move away from nature and being outdoors began long before the advent of the megadrive.  It probably began in the UK with the Industrial Revolution when people started moving into factories and away from working outside.  Vast numbers of people moved away from nature and away from understanding how food is grown/produced.  People grew up and continue to live in places often without garden spaces.  Let us not look away from the trend to pave over gardens front and back to make them allegedly easier to maintain.  Let us also not look away from the trend for artificial lawns.   

The Victorians created parks and outdoor space for people to have some nature to walk in where it was in short supply and many parks are still are there but you have to be able to get to them and to feel safe getting to them.  The feeling of safety is a huge reason why some children spend less time outdoors.  The roads are dangerous, there is danger from strangers, we worry (usually rightly) for our children. 
The Enid Blyton 'Seven go off and no one seems to notice' life was not part of my lived townie experience when I was growing up.  We could play in the garden, we could play in the cul-de-sac where we grew up; but other than walking to school and back it was not a generally outdoor life and the roads are far more busy and dangerous now.  So whilst we blame the TV and computer games from stopping us from going outdoors, is it more that they entertain us whilst we are staying in?  We need to think broader than just a couple of things that have moved us away from nature and we need to develop meaningful ways to reconnect.

I shall continue to point at plants and say 'look at that!' to my poor bored companions.  When one says excitedly 'what's that red thing' and I say 'a rose' and they say 'can roses get that tall?' I shall continue to explain that yes, they can get that tall.  This is my way of helping combat plant blindness:  I shall continue to see and point at plants until they start noticing them and hope this has a cascade effect.  We have to start valuing plants again and understanding why they matter.  Without plants we have no lions to jump out at us ........ just saying.


  1. Have had some conversations about plant blindness on iNaturalist. Even there! People see the animals first. Oh, and then there's some green stuff ... ooh look a bug! I be planty ;~))

    1. Thanks - yes it's really interesting when you start to look into it as it really is quite an issue.

  2. Very interesting piece and reminds me that children are losing out because many words describing wildlife have been ommitted from the 2012 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary including acorn, adder, albatross and ash through to wren, willow, woodpecker and yew.

    1. Thanks, yes exactly this - if the words are disappearing how can we hope to look after them.


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