Some Cures for Plant Blindness

By Laura Gardener, Master Gardener in Training

I was recently reading about a condition called “plant blindness.” The phrase was coined back in 1998 by botanists Elizabeth Schussler and James Wandersee.[i] It is defined as the “inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment.” Plants are not as obvious as animals because they often “lack visual attention cues.” They can seem ubiquitous–have the same colour, form, and lack a “face.” They don’t move and they usually aren’t threatening. For example, if you look at a photo of a pond containing birds, surrounded by plants, which of these would you most likely know by name or recall later? This bias results in lower levels of plant knowledge, awareness of plant names, of plant functions, and their roles resulting in less interest in plant protection, conservation, and reduced funding. Plants are vital to our survival and we need to see their importance, appreciate them, and put them on the same level as animals.[ii] It is possible to overcome ”plant blindness.” We need to introduce and share plant knowledge with children at an early age in the same way we encourage learning about animals.  

Recently I was out walking and was trying out the Seek identification app by iNaturalist on my phone. I was attempting to identify a specific type of Elm (Ulmus) and a couple that I know walked by and we started a conversation about the app. They mentioned that their son and grandchildren use it on their nature walks. It can be used to identify other lifeforms other than plants and while the app isn’t 100%, it is fairly reliable. If it is uncertain, it will restrict its identification to a family or a genus and won’t offer a guess. An Oxford University study[iii] found that it was in the top five of plant identification apps (the others included Plant.ID, Google Lens, Flora Incognita, PlantNet). It has some fun nature challenges built into it as well as the ability to earn badges for the number of species observed. Photos of plants may also be uploaded to the iNaturalist citizen science web site where they can be confirmed through crowd-sourcing. In terms of correcting “plant blindness,” this app has great potential. 

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

It is only the beginning of October but the holiday season is just around the corner. It is not too early to be thinking of presents. Why not give the gift of a book about gardening, botany, or nature to a child in your life? The following are a selection of some of the best books for a range of age levels. Most of the books listed have been well-received by reviewers in publications such as Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal. Titles marked with an asterisk have received at least one starred review. If purchasing is not an option, you can check to see if your local library carries them (or recommend that they do). 

*A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston; illus. Sylvia Long (Chronicle Books, 2007). Level: Grade 1 to 4.

*Begin with a Bee by Liza Ketchum et al.; illus. Claudia McGehee (University of Minnesota Press, May 2021). Level: Preschool to Grade 4.

*Botanicum: Welcome to the Museum by K.J. Willis; illus. Katie Scott (Penguin Random House, March 2017). Level: Grade 3 to 7.

Gardening with Emma: Grow and Have Fun: A Kid-to-Kid Guide by Emma Biggs and Stephen Biggs (Storey Publishing, January 2019). Level: Grade 3 to 7.

*Oscar’s Tower of Flowers by Lauren Tobia (Candlewick Press, May 2021). Level: Preschool to Kindergarten.

*Plant, Cook, Eat: a Children’s Cookbook by Joe Archer and Caroline Craig (Penguin Random House, March 2018). Level: Grade 2 to 5.

What’s Inside a Flower?: And Other Questions About Science & Nature by Rachel Ignotofsky (January 2021). Level: Preschool to Grade 2.

*The Wisdom of Trees: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom by Lita Judge (Roaring Book Press, March 2021). Level: Grade 3-5.

[i] Plant Blindness. Native Plant Society of the United States. Online: https://plantsocieties.cnps.org/index.php/about-main/plant-blindness. Accessed: October 2, 2021.

[ii] Seventeen Years of Plant Blindness: Is Our Vision Improving? Elizabeth Schussler. Online: https://appliedeco.org/wp-content/uploads/NativeSeed2017-Schussler-SeventeenYearsPlantBlindness.pdf Accessed: October 2, 2021.

[iii] Jones, Hamlyn G. What plant is that? Tests of automated image recognition apps for plant identification on plants from the British flora. AoB PLANTS, Volume 12, Issue 6, December 2020. Online: https://doi.org/10.1093/aobpla/plaa052 Accessed: October 2, 2021.

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