“Plant blindness” is the inability to notice or recognise plants in one’s own environment. Part of the reason for this is that we are increasingly living in cities and urban dwellers have been separated from nature; there’s a disconnect between us and the natural environment, and we’re blind to the natural world around us.
Many of our biggest challenges of the 21st century are plant based: global warming, food security and the need for new pharmaceuticals that might help in the fight against diseases. Without a basic knowledge of plant structure, function and diversity, there’s little hope of addressing these problems. Without well trained plant scientists, many potential threats such as the effects of global warming and devastating plant diseases could be missed. Plant scientists also contribute to food security on many different levels. Medical or ethnobotanists are involved in the discovery of new drugs.
Plant blindness begins in childhood, exacerbated by how little attention is paid to botanical content in school. For example, in South Africa (2018) only about 11 hours are devoted to plant related content in the foundation phase at school (grade R-3). In the senior phases (grade 7-9) only 11 hours are devoted to content that’s specifically focused on plants. The greater focus on animals in formal biological education, coupled with lack of botanical content, is echoed in school curricula worldwide. The problem extends into higher education. The number of students studying botany and plant sciences at universities has declined so much that universities across the US are shutting their herbaria. In the United Kingdom, you can no longer enroll for a botany degree.
Our inability to see and notice plants is because they lack visual attention cues. They don’t have a face; they don’t move in the way that animals do; and they aren’t threatening. Our eye-brain system and the visual cortex filter out so much “data” from what we see daily that most of the visual information about the plants we see is discarded.