My article on “plant blindness,” now sitting on my editor’s cyberdesk in Harrisburg.
By Bob Quarteroni
If you went to the hospital to have your appendix removed, you would hope your surgeon wouldn’t take out a lung
Absurd? Of course.
But that’s what’s happening in the world of nature where not only the average person – but even trained professionals and biology profs — can’t tell lopseed from loosestrife.
And that’s categorically what we don’t want: Our botanists unable to tell invasive giant hogweed from its smaller look-alike native cousin, cow parsnip, when working on pest-plant eradication.
“Botanists use the term ‘plant blindness’ to describe the growing inability by Americans—and even well-degreed biologists—to tell the difference among even basic plants,” according to an article in the Washington Post.
Well, I hate to tell the Post this, but they’ve got that a little wrong. It’s not just the inability to ID plants, but what that failure means.
Botanist-educators James Wandersee of Louisiana State University and Elizabeth Schussler of the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center introduced the term “plant blindness” in 1998. They define plant blindness broadly, including “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.”
Since the Post was blind to the actual meaning we’ll go with the phrase “plant ignorance” to correctly identify what the Post was referring to: People who should be in the know but aren’t.
And it’s a real problem. Organizations like the National Park Service can’t find enough scientists who know enough about, say, invasive plants, to deal with them effectively.
Just how bad it is is exemplified by botany professor Lena Stuwe who has been teaching at Rutgers for 13 years.
“Many times, I have to teach from scratch. ‘This is a petal. This is a leaf. This is a branch,’ ” Struwe told Philly.Com.
The reasons for this are legion, but without a doubt the leading cause is our national obsession with indoor activities, from texting and Facebooking et. to TV binging to generalized couch potatoing.
According to snowbrains.com, “According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 87 percent of their life indoors, then another 6 percent of their life in automobiles. That’s only 7 percent of your entire life outdoors…. Ouch.”
And this sent an actual shiver up my spine. A study released in May found that about 25 percent of Americans hardly ever venture outside. Hard to know a plant if you never see a plant.
The Indoor Generation Report, commissioned by Velux, a window manufacturing company, surveyed 16,000 people from 14 countries.
For Americans, one-quarter said they spend 21 to 24 hours inside daily, 20 percent said they spend 19 to 20 hours inside and 21 percent say they spend 15 to 18 hours inside.
Combined with this flight from nature, plants have an image problem. They just don’t have what you could call the Bambi factor, they’re not cute and cuddly and they don’t wag tails. Hell, they don’t even move.
Studies have shown that we are naturally drawn to things that look like us, which is why we go so goo-goo over babies and puppies. But who has ever gotten excited over a pitch pine or barberry bush?
This preference for animals so dominates popular culture and biology that botanists refer to as “zoochauvinism” and “zoocentrism.”
This plant apartheid has some real world consequences. The number or herbaria – those vast collections of plants that have traditionally underpinned botany — are shrinking drastically and there are fewer botany programs at our colleges and universities.
And in the existing programs, the emphasis isn’t on plant identification but on the molecular aspects of plant science, where commercial applications are discovered and where the significant money abides.
Some good news can be found. Bills introduced into the Senate and House last year are aimed at promoting botany education and a decent number of colleges are beefing up plant identification coursework.
Perhaps what’s needed is a different way of looking at things. I asked Dr. Kenneth Klemow, Ph.D., professor of biology and environmental sciences at Wilkes University and my go-to guy when I can’t identify a plant, what he thought about our plant ignorance problem.
“Nobody has perfect knowledge of all plants, especially for cryptic taxa like sedges, rushes and grasses,” he said. “Some people are expert in certain groups, and lack expertise in others.
“Perhaps we need to ask how much knowledge is needed. Perhaps we want people to have a functional knowledge of plants, mammals, fungi, birds, fish, etc., to allow them to enjoy nature, recognize the biota that surrounds them, and appreciate the threats that biodiversity is under.”
That sounds wonderful. And it’s something that can be achieved if the proper resources are enlisted and if we start emphasizing the importance of botanical knowledge in all our lives.
But then I stumble across a survey conducted by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy that revealed that seven percent of American adults think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows and come to my senses.