We all have blind spots. In our personal and professional lives, we engage in behaviors, adopt attitudes, and practice habits of which we are completely unaware. Often these are benign, but sometimes these foibles can cause harm to ourselves and those around us, human and otherwise. I recently became aware of one of these patterns in my own persona: I suffer from plant blindness.
Botanists Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee coined the term more than 20 years ago in a 1999 guest editorial published in The American Biology Teacher. They cited studies that reported an overwhelming preference among US students for studying animals over plants. “We consider the current state of underrepresentation as much more than just the result of zoocentrism or zoochauvinism,” they wrote. “That’s why we decided to introduce a new term, one that emphasizes the perceptual and visual-cognition bases of why plants are often overlooked and neglected—not just by biology teachers, but by humans in general.” The realization that I was one of these general humans only dawned upon me recently, while editing this month’s Critic at Large, a piece on the benefits of curing plant blindness by agricultural geneticist M. Timothy Rabanus-Wallace.
I lapsed into treating a whole kingdom of life like stage props and set pieces quite by accident. From an early age, I was fascinated with animals: wild ones, pet ones, deep-sea ones, mythical ones, etc. I was entranced by observing their behavior, trying to gain insight into what was churning away behind their eyes, guessing at how they sensed and navigated the world we share. Plants slowly blended into the background, then became the background. Later, I entered university with the goal of launching an animal-focused career in wildlife biology, then marine biology.
Perhaps what makes the recent realization of my plant blindness sting all the more is that I did once have flashes of appreciation for the splendor of Kingdom Plantae. My undergraduate education included basic botany courses, and any student of biology won’t make it very far if they don’t develop some understanding of photosynthesis, cell walls, and other features of plant biology. In one class, I collected plants from the wild and made dried specimens using a press that was probably older than me. I recall this experience engendering a real feeling of connection to naturalists of yore. But the plant taxonomy along with the botanical biology and biochemistry I learned eventually faded, pushed to the fuzzy edges of my focus, as animal life shifted to a position squarely in the crosshairs of my intellectual pursuits.
As I edited and read our annual issue celebrating plants and the researchers who study them, I not only became aware of all this, I decided that it’s time to get serious about chipping away at my apparent plant blindness. And what a perfect collection of stories to launch me on my journey to reclaim a robust appreciation of plants. This issue contains tales of scientists dissecting the neurobiology of how Venus flytraps capture their animal prey, of companies navigating difficulties in analyzing the chemical makeup of cannabis products, and of the secrets trees hold in their annual growth rings. A feature story on the ghost forests of North Carolina reminds us that becoming “plant sighted”—if I may coin a term of my own—can’t wait. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 70 percent of known plant species are “under threat.”
Rabanus-Wallace recounts the advice of Regis University’s Catherine Kleier, who suggests learning plant names as a first step towards curing plant blindness. “Just to be able to say, ‘That’s an aster,’ or to tell a fir from a pine,” Kleier said. And that’s where I’ll start. The coming weeks and months will see me dusting off my plant identification guides, getting out into nearby forests and prairies, and commencing the enjoyable chore of reconnecting to our photosynthetic friends. Heck, I may even press a few specimens.