What is ‘Plant Blindness’?

What do you see in that photo? Or what don’t you see?

Hard part of writing about plant blindess is that you always seem to compare animals and plants and give the sense that you don’t like that attention and love animals get. Alas friends, my feelings and thoughts are totally the opposite. As I mentioned before, animals are in no safer place than plants, actually they are in an even harder position in some respects (reproduction, habitat fragmentation, urbanization, pregnancy, incubation, etc.  durations, hunting…)

We like to see animals around us or on internet, in human-like situations, dressed in human clothes, making funny faces or voices… When someone shows us a bear photo and asks us what this animal is we reply at once, some of us may even say the exact species of the bear. Children have stuffed animals, sometimes as their first friends. We relate so many things to animals; we may be; ‘Strong like a bear/lion’, ‘Fast as a cheetah’, ‘Graceful like a swan’. People are (this or that way) caring for and loving animals, when a panda is born, they get happy even if they don’t know what this baby means to entire panda population or how many pandas are there exactly. But they know, this IS a situation to be happy about.

All these are so great and these sort of examples give me a little bit hope for nature. Because, despite all of these, there is so much ‘animal cruelty’ at all levels. There are people still think that ‘cute’ animals deserve to be protected more than… well, not so cute animals(Check out the Bat Conservation International’s #wedeservelove ad. Below). We don’t usually see stuffed snakes, bats, salamanders, moles… as children’s toys. There’s no doubt that, we, humans tend to love (therefore care about), animals which have similiar features to us, such as round and expressive faces, front facing eyes, smiling/angry (or any humanly expression we can attribute) looking mouths, having ability to communucate. In contrast, we tend to avoid invertebrates such as spiders because they are morphologically and behaviourally not like humans (1). These are study proven facts. Still, if you share a photo of an elephant, enjoying water and a photo of an ivory bracelet on social media, you’ll probably get more ‘likes’ for that bracelet (But thankfully, nature and conservation don’t work by ‘like’ system). So no, I’m not opposing that love and attention for animals, I wish that love could get even deeper, supported with basic knowledge and put into good use for nature.

Bat Conservation International‘s amazing ad. What do you think? (Photography by: Merlin Tuttle, ‘Wrinkle-faced bat Centurio senex’)

Now… Plants. Think about the examples I’ve just given. Children don’t have stuffed trees. They see trees, flowers, grass, as a kind of background for animals, in their story books. We can’t talk to a tree and expect it to, somehow, react to what we were telling. In appearance, they have nothing in common with us and we can’t dress them with cute clothes. Attributed human related things are usually negative things like ‘You are living like a vegetable’, ‘Her arms were like twigs!’, ‘Waited so long that I grew roots here’. If someone asks us to spontaneously name 3 plant name which are under exctinction threat would we complete this task? We spoke of panda births, in 2015 something very ‘huge’ happened in Denver Botanic Gardens, did you hear about that? (2) How many plants do you know that have no showy flowers or just green, by their name? So what does this double standard stems from? Whose fault is that? Part One is starting!

Having showy flowers might get you more than help with pollination

‘Plant blindness’. Ok the term is quite self explanatory. But there’s so much more to it…

The term ‘Plant blindness’ is first introduced by James H. Wandersee and Elisabeth E. Schussler in 1998. With their words plant blindess is “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment“(3). And again with their words, that leads to;

“1) the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere, and in human affairs

2) the inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features of the life forms belonging to the Plant Kingdom

3) the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration

Looking and seeing is different…

How come we can’t see plants? Might sound weird but true, we don’t see everything we look at. Studies have shown that, in each second, our eyes generate more than 10 million bits of data for visual processing, but our brains fully process only the 16 bits of these that reach our conscious attention. And what occupies this 16 bits of data? Known objects, threats, motion…(4) Well plants have no movement and no danger to be alarmed of. What about being a ‘known object’? Wandersee says that unless they are in bloom, plants are easily ignored from the frame. One of the reasons of that is, plants usually grow in close distances to each other and our minds categorize them as groups not individually. So when an animal enters the scene, walking through your plants in the garden, it becomes the center of focus and your plants… a background.

Being too green makes you ignorable, sorry!

How to fight it?

Even though Wandersee says that plant blindness is a default human setting (4), but other than this bad heritage, there are some other facts that leads children to ‘prefer’ seeing animals and not plants. Some teachers’, educators or parents’ attitude to teach things in an animal-centric context like plants are not even in the picture for example. Or avoiding soil works, gardening, because of the fear that they might get infected or eat something poisonous.

Well speaking for children, early age exposure to plant world for example, it is a great way to teach a child how to ‘see’ plants. They start seeing animals such young ages, they can caress a cat, talk to it, play with a dog and feed a parrot, they can see animals in their first books in ‘leading roles’. Why not let them plant something green with us? Or what about taking them to botanical gardens as well as zoos? And while in there, telling them stories about -ok maybe not every single of them but- some plants that they might find fascinating and inspiring? Linking their everyday life to plants is also an important point, such as oxygen, french fries, fruit yoghurts, clothes, medicines, chocolate and of course-animals. Book, game and entertainment endustries also may consider to bring more ‘plant based’ characters or storylines that children and teenagers would enjoy.

One important point is that, loving animals is not the main problem here. You can do anything you can to introduce plant world to your child but still they may choose to study or love  animals more. That is totally ok. But plants deserve a chance to be known don’t they? And in fact, children don’t even have to ‘choose’ between those 2 kingdoms. I give you myself as an example. Since I can stand on my two feet, I know there were always cats around me. We lived in a kind of old wooden house until I was seven and there were also too many insects, spiders even lizards:D I’m a pet owner now, our cat stays with my fiancee now but I know when we got a place there will be ‘no place’ for us because it will turn into a kind of stray cat/dog shelter, and given the fact that our interest is not limited with ‘usual’ pets…well you got the idea. On the other hand thanks to my amazing grandmother, who is a genuine green thumb, there were always plants around me too. She let me see her passion for her plants, all sorts of them, azaleas, pelargoniums, hydrangeas, vegetables, orchids and her legendary Monstera! I saw her, everytime someone brings her a ‘dead plant’, never giving up on it and eventually ‘resurrecting’ that plant. She is almost 90 now and still the same. If she’s not an inspiration for what I am now, I don’t know what else could be:D So yes, now I speak for plants because they are the neglected ones but I stand both for animals and plants with an endless love and more importantly-compassion and respect, not because they are cute or useful but because of just what they are.

Yes that is not a problem limited with children. But as they are the future decision makers, scientists, engineers,…etc. it is very important to give them a full picture of nature, a total understanding of what is what. Only this way they can learn to respect nature, from micro to macro scales in the future, our future.

To be continued…

Literature I used and recommend:

1)Petra Lindemann‐Matthies (2005) ‘Loveable’ mammals and ‘lifeless’ plants:how children’s interest in common local organisms can be enhanced through observation of nature, International Journal of Science Education, 27:6, 655-677, DOI: 10.1080/09500690500038116

2) Stinky the Corpse Flower’s Short but Glorious Life at Denver Botanic            Gardens https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQj0lP4wuZ0

3) Wandersee, James H., and Elisabeth Schussler. 2001. Toward a Theory  of Plant Blindness. Plant Science Bulletin 47 (1): 2-9. or:                                      http://www.botany.org/bsa/psb/2001/psb47-1.html

4) Plant Blindness, Allen,William:                                                                                    http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/53/10/926.full (accessed on January 3, 2016)

5)Bat Conservation International: http://www.batcon.org/


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Fascinating and very true. However, I have become more friendly with plants as they let me photograph them more easily! And the diversity and properties are so incredible.


    1. foxduplanty says:

      Thank you so very much!🙏 You are so right photography is a wonderful helper against plant blindess and your photos are really beautiful!👌💚

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, it is a pleasure to photograph such variety.


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