Toronto Star column – published September 20th, 2014
Dealing With Plant Blindness
As I think about this, I am blown away. The idea that humans can be blind to the world of plants just never occurred to me and then I had lunch with friends Allen Dennis and Denis Flanagan, employees of Landscape Ontario, our industry trade association.
It started out innocently enough, with Allen explaining he had taken his grandchildren to the new Toronto aquarium over the weekend. “It was amazing and I would really recommend it,” he gushed. “There are real sharks and a moving sidewalk that takes you on a tour under a glass aquarium full of fascinating fish.” The kids evidently loved the place. Allen did too, “But you know, an hour and a half and I was done. Time to go home.”
Denis, keen listener that he is, picked up on a brilliant idea, “Next time, why don’t you take them to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington? It is not just a flower garden. It is over 2,000 acres, full of trails and wildlife AND they have a lot of things for kids going on there every day.”
Allen responded that he had never been to the ‘RBG’, even though he lives in Burlington. He replied, “It just never occurred to me.”
A light came on inside of my head and I realized that the rumours are true: there is such a thing as ‘plant blindness’ and it was in the room at that very moment, dwelling in the midst of three horticulturalists.
What is Plant Blindness?
In 1999 botanist-educators Elizabeth Schussler of the Ruth Patrick Science Education Centre in Aiken, South Carolina, and James Wandersee of Louisiana State University coined the phrase ‘Plant Blindness’ after observing that people prefer to view objects that are between 1 and 15 degrees below eye level.
Digging deeper, they discovered that humans are predisposed to seeing many objects, but not plants. Other researchers had discovered that the eye generates over 10 million bits of data per second for visual processing but the brain extracts only about 40 bits and fully processes only the 16 bits that reach our conscious attention.
The question that Wandersee and Schussler asked was, “How does the brain decide which 16 bits of visual information to focus on?” The results, simply put, pointed to objects that move, are of conspicuous colour or pattern, objects that are known and objects that are potential threats. Since plants don’t move [except on a windy day], they don’t eat us and blend into the background we just don’t give them a lot of attention.
I am thinking of the many errant golf balls that I have searched for since taking up golf only a couple of years ago. The more golf balls I lose, the more I find. Every time I venture out on to the golf course and take my usual [bad] swing, I train my eyes by the smallest of degrees to see the white, dimply errant ball. How I wish the rest of my game had improved as much as my ball finding abilities. But I digress.
Defining Plant Blindness
The researchers define plant blindness as ‘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.’ Plant blindness also comprises an ‘inability to appreciate the unique biological and aesthetic features of plants.’
Our inability to appreciate plants leads to the prevalent opinion that plants are not relevant to us or the world around us. Do you see how this could be a problem? Consider, for just a moment that all of the oxygen that we breathe is manufactured by the green, living world around us and suddenly a light might come on in your head, too. Like my friend who drove his grandchildren from the ‘home of the Royal Botanical Gardens’ in Burlington to downtown Toronto, through traffic delays on the Gardiner to the admission price that is more than twice that of the RBG at Ripley’s Aquarium on Bremner Blvd and you will see how this picture is not making sense. Until we view it through the prism of ‘plant blindness’.
Don’t get me wrong, Toronto has long needed a first class attraction that reflects the wonders of the water world. I am not dishing on Ripley’s. Rather, I would like to thank them for drawing to my attention the chasm of work that needs to be done in order to close the ‘attention deficit’ gap where plants are concerned. The fact is that we humans are more attracted to animals than we are plants. The research does not say this, exactly, but anecdotally I have come to the conclusion that we like animals more because we are members of their family (granted, it’s a large family). We are not, for instance, plants. Nor do we want to be.
Way back in 1999, when the calendar moved us from the last millennium into the new one and all of us were preoccupied with the question of whether our computers would work in the morning and if the world might, by some miscalculation, suddenly blow up, we actually woke up to a bright, cold mid-winter morning, much like the one before it. The Brits, however, were busy filling in a hole, that had taken them over 150 years to dig, with the worlds’ largest greenhouse complex. Royal Doulton had been mining clay from the ground of Devon for 160 years and no longer had a use for the resulting pit. Seeing an opportunity, a man named Tim Smit recruited the help of several expert horticulturalists and decided to create ‘The Eden Project’, sinking about $500 million into an attraction that celebrates the role of plants in our world and provides education to people of all ages.
I have visited the Eden Project on three occasions, in the company of three different people. Each one of my guests was equally impressed. “Who would think to invest THIS much in a public attraction that celebrates plants?” one of them exclaimed. I don’t know the answer but I can report that the place was packed with tourists from near and far each time that I attended. The Eden Project is a world-class zoo for plants.
I would recommend that you visit the Eden Project the next time you find yourself on the other side of the Atlantic. I also recommend that you visit the Royal Botanical Gardens: one of the great, underrated public hot spots in Canada. For that matter, I recommend ALL botanic gardens to you as logical places to start your journey in exploring the wonderful world of plants.
Perhaps we can close the gap on Plant Blindness one trip to the park at a time.