Another Life: Is there a “plant blindness” in humans compared with our interest in animals?

Michael Viney: Ability to identify plants vital, given their importance to food security and climate change

Can you name this common wildflower of early spring? Find the answer at end of this article

Can you name this common wildflower of early spring? Find the answer at end of this article

 

They don’t play chasing games, sit up and pose for the camera, or have engaging, furry babies. Is this why plants remain nameless when they’re not flowering, or even in full bloom? Is there, indeed, a “plant blindness” in humans compared with our interest in the planet’s animals?

The term was born 20 years ago in a paper by two American botanists and biology teachers, James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler. It has since inspired a campaign among scientists, especially those concerned with such blindness in their students.

Dr Karen Bacon, a lecturer in plant ecology at NUI Galway, is one of them. She recently held a webinar on the subject sponsored by the British Ecological Society. Participants saw the common inability to identify even common plants as a real problem, given the importance of the plant world to food security and climate change. They urged a better place for taxonomy – identification skills – in ecology and geography degrees.

“Plant blindness”, they agreed, is a problematic, rather clumsy term. It will be interesting to hear if Sir David Attenborough uses it in The Green Planet, his new BBC TV series. His 1995 series, The Private Life of Plants, had the unforgettable time-lapse shot of a briar shoot reaching snakelike over a hedge and close-ups of insect-eating bog plants trapping their food.

Urban separation

Many researchers see plant blindness as simply reflecting an urban separation from nature, often evident in young children. Studies report them noticing animals from their earliest years, briefed by wildlife television and visits to the zoo, but remaining ignorant of dandelions, thistles or poppies. Asked if they have eaten any plants today, teachers find them unaware of plants as cornflakes or muesli.

All this may be more typical of the dense tower blocks of cities. But even in a greener Ireland, taking part in school gardens can be transformative for children in realising that plants are alive and vital to human life. The syllabus for Leaving Cert biology is as attentive to plants as animals, but rarely takes teenagers into the fields and woods.

In past cultures, plants were highly valued and debated as sources of medicine. Ireland’s Generous Nature (2014), by Peter Wyse Jackson, is a mammoth inventory of ethnobotany, the folk uses of native plants. In much of today’s rural Ireland, many plant names vanished with the language.

One leading research approach to plant blindness finds it an evolutionary human response, in which brain and vision are more hardwired to noting threats and movements. In one study of perception, university students shown rapidly presented images registered the presence of animals far more than plants – a consequence of something termed “attentional blink”.

New knowledge of the active networking between plants, served by pheromone and fungal messaging, could be changing the human view of leafy, pollinated lives. The empathetic appeal of “forest bathing” and tree-hugging can encourage novel notions of human relationships with nature. Some conservationists would accept a greater measure of such regard for plants, however anthropomorphic, as a worthwhile price of support for conservation.

Varied biomass

In the current Irish summer, meanwhile, there is a huge and varied biomass of plants. A good many have been imported to garden centres and thence to flowerbeds enriched in locked-down diversion from Covid-19. The range of alien plants in Ireland, many escaping to the wild, must now have surpassed the total of our native wildflowers.

The best, most user-friendly field guide to these is Zoë Devlin’s The Wildflowers of Ireland, now in an anorak-worthy new edition from Gill Books. Since its first publication, the indefatigable author has located and photographed a further 90 species, bringing the book’s total to more than 620, a remarkable enterprise.

Seaweeds, lichens, mosses and liverworts are Irish plants, too, and an exceptionally beautiful and instructive set of booklets of those to be found around Bantry Bay and Glengariff in west Cork have been produced for the Ellen Hutchins Festival (ellenhutchins.com). The festival, launched in 2015 and scheduled for August 14th-22nd, was inspired by a young woman who ranks as Ireland’s first female botanist.

Hutchins (1785-1815) spent eight years of her young life exploring, drawing and collecting around Bantry Bay. She recorded some 1,100 specimens before her early death. The festival in her name, with its heritage trail, audio guide and elegant online expertise, must be reckoned among the most accomplished local ventures to serve the Wild Atlantic Way.

My drawing, for those left wondering, is of the lesser celandine.

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