Plant blindness

 

You may or may not of heard of the term ‘plant blindness’; it’s a phrase that we in the Botanic Garden have been hearing much more of in recent years and will continue to throw around in the future. It refers to the slow shutting off of plant knowledge from generation to generation resulting in an inability to acknowledge plants around us. The simple things that were once common knowledge, such as dock leaves used for nettle stings are becoming bred out of a collective instinct and plants are becoming irrelevant and annoying green things to many people.

I can remember when my eyes were truly opened. I noticed trees that I hadn’t before; as I walked along the street I started looking at the borders and the hanging foliage all around me. Before, I’m not sure what I looked out for in the streets, the pavement or the shops, who knows, but plants for sure changed my life and I see them changing the lives around me at the Botanic Garden. I think I could live to be three hundred and still find something in the plant world that fascinated me. This week I learnt about the incredible relationships between some species of orchid and ants. The ants don’t pollinate the orchid flower but hang around the plant living off an ‘extrafloral’ nectar secreted elsewhere; they then do everything to protect their food source and keep the plant safe. Plants and animals have these delicate relationships that allow both to flourish, and it’s fair to say that ours has become less delicate over the years.
Dandelion seed head
This change in the collective instinct of people has come about through successive generations becoming more urbanised with less plant interaction such as blowing a dandelion seed head, throwing a grass seed dart, eating wild blackberries or sticking cleavers to jumpers; children still do this but there are many who don’t and lose a connection with the plant world. The result of this is that education reduces the amount of plant learning, and in biology courses there is a main focus on the animal kingdom; there is a perceived lack of interest in the plant world. Things have become so bad that the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed words like ‘acorn’ and ‘buttercup’ preferring instead ‘broadband’ and ‘cut and paste’; they were seen as no longer relevant to a child’s life.
University of Bristol Botanic Garden
There is however, a great appetite among young people to be green, to recycle and mend the excesses of the generations that went before them; often students tell me it’s the biggest issue for them and they’d like to make a difference. How is a difference made? I think we can all make a simple difference by introducing plants to friends and relatives, opening eyes to the trees and weeds and the force of life going on around us and under our feet. It could be argued that many of the world’s problems can be solved with plants; forests, food, habitats are all areas that need experts, and while there are many graduates of zoology degrees there are few from plant sciences. This is changing with Universities now offering full plant science degrees; there are many jobs in plant sciences as governments and companies are beginning to see how important it is. Bristol University is launching a plant science degree starting in September 2019 based in the magnificent Life Sciences building with a group of world experts in the field of plant science. Of course, undergraduates will use the Botanic Garden as a second home and have access to all our knowledge and experience, we’re really looking forward to it. If you, a relative, son or daughter are interested click here to view the degree.
We all have a role to play in protecting our relationship with the natural world which can be played by simply talking about the plants we see to people. I’m always disposed to optimism and today’s

young people seem to be committed to green ways; this problem arose through successive generations and perhaps it can be cured in the same way, the passing down of knowledge as we go.

By Andy Winfield

 

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