Start Seeing Plants

I first encountered the term “plant blindness” when I was teaching Intro Botany for biology majors at Cabrillo Community College in Aptos, CA in 2001. The term was proposed by educators James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler in 1998 to describe the lack of interest in plants in the study of biology http://Wandersee&Schussler_Amer.Biol.Teacher_1999. My goal as a teacher was to help my classes overcome their blindness. Since that time, I have worked to educate others on the value and importance of plants, lichens, and fungi.

Do you have plant blindness? When you are looking at a scene, do you see a mass of green or do you notice individual plants? When you think about biology and ecology, do you think about the role plants play or are you focused on animals?

Calypso orchid at Bald Hill.

Calypso orchid at Bald Hill.

As a reader of this blog and a member of GLT, you probably already have a high degree of plant recognition. How did you get to understand the importance of plants? Did you grow up gardening? What experiences made you aware of the role plants play in your life and in the environment? What can we, as those who are plant sighted, do to help others start seeing plants?

Lichens at Lupine Meadows.

Lichens at Lupine Meadows.

One of the suggestions by Wandersee and Schussler is to become a plant mentor. Engage others in plant-centric activities. An easy activity to do with groups of all ages and abilities is to create a plant collection.

A plant press is handy but not necessary.

All you really need are clean black & white pages from the newspaper, heavy books, a flat surface, a dry place to store the plants, some label material (white paper will do fine), a writing utensil, and depending on how detailed you want to get, a compass/GPS. Most folks now have access to smart phones with many apps for identifying location and some pretty good plant photo books. One I use is Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest.

There is also a book on Trees and Shrubs by the same authors. Montana State University’s extension service has an excellent description on the proper way to collect, press, and mount plants for an herbarium collection http://MontanaStateU_PlantCollectingInstructions.

The skills this activity teaches include observation, note taking, attention to detail, compass/GPS reading, and potentially plant key usage. Collectors should get permission to collect if they are on private or government property. They should also be aware of any threatened or endangered species that might be in the collection area.

When in doubt, take a photo and get confirmation about the plant identity before collecting. The collectors observe and record details of where the plant is growing, the plant community in which it is found, pollinators using the plant, and other details that can be used to describe the location so that others can go back and see if the plant is still there in the future.

Fungus at Bald Hill Farm.

Fungus at Bald Hill Farm.

Another easy way to introduce others to plants is to plant some seeds! A cardboard egg carton makes a compostable planting tray. Fill each cell with some potting mix, add some seeds (shallow rooted plants are best), put the carton in a trough for watering, and then place in a window sill where it gets light but not too hot.

After the seeds sprout, you can then put the whole thing in your garden in one piece! There are multiple sources on the web about how to do this- one example is http://germinate-seeds-egg-cartons.html. The skills learned by participating in this activity include patience, persistence, attention to detail, and consistency.

An old legacy tree at Fitton Green.

An old legacy tree at Fitton Green.

A great resource for educators and the public is the American Society of Plant Biologists http://www.aspb.org/. They have an extensive collection of education and outreach materials, many for free. They are currently running a campaign to fight plant blindness.

Blog post and photos: Jill Bushakra, Greenbelt Volunteer Naturalist and USDA plant geneticist.