Andrew Wilson looks at our attitude towards plants in our wider environment and ponders on the concept of ‘plant blindness’.
Originally, I was an urban boy growing up in St Helens which, although it has its good points, is basically an industrial town. I remember being fascinated by plants and gardens but suddenly felt disadvantaged when I started studying landscape architecture. Many fellow students came from rural backgrounds and it seemed they had an innate knowledge of trees and plant species in the wider landscape.
Gradually, with study and experience, that plant knowledge has expanded dramatically, but mainly because I’m sufficiently interested. One of my new and younger neighbours recently asked me to have a look at what was in her garden having recently moved in.
There was nothing particularly special or rare in there but on completing my rounds and identifying the various species her response was: “Wow!” I asked her what the ‘wow’ was for, and in reply she confessed to being stunned that someone could carry that knowledge in their head about all of the plants that surround us, admitting at the same time that she knew none of this.
This experience came to mind when talking to my students about clients and people’s attitudes to their gardens as opposed to the wider landscape and shared public spaces. Many become (or are) extremely defensive and possessive of their gardens, nurturing and caring for their private outdoor space. In a startling contrast these same people seem to care little for communal green spaces which might be right on their door step.
I also mentioned to them that by describing myself as a garden designer, it brought clarity to a layperson about what I did as a career. Previously, describing myself as a landscape architect often brought bemusement and confusion. I followed up once by stating that I designed public and communal spaces to which the response was: “I didn’t realise those spaces were designed”.
Whilst pondering this attitude, Stephanie Mahon tweeted about an article on the BBC website relating to ‘plant blindness’. It seems that this is a real and, for our profession especially, a rather worrying phenomenon. The phrase was coined by two American botanists who realised that many people were unable to notice or visually register the plants in their own environments. Apparently, plants are far too static to be appreciated – as children we are aware of living animals that surround us much earlier in our development than plants, mainly because animals move, or we can interact with them as responsive entities.
Plants simply exist or grow generally at a rather slow rate and as a result we take them for granted as always being there or literally fail to notice them at all. Children introduced to plants and green learning environments from an early age will develop a different appreciation of plants and the natural environment, which should be a source of great encouragement to the RHS and their significant initiatives in primary education.
This lack of interest and awareness at a deep psychological level has implications not simply for horticulture but also for plant sciences, medical research, the health and sustainability of our natural environment and therefore the health and sustainability of us as human beings.
David Attenborough might well shock us with his new series on climate change, and rightly so, but we have the power in our profession not simply through plants and green spaces, but through inspiring others to say “wow” to the wonders of the natural environment on our doorsteps and to encourage them to consider or to participate in careers that might just help to save our planet.