An entire kingdom of life forms seems to be hidden in plain sight. The stark ignorance about them does not bode well for the future of life on earth. Some educators and organisations are striving to bring these creatures into focus.
Vinita Gowda, an Associate Professor at the Department of Biological Sciences-Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Bhopal, loves to do this exercise with her audience only to be disheartened by the response she gets. She puts up a photograph of Jurassic age (like the one above) and asks them what they see. “Dinosaur!” says the audience in unison. This is when Gowda breaks to them that they totally ignored the plants in the photograph and that they are suffering from a commonly occurring, but less commonly known disorder- “Plant Blindness”- the inability to appreciate the beauty and importance of plants in one’s surroundings.
A recently published research article in Nature Ecology & Evolution showed that a whopping number of plant species (~600) have gone extinct in the last 250 years, with India among the countries where the rate of extinction is high. Plants form the basis of every ecosystem and apathy towards plant life means that we will have fewer and fewer voices to speak for their conservation‑a key to the sustainability of our planet. Educators like Gowda, and a few other organizations are pushing to put an end to this ignorance. Through public engagement and showcasing the beauty of plants, they are endeavoring to bring the green hue from the background into focus.
Some of the common reasons that people give for their disinterest towards plants are their stationary nature and a lack of colour variation (in non-flowering plants). Cognitive scientists say that people tend to overlook things that they see daily. There is more to the story though. “One other reason for the disconnect between plants and humans is rapid urbanization,” says Gowda, who observes that her students from rural backgrounds generally have more knowledge about plants than their urban classmates. She reasons that in villages, where the agricultural fields are nearby and the economy is dependent on agriculture, children tend to be closer to plants, whereas urban kids lack that connection. Media as well, she says, highlights the animals more than plants. A drop in the number of lions, elephants or tigers makes headlines, but not a decline in the number of plant species. One does not have an equivalent of “Animal Planet” for plants.
All these factors have contributed to the lack of enthusiasm towards plants, a clear indication of which is the declining rate of admissions to undergraduate Botany courses in the Western countries; a trend that may soon follow in the East.
Certainly, the problem of plant blindness exists. What can we do about it is the next question. In this regard, Gowda believes that recognizing the problem is the first step. If one can be shown that they are plant blind, then they may start observing and paying attention to the plants more often. She also emphasizes the need to create excitement around plants by showcasing their adaptive features, patterns, evolution, etc., as she does in her classes using peculiar photographs of plants.
A curriculum that teaches about plants not only in the classroom but also engages students in interactions with plants can be a further step to cure plant blindness. One such endeavour is SeasonWatch, an India-wide citizen-science project in which enthusiasts study the flowering, fruiting and leaf-flush pattern of common trees. The project aims to fill the gaps in our understanding of how trees change with seasons and how climate change might be affecting them while encouraging people to bond with nature, says Geetha Ramaswami, Programme Manager of SeasonWatch. She says that the situation isn’t too bad in India, as kids do know about trees like Neem, Peepal, and Banyan due to their cultural importance. Even for other trees, it is a matter of pointing out and the students connect, says she. Currently, over 600+ schools and other 900+ curious individuals are registered with the project.
School-University connects where kids are taken to herbariums and allowed to interact with botanists can also help in this regard. To reach a larger audience, universities can organize shows, like the annual flower show arranged by the University of Delhi for the last sixty-two years. The exhibit is occasionally clubbed with other activities such as flower photography competition and other educational exhibits related to plant conservation, biodiversity, etc. so that people experience the beauty of plants and learn more about them. In higher education too, stress on plant ecology and evolutionary biology are needed. Gowda notes that plant research currently is limited to crop species and medicinal plants and further restricted to the investigation of a handful of traits that are deemed important to us. She believes that the studies on plant ecology, extinction of certain species and discovery of new plant species can only help achieve the objective of plant conservation.
Although the statistics on plant extinction in India are worrisome, slowly, people in urban areas are realizing the importance of plant diversity and are raising their voice against deforestation activities. The latest example is the public protest in Mumbai against cutting trees in the Aarey forest in 2019. Though similar to past environmental movements, such as the Bishnoi movement, Chipko Andolan, Save silent valley movement, Jungle Bachao Andolan and Appiko movement; the metropolitan location of this contemporary movement affirms the growing concern for plants and environment in the urban populace. It is high time that we understand that there is no visible future if we remain plant blind. The need of the hour, therefore, is to frequently provide ourselves and our children with doses of plant interaction, a vaccination for plant blindness!
She sat in a corner all blue and green
She was well behaved is all she could think
I wonder why no one asks me to sing
I know how to whistle and I know how to sting
They love the crickets, the ants and bees
The mighty tiger and flamingo wings
I wonder why I am so ignored…
(Some lines from the poem Chlorophyllous blues by Vinita Gowda)
PS: The author diagnosed herself with plant blindness while writing this article and is trying self-medication by observing, photographing and using google lens to identify plants in her vicinity.