What Is Plant Blindness?

Conservationists argue that plants aren't as appreciated as animals. Skumer/Shutterstock

Imagine taking a walk in the woods and seeing a deer or a rabbit. You'll no doubt remember the encounter — it might even be the highlight of your outdoor adventure.

But what about all the plants, trees and flowers you passed while hiking? There's a good chance you paid little attention to the greenery on your path.

That's what researchers call plant blindness.

In 1998, U.S. botanists Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee defined plant blindness as "the inability to see or notice the plants in one's own environment," which leads to "the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs."

Because of plant blindness, people tend to rank animals as superior to plants, so conservation efforts for plants tends to be limited.

"We are absolutely dependent on plants for life and health, but so often they fade into the background and miss out in the direct actions we take to protect our planet," says biologist Kathryn Williams in the University of Washington's Conservation. "I wonder how the world would look if more people, instead of seeing a wall of green, saw individual plants as potential medicine, a source of food, or a loved part of their community."

In a 2016 study, Williams and her team researched whether people are hardwired by evolution to ignore plant life and what it means for conservation. They found that although plants make up 57% of the endangered species in the U.S., they receive less than 4% of endangered species funding. Many studies have shown that people are drawn to images of animals instead of plants and can more easily remember them.

The bias for animals over plants has been attributed to several factors, the researchers found. Plants don't move and people, especially children, are tuned in to motion. Plants also tend to blend together visually.

One major cultural factor for the animal-over-plant preference is the greater focus on animals in education — sometimes referred to as zoocentrism or zoo-chauvinism. Because educators often use animals rather than plants as examples of basic biological concepts, children grow up with more familiarity and empathy toward animals, researchers argue.

Why plant blindness is a problem

little girl looking at plant
Children grow up with animal-centric educations, but researchers say they need to be taught the importance of plant life. JMDiversity/Shutterstock

While plant conservation funding drops and there's decreased interest in plant biology classes, the plant popularity issue has increasing ramifications. Plants are important for environmental and human health so the impact of their loss is great.

As the BBC's Christine Ro points out, "Plant research is critical to many scientific breakthroughs, from hardier food crops to more effective medicines. More than 28,000 plant species are used medicinally, including plant-derived anti-cancer drugs and blood thinners."

When plants are underappreciated and understudied, the environment and the people in it suffer.

In addition, children who grow up with an animal-centric biological education don't learn to value the greenery around them. In addition to just being complacent about plants and the complete environment, they don't grow up with interest in plant-related careers.

And perhaps the biggest issue of all: The world is dependent on plants.

"Many of our biggest challenges of the 21st century are plant based: global warming, food security and the need for new pharmaceuticals that might help in the fight against diseases," writes Angelique Kritzinger, lecturer in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

"Without a basic knowledge of plant structure, function and diversity, there's little hope of addressing these problems."