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Do you Suffer from Plant Blindness?

August 10, 2020

By Andrea Sanchez, 2020 Summer Intern

Do you suffer from plant blindness? Symptoms may include: a failure or inability to take notice of plants present in your daily activities, recognizing plant life as one homogenous "green wall," an anthropogenic ranking of plants as inferiors to animals, or a lack of understanding about plants' vital roles in ecological functions. If you find yourself relating to any of these examples, you may, in fact, suffer from a phenomenon two American botanists termed "plant blindness."

Don't be discouraged if you display any of these indicators. This affliction is actually quite common because the human brain has a limit to its visual processing capacity. The sheer variety of textures, colors, and shapes of plant-life in any one region can inundate our senses. And evolutionarily speaking, it may have been advantageous for us to use our visual processing capacity to spot movement of prey and consequently give less attention to the relatively stationary vegetation in our surroundings. However, our flat perspectives of plants are proving increasingly inadequate for managing the planetary-scale changes inflicted by human activity.

I, too, have been a victim of plant blindness and have only recently seen improvement in my condition. My summer internship position with AGCI has allowed for a slow, careful examination of the vegetation in the Roaring Fork Valley by conducting Modified Whittaker Plot (MWP) vegetation surveys at some of the iRON stations. The MWP measures 20m by 50m and is created by setting four transect lines along the perimeter using long meter tapes. Depending on the plant inhabitants of the site, this can be an arduous process. At Glenwood Springs the dense scrub oak and serviceberry were resistant to our attempts to move straight at a ninety degree angle, branches nicking our arms in protest. By comparison, the tiny alpine flowers of Independence pass had no way of showing their objection, and the transect was easily set, with hardly any obstruction between each plot corner. After the perimeter is set, ten smaller plots are then marked inside the large plot and assessed for percentage cover for each species within each plot.

The surveys gave me an intimate look at countless species by forcing me to get down on my hands and knees to touch leaves and stems and to examine their precise and detailed characteristics. Taxonomic identification had me flexing language muscles in an attempt to learn (and pronounce) scientific names. Keying in species we could not identify in the field opened my mind up to the detailed history of these plants (and their close relatives), forging a broader perspective in which to consider our mountain vegetation.

In my field journal, I called our first vegetation survey at the Glenwood Springs site "a humbling experience." This is because I was ill-equipped to notice the subtleties of plant family relationships, let alone to recognize specific genuses and subspecies classifications. It was becoming clear that there were whole communities of life I was ignoring. To notice a plant is different than knowing its unique, adapted ecosystem function. Performing vegetation surveys with AGCI was the catalyst for improving my relationship with the plant-life all around me.

Anemone multifida observed at Castle Creek iRON station 6/24/20.

Just two weeks later, I was sitting cross-legged, surrounded by taxonomical texts and a botanist's hand lens. Plants were beginning to look less foreign, and I was able to pinpoint attributes that seemed familiar. For instance, upon inspecting a species with a magenta pink flower and long silvery hairs on the flower and stem, I found it reminded me of a flower I know colloquially as a Sugarbowl. This resemblance led me to the Buttercup family, where I very quickly found Anemone multifida, the Cutleaf Anemone. The discovery gave me a feeling of elation and assurance you get from making a new acquaintance. Now, I can't wait for my awareness of these plant family interconnections to expand and transcend my plant blind indisposition.

Cases such as my own illustrate the global implications of plant blindness. Ignoring the plants around us reduces their value and can, even subconsciously, determine our actions toward vegetation. For example, greater awareness of plants might make you think twice about walking off-trail and trampling that Drya octopetala or the budding Shepherdia canadensis if you know them to be a soil stabilizer or a nitrogen fixer. Increasing appreciation for plant-life requires an investment of time and concentration. But this is a worthwhile investment if it can begin to rehabilitate the plant blind and broaden perspectives, elevating social perception of plants beyond being landscape ornaments or utilities of human existence--to a view where plants are seen as vital, dynamic parts of the world we cohabitate. These relationships could be the foundation for creating public interest in environmental preservation.