Life & Style
Plant Blindness, A Mower, and One Unfortunate Afternoon
An app, “Picture This,” accurately identified a green-fringed bog orchid (Platanthera lacera) in about two seconds. The photo was later verified by a professional botanist. Screenshot by Kathy Connolly )
The operator of a brush hog assumed he should mow a field of tall grasses, flowers, and young native shrubs, though no one asked him to do so. The field was the result of years of cultivation and hard work. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
Thousands of plants fell when someone tried to do a good deed. There’s no telling how many thousands of birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians fell with them. He fell prey to a mistake that is not uncommon, the result of plant blindness. (Photo courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
Picture This, an app, is based on artificial intelligence and works on both the Apple and Android platforms. It is about 80 percent accurate, far more than other plant identification apps I’ve tried. Screenshot courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
iNaturalist is one of the most widely used crowd-sourced nature projects on the internet. Screenshot courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
iNaturalist helps identify plants and animals, and connects the user with a community of more than a million scientists and naturalists. Screenshot courtesy of Kathy Connolly )
I learned a hard lesson recently. It happened when a three-year-old wet meadow and shrub area, created by design to support native plants and pollinators, was accidentally mowed by a brush hog operator one afternoon in early July.
Tractor tires wreaked havoc on one-third acre of native warm-season grasses and sedges and flowering plants along the wetland edge. The brush hog chewed up about 40 young native shrubs, which looked like woody upstarts. (No mounds of mulch surrounded them.) The planting was almost three years old.
The operator’s explanation was simple and almost predictable: He saw a tall field, and he had some time left after his primary mowing job on the same property. The operator thought he’d do the owner a favor. To his eye, he said, it looked like “a bunch of weeds.” No matter that to the birds, butterflies, bees, reptiles, and amphibians, it looked like a grocery store and a nursery for the next generation. That wasn’t on his mind.
We could label the loss the result of incompetence, carelessness, a terrible mistake, or worse. Nothing could undo the damage, especially the years it had taken for the plants to mature.
Yet we all know that the tractor operator made a common assumption that earns him—and thousands of others—a paycheck: Tall vegetation is supposed to be mowed. It blocks people’s views. It triggers complaints about messiness. Mow it. It’s always been that way.
But we could also see the mower’s attitude as the result of a broader cultural problem, one that some in the horticulture world called “plant blindness.”
The phrase appeared for the first time in a 1998 research paper by science educators James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler. They defined plant blindness as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment.” They observed multiple consequences from this bias, such as the inability to recognize the importance of plants in human affairs and natural processes, and “the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration.” (See The American Biology Teacher 61, 84-86, 1999.).
This perspective is nothing new in the 21st century, of course. It dates at least to the beginning of the 20th century when our recent ancestors abandoned farms in droves. Or, perhaps it dates from the more distant times when we no longer needed to be able to distinguish edible from poisonous plants or find fibers for homespun clothing or find medicine. We lost our need to see plants.
Unfortunately, our mental wiring may be part of the problem as well. Plants seem to be inanimate and easy to control. James Wandersee observed that the primary problem might be “due to the inherent constraints of [our] visual information processing systems.” Animals are more noticeable. We’re more likely to understand the consequences of animal encounters, both positive and negative.
This inability to see plants may have tragic future consequences, however.
“Paradoxically, plants form the basis of most animal habitats and all life on earth,” observed Wandersee and Schussler in 1999.
More recently, Douglas Tallamy, author of Nature’s Best Hope and other works that alert us to the insect apocalypse, summarized the profound role of plants in eight words: “Plants, in essence, enable animals to eat sunlight,” he says. “Insects are the animals that are best at transferring energy from plants to other animals.”
Can we afford to be plant-blind any longer?
Taking Off the Blinders
It would be nice to imagine the tractor operator, given the same encounter with a wet meadow, might pause and think: “That’s a bird and pollinator habitat that doubles as wetland protection. I’d better check with someone before I mow.” This change of perspective is unlikely, however, without some new intentions on his part and a bit of education.
Here are a few ideas to help you and those you know overcome plant blindness. First, check out this entertaining YouTube video: bit.ly/plant-blindness. For more fun, download an app called “Picture This” at www.picturethisai.com. Here’s how it works: I was walking in a grassy field recently when I encountered an unusual plant. I snapped a picture with Picture This. The app, which is based on artificial intelligence, identified a green-fringed bog orchid in about two seconds. I have found it to be about 80 percent accurate, far more than other plant identification apps I’ve tried.
If you enjoy crowd-sourced information, one of the most reliable and most popular sites is iNaturalist. Upload your photos at www.inaturalist.org and receive help from scientists, citizen-scientists, students of all ages, and the rest of us. iNaturalist offers both plant and animal identification. It is a joint initiative by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.
If you’re a Facebook user, the group Plant Identification helps with all sorts of plants, including houseplants and edibles.
If you want to know more about plant blindness, visit this page by the Native Plant Conservation Campaign: bit.ly/plant-blindness-page.
Above all, the next time you see a grassy meadow, chalk one up for pollinator and bird habitat. Make sure the mower stays in the shed.
Kathy Connolly is a landscape designer from Old Saybrook who writes and speaks about horticulture and ecology. Reach her through her website www.speakingoflandscapes.com/contact.