As is evident in my last two posts (1,2), my recent trip to Gothenburg, Sweden was all about plants, and in particular about engaging people with plants so that they can come to value them more. It’s almost impossible to bring up this topic without using the term “plant blindness.” Sometimes I think the phrase is becoming so common that it’s losing some of its punch, in part because it has been so successful in calling attention to the green world. Plants are coming into their own, and people are beginning to appreciate how important they are to climate stability, air quality, and even human temperament. But I don’t think this disease has been by any means eradicated, and it has taken a long time for the term to seep into the collective consciousness. After all, it has been around since the 1990s when it was coined by James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler (1998). Interest in it remained low-keyed for years, somewhat like a dormant seed, but one that finally germinates. A recent manifestation of its coming into its own is a good op-ed piece in The New York Times earlier this year on curing plant blindness by learning tree names. Gabriel Popkin argues that just looking isn’t enough, the experience of trees is deepened when they can be identified and named. My own personal plant blindness was cured by herbaria. When I became interested in them several years ago, the world of plants opened up for me. I wanted to learn about them and to really see them, to observe them more closely, to not just walk by a tree and name it as an oak, but carefully look at it: acorns, leaves, buds, and bark.
Traveling gives me the opportunity to look at different plants. I wouldn’t say that plants are all I look for. I love to visit museums, eat nice meals, window shop, and simply walk through unfamiliar areas. However, I do look at plants and seek them out, much more than I did before I developed my passion for plants (see photo above). I am not much of a botanist, so I can’t identify many species, but I’m improving. I can remember what Susan Pell, who is now deputy director as well as science and programs manager of the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC, said when I took a plant systematics course with her several years ago at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). She argued that learning some systematics would make it possible to begin to identify at least plant families and to make sense of taxonomy. I didn’t think it was possible for me, but I have to admit that frequent and repeated exposure to plants and plant labels in herbaria and in botanical gardens has helped me to at least guess that what I’m looking at belongs to the Ranunculaceae, Asteraceace, Fabaceace, or one of the other large families. And I am getting it right more and more often. I know that isn’t much, but it’s something and something that gives me a thrill when I test myself and then look at labels in a botanic garden and find out that my guess was correct. I’ve come to a greater appreciation for these labels recently for another reason: a blog post from NYBG on the staff who create the labels. It isn’t an easy task to keep up with a shifting collection, and labels that are exposed to all kinds of weather.
When I visited the Gothenburg Botanical Garden, I was cheered to find that they too do a good job of labeling their plants, both outdoors and in their conservatory. Also, I was grateful to Carl Linnaeus and his Latin binomial system so I didn’t have to worry about recognizing plant names in Swedish. Going at the end of September might not seem like a great time to see flowers blooming, but there was a great perennial bed with many fall blooms (see photo above), and another of dahlias. When I returned a few days later, the plants in this bed had been ripped out, but the flowers were given one less chance to shine: they had been cut off and floated in a pond at the garden’s entrance (see photo below).
This lovely touch is indicative of what seems to be a reverence for plants in Sweden that makes the job of countering plant blindness there somewhat easier than in other countries. This was pointed out to me by Lauren LaFauci, who moved to Sweden two years ago and works at Linköping University. The very fact that the Beyond Plant Blindness project at Gothenburg University received generous funding from the Swedish government is indicative of this. In addition, two Swedish funding agencies, Mistra and Formas, are supporting our grant Herbaria 3.0 project through Seed Box, an environmental humanities collaboratory (see next post). It aims at bringing disciplines together around environmental issues, and it’s nice to see a plant metaphor used for its name. Obviously, Sweden has a long, dark winter, but it would be hard to tell that in late September when the days were still quite long and the weather, at least when I was there, was mild enough for outdoor dining. The term “seed box” implies preparation for the winter and for the future, saving seed to grow next year’s plants, and in a way, our project is designed to nourish the seeds of interest in plants that I would argue hide within each of us.
Wandersee, J., & Schussler, E. (1998). Preventing Plant Blindness. American Biology Teacher, 61(2), 82-86.