Plant blindness?

We hear much about the urgent need to save the koala as it possibly heads towards extinction – and yes, this is essential and critical.

Kai Wild is one of many helping to protect prime old growth  koala habitat.

Kai Wild is one of many helping to protect prime old growth koala habitat.

To lose such an amazing animal that is a member of a unique evolutionary lineage would be a disaster and reflect very poorly on our stewardship of the planet. Occasionally, there is discussion around protecting the koala’s habitat – but done in a vague nebulous way that doesn’t really imply what it is.

It is, of course, plants. To be more accurate, in this case, eucalypt woodland and forest that provides both food and habitat for koalas and is absolutely fundamental to their survival. Simply put - no eucalypts, no koalas.

Research has shown that we may notice koalas, but most people don't notice the trees which provide them an environment in which to live.

This phenomenon, where plants are ignored, has been termed “plant blindness”. It's a term that was coined about 20 years ago by two botanists (who else!) in the United States; Elizabeth Schussler, of the Ruth Patrick Science Educator Center in Aiken, South Carolina, and James Wandersee, of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Plant blindness refers to the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment. The basis of this is that there is a fundamental inability of humans to recognise the contribution of plants to a functioning planet or to keeping humans and all other life forms alive.

There have been studies

demonstrating that we inherently notice the presence of animals in the environment way more than we would notice plants. We appear to be hard-wired to care more about our furry and feathered friends (or even the scaly ones) than the “green wallpaper” that they live in. I have noticed even the most ardent botanist or horticulturist getting far more excited with a new sighting of a bird or mammal on field trips or in the gardens than they do about the plants around them.

But why does this matter? Plants are fundamental to our existence – they provide our food, either directly or indirectly, supply building materials, fibres and medicines; they produce oxygen and tie up carbon and mitigate our climate - the list can go on. Exposure to a plant-filled environment promotes wellbeing, reduces stress and lowers crime rates, they are fundamental to how we celebrate the good times and the sad; try producing roses and champagne without assistance from a plant (or three or four). It is no co-incidence, for example, that the commemorations and reflections after the atrocities in Christchurch were in botanic gardens and parks. Plants are central to all aspects of our existence.

A Hakea seed pod

A Hakea seed pod

If we are not aware of plants in our environment we will have a tendency to ignore them. And ignoring them is just one or two steps away from not caring for, or protecting them. Before you know it, those large trees in your neighbourhood are gone, a forest is not protected, we stop caring about quarantine and biosecurity and our food is produced artificially. The end result is a world that is much less habitable, more hostile, less resilient and more likely to be incapable of supporting us and all the other creatures that live here.

Our role is to overcome plant blindness – or maybe a better term is to enhance plant awareness - to promote the importance of plants, to prevent their extinction and to advocate for their conservation.

With the impact of climate change, food shortages and dwindling resources we are likely to need some radical changes to how we manage our environment. One thing you can be sure of: plants, in all their shapes and forms, will be central to how this is achieved.

Dr Brett Summerell is chief botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney.

Steven Pearce