Quest Unlocked: Defeat Plant Blindness

What is the first species that comes to mind when I say endangered? Many of us might think of giant pandas, which are the mascot of the World Wildlife Fund. Others might think of tigers, Asian elephants, polar bears, or leatherback turtles. I personally think of black-footed ferrets. What do these all have in common? They’re all animals! But what about plants? As of 2020, 40% of the known plants on Earth are considered endangered, but they receive less than 5% of the conservation funding available. One of the reasons for this could be something called plant blindness.

The term plant blindness was coined in 1998 by botanists Elizabeth Schussler and James Wandersee, but it describes a tendency that goes back ages. Plant blindness is defined as: “the inability to see or notice plants in one’s own environment, which results in an under-appreciation and lack of interest in plants.” You might be thinking ‘I can’t be plant blind, I see plants all the time’ but plant blindness doesn’t refer to a physical blindness, it refers to a mental one. Think of a landscape, or even scroll down so the image above isn’t on your screen anymore. You might notice that it becomes difficult to recall the shapes and colors of individual plants in a landscape when that landscape isn’t in front of you. If you tried to think of an animal right now, like a moose or a housecat, you’d probably have more success. Plant blindness is an old problem, and a complex one, but scientists have identified three of the main reasons it is so prevalent today.

The first reason is that our brains can only process so much data at a time, and things that might be dangerous to us receive priority. Since plants don’t move and tend to be the same color, our brains clump them together to save space for other things. The second reason we experience plant blindness is because it is easier for us to tell that an animal is alive versus a plant. We can see animals move, we can relate to their physical needs, we can even bond with some animals - not so much with plants. This ability to relate and emphasize is vital when it comes to conservation. If we set up two donation boxes in a nature center, one with an image of a burrowing owl and one with an image of steamboat buckwheat, which do you think would receive more donations?

Left: Burrowing Owl (photo by Nevada Department of Wildlife); Right: Steamboat Buckwheat (photo by Jim Morefield)

The third and possibly most important cause of plant blindness is the lack of accessible plant education. Compare the brain to a window. When you’re young, the window is wide open and learning new information is easy. As you grow older, the window begins to close and we need to put more time and effort into learning new things. The window never closes, but we start to focus on information and skills that are relevant to our interests. Plant curriculums offered in schools focus on photosynthesis and plant cells; they rarely extend beyond that. By the time we’re old enough to find more information and take classes of our own will, the interest to learn about plants is gone. This lack of interest has actually led to a significant decline in plant biology courses and botany degrees (most universities roll plant programs into wildlife zoology or environmental studies these days, and they’re often optional courses).

What can we do to defeat plant blindness? It feels like an impossible task but it’s surprisingly easy, and you might already be doing it! One way to start recognizing plants is to tie them to your interests. I’m interested in sewing so a few years ago, I learned how to spin cotton and flax into thread. I’m not good at it, but it really helped me appreciate the skills that traditionally go into my hobby. Even something as basic as learning to care for a houseplant puts you in the right direction.

Another way we can defeat plant blindness is by accepting the benefits of technology. Instead of discouraging the use of screens, find out how they can work for you! The obvious technology we might think of is phones - you can take photos and share them, or download a field guide app to take hiking with you, but what about when we can’t or don’t want to be outside? We can turn to video games! How plants are incorporated into video games can absolutely influence how we perceive them in real life. Some popular games with unique plant mechanics include Animal Crossing, Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, Stardew Valley, and The Witcher.

Animal Crossing offers a unique take on plants - there are 8 different flower species available in the game which players can collect and crossbreed to obtain unique color combinations. This is an actual process done in greenhouses and nurseries worldwide, everyday. Looking at pictures of the flowers in Animal Crossing we can clearly see which flowers they are meant to be, despite the cartoonish art style of the game.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons list of collectible flowers (graphic by GameSpot)

Where Animal Crossing offers relaxation in gardening, many other games use plants as resources to further character development by completing quests or upgrading items. Here we have two images of American Ginseng. One is from Red Dead Redemption 2 and the other is an actual photo. In RDR2, the player is collecting American Ginseng for the Herbalist which makes sense. American Ginseng is a prized plant in holistic medicine - so much so that it’s endangered these days due to poaching and habitat loss.

Left: American Ginseng in Red Dead Redemption 2 (screenshot provided by Red Dead Wiki); Right: American Ginseng in real life (photo by Doug McGrady)

We can clearly see the effort the developers put in to achieve this level of realism. Skyrim and The Witcher also depict real plants with high levels of accuracy. These detailed representations of plants as unique species with important roles in our survival helps us understand their importance, even in the real world. As we understand more about our relationship with plants and plant blindness, we should think about how we can inspire others to do the same. If that involves introducing them to your favorite video game, then help them unlock the quest to defeat plant blindness!


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