How to see plants again: The plant blindness phenomenon

Plant blindness, or the lack of attention to plants as active agents in ecosystems, may seem to be a harmless ignorance. However, its consequences are directly related to the current state of environmental deterioration.

Plants have been of crucial importance to maintaining ecological processes of the planet Earth as well as for sustaining cultures and societies around the world. Plants themselves are complex, sensitive organisms that employ intricate signalling strategies to monitor, adapt to, and benefit from their environment.1 Baldwin, Ian 2015. Plant Science: Rediscovering the Bush Telegraph. Nature 522: 282–283. ,2 Ryan, John C. 2012. Passive Flora? Reconsidering Nature‘s Agency through Human-Plant Studies (HPS). Societies 2(3): 101–121.

However, despite their complexity and the central role in functioning of the living world of the planet, in Western society plants have been habitually marginalised and described in neutral collective terms, such as, e.g. landscape or agriculture, a tendency which is symptomatic of a wider phenomenon of plant blindness.

Paeonia leaves
While the flowering parts of plants or stand-alone trees may attract our attention, groups of plants or the less conspicuous parts, such as these Paeonia leaves, may more likely blend into the undifferentiated green mass. Image credit: Yekaterina Lukina

In his book Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany, Matthew Hall observes that “most places on Earth which contain life are visibly plantscapes”.3 Hall, Matthew 2011. Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. p. 3 Indeed, plants comprise the major part of the Earth‘s biomass4 Bar-On, Yinon M.; Phillips, Rob; Milo, Ron 2018. The Biomass Distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(25): 6506–6511., being of crucial significance to maintaining the planet‘s environmental balance and ecosystem stability.5 CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) 2010. Global Strategy for Plant Conservation 2011–2020 [online]. Retrieved from:

Thinking on the larger temporal scale, plants feel much more on home ground on the planet Earth than any animal species that ever existed. “If millions of years could be measured in meters” – state Gagliano, Ryan, and Vieira – “the history of plants would equate to a 500-meter-long walk, while ours would be no more than a few centimeters”.6 Gagliano, Monica; Ryan, John C.; Vieira Patrícia (eds.) 2017b. The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. vii.

Yet even this tiny footprint of the human species on planet Earth is profoundly embedded in the vegetal world – it is impossible to comprehensively approach the history of any cultural or social formation without simultaneously considering the history of plants.

Nevertheless, in the conceptual framework of the Western cultures, plants, for the most part, have habitually been overlooked and considered no more than a trivial backdrop for daily human practices and activities.7 Aloi, Giovanni (ed.) 2018. Why Look at Plants?: The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art. Leiden: Brill. ,8 Marder, Michael 2013. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York, NY: Columbia University Press

Botanists and biology educators James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler9 Wandersee, James H.; Schussler, Elizabeth 2001. Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness. Plant Science Bulletin 47(1): 2–8. once argued that these tendencies to marginalise plant forms are symptomatic of a wider phenomenon of plant blindness – the inability of humans to distinguish and appreciate plants as active agents in the ecosystems.

The Snake Charmer by Henri Rousseau
Most likely, what will be easily noticed in this famous painting are the person, birds, and snakes, while the plants will be described as a setting for the activity. The human eye-brain system attends to human faces in the first place and constructs visual experience drawing upon spatial, temporal, and chromatic stimuli from the environment. The space-, time-, and colour-cues provided by plants are much less significant to the human eye than those offered by animals, and they tend to blend into a homogeneous whole.
The Snake Charmer. Henri Rousseau (1907). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Scholars highlight various reasons for the phenomenon of plant blindness. While some researchers tend to look for its roots in the biological peculiarities of human visual perception,10 Wandersee, James H.; Schussler, Elizabeth 2001. Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness. Plant Science Bulletin 47(1): 2–8. others consider the influence of the cultural-philosophical and social forces to be equally significant.11 Gagliano, Monica; Ryan, John C.; Vieira Patrícia (eds.) 2017b. The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Plant blindness may seem to be a merely harmless ignorance; however, it is among the major factors underlying the current state of biodiversity loss, insufficiency of plant conservation efforts, and environmental deterioration. For instance, in 2018, IUCN12 IUCN 2018. Illegal Wildlife Trade Endangers Plants — but Few are Listening [online]. Retrieved from: brought attention to the effects of plant blindness on the governmental level and consistent sidelining of plants in conservation agendas in the policy related to illegal wildlife trade.

Paphiopedilum cultivars
While the discussions on illegal wildlife trade focus mostly on large, charismatic animals, such as elephants or rhinos, orchids are listed among the most endangered species threatened by human exploitation.
Paphiopedilum cultivars in Kew Gardens. Image credit: Emőke Dénes / Wikimedia Commons

Are there any methods for overcoming plant blindness? Since the notion was introduced twenty years ago, much effort has been put into developing strategies and programmes for focusing attention on the aliveness and uniqueness of the vegetal world. However, identifying the most effective methods continues to remain a substantial challenge.

One of the promising directions might include popularising information on the complex and remarkable behaviour of plants. Consider, as an example, the surprising water-finding strategies of plant roots, identified by a group of Australian scientists in a study on pea seedlings (Pisum sativum).

It is widely known that plant roots assess the level of soil moisture in order to locate the water source and grow in the right direction. However, as has been revealed during the experiment, soil moisture is not the sole indicator. While detecting water at a remote location, when the dry surrounding substrate provides no cues, the roots rely on acoustic vibrations of the running stream in order to opt for the most accurate route to the water source. This ability to use sound to locate water might explain why the roots of trees in urban areas can easily find water in the sewage pipe systems despite the fact that the pipes are watertight and intact.13 Gagliano, Monica; Grimonprez, Mavra; Depczynski, Martial; Renton, Michael 2017a. Tuned In: Plant Roots Use Sound to Locate Water. Oecologia 184(1): 151–60.

Another way to ‘seeing’ plants can be paved by focusing on the emotional connections of people to plants. For instance, the art of botanical illustration appears to have a potential to transform the objectified views of plants and facilitate appreciation of their significance. Through both the embodied practice of painting plants and contemplation of the botanical art exhibits, the deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of plants and human beings can be developed. To illustrate, Canadian researcher Katja Neves discusses how viewing Rory McEwen’s botanical paintings with all their vibrance and minute details has made her realise the profound communicative and emotional effects such pieces of art can have on the onlooker.14 Neves, Katja  2016. The Art of Seeing. Grasping More-than-human Plant Worlds Beyound Objectified ―Nature‖ [blog]. Retrieved from:

As applied to the modern urbanised environments, botanical gardens, parks, and even smaller green patches might turn out to be a fertile ground for turning our attention towards the importance of plants to the sustainable world. The spatial organisation of such areas might have a defining role in the way we pay attention and interact with plants in the cities.

University of Tartu Botanical Garden
The layout of garden paths can have a significant impact on the pace of movement through certain areas and, as a result, time spent observing and exploring plants.
University of Tartu Botanical Garden. Image credit: Yekaterina Lukina

To give one example, the setting of the botanical garden can have a direct impact on the immediate actions performed by visitors towards plants: the time they spend in a particular garden area, the time they allocate to observing and investigating plant species, as well as the extent of noticing or neglecting plants in certain garden areas.

Thus, the particular design of walking paths can have an impact on the pace of movement through the area and, as a result, lead towards over-exploration of some patches with plants and ignoring others. For instance, the wide, even, and straight paths tend to propel movement forward, inviting visitors to quickly proceed to the next garden area without further investigation, while the more intricate pattern of concentric paths can facilitate slower movement with long stops and careful observation of plants.

There is no doubt that the way we relate to plants is a complex and multifaceted issue, which will always be shaped by a combination of numerous interdependent factors, such as the physiological peculiarities of human visual perception, cultural influences, personal beliefs, and practical experience. And there are as many possible directions to further explore how the ‘visibility’ of plants and engaging with the plant world can be restored.

Yekaterina Lukina graduated from the master’s programme in semiotics at the University of Tartu in 2019. This story is based on her master’s thesis research in ecosemiotics.

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