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© Rosetta S. Elkin


Plant Blindness

by Rosetta S. Elkin
May 20, 2018

Rosetta S. Elkin is a professor of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, head of the Risk & Resilience program, and an Associate at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Her teaching and research focus on an expanded consideration of plant life. The work derives from a conviction that plants can reestablish a central position in a landscape architectural discourse and explores the gaps between natural and social sciences found in the biological complexity of global greening projects. These projects typically manifest as recovery, retreat, rebuild and other preemptive environmental programs that bridge fields and disciplines. Elkin is the principle of rse-landscape  a design studio founded in 2007. Her practice focuses on installation and publication, designing experiences that combine physical engagement, photographs, and written provocations. Her most recent publication Tiny Taxonomy indexes 3 design installations, while exploring the changing nature of fieldwork and the role of individual plants in practice. She is currently a fellow at the American Academy in Rome.

“Because plants differ in many important ways from animals, and because biology is taught by members of the animal kingdom, there is a recognized tendency to overlook, underemphasize, or neglect plants.”

Life on earth began about 3.8 billion years ago, with microscopic prokaryotic cells, archeae and bacteria. Multicellular life evolved about a billion years later, and while the actual emergence of land plants remains the debate of evolutionary biology, it is generally accepted that plants had a profound effect on climate about 700 million years ago. These early land plants explain the sudden appearance of fossilized animals, as the surface of the earth was covered with plants that increased oxygen and decreased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They fed themselves. In an ecological context, plants are producers. As a result of their astonishing collecting and concentrating activities, they created a suitable habit for consumers. Plants also structure soil physically and chemically and use cycles of transpiration to cool the environment. In a cultural context, plants are symbols and myth, from the almond tree (Prunus Sp.) as the Aramaic luz or light in ancient Egypt, the ruminal fig tree (Ficus Sp.) where Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome were sheltered and the Hornbean (Carpinus Sp.) ridge poles of the Chippewa tribe’s wigwam structures. Our association with plants is relatively insignificant temporally, yet plants are embedded in the layers of being human that are not simply consumptive and exploitative but must also include respect and care.

Humans are entirely dependent on plants and have supplanted ancient wisdom and symbiotic relationships for global authority, imperial trade, and scientific certainty. Plants, on the other hand, have been living on the planet for much longer and are not dependent on humans.

Yet plant blindness persists despite our dependence by elevating the role of humans and other creatures in planetary affairs.

Consider that over 2,000 previously unknown plant species were discovered last year alone. This staggering figure emerges from Kew Garden’s State of the World’s Plants, a report that presents an account of global vascular plant extents and extinctions. Some of the most prized discoveries include 336 new species of orchid, 29 new species of Begonia, 27 new species of rainforest tree in the genus Sloanea; the largest single block of new plant taxa was discovered in Madagascar; as 150 new species, subspecies and varieties of Croton. The report also synthesizes biological questions that arise through genome sequencing, conservation policy, and pharmaceutical applications, as scientific tallies and indices catalogue the evolution or expiration of plant life. Each horticultural, medicinal and economic unearthing describes a novel lifeform that has so far evaded the process of human exploitation, while other statistics chart the exploitative wildfires that claim 340 million acres of planetary surface yearly. While the evidence is presented as a thoughtful means to expand knowledge, its compilation deserves to be associated with the global pandemic of plant blindness.

Plant blindness is not an aesthetic disorder engrained in the failure to recognize useful plant parts or identify tree species. It is neither a contrary position to referencing animals nor is it enough to apply human attributes to plant performance that conflate human sentiment with biotic intelligence.

Plant blindness is the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s environment, leading to an incapacity to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and thus in human affairs more broadly.The short article woke up many botanists to the failure of evolutionary insight and confirmed the bias of animal over plants “because biology is taught by member s of the animal kingdom”. See: Wandersee, James H., and Elisabeth E. Schussler. "Preventing Plant Blindness." The American Biology Teacher 61, no. 2 (1999): 82-86.

The term appeared in 1998, as a result of a series of studies that showed a clear preference for studying animals over plants, in a cross-age study of elementary and middle school children. At the time, diagnosing plant blindness instigated a succession of prevention strategies aimed at science literacy, including brightly illustrated classroom posters elucidated with the catch-all phrase ‘prevent plant blindness’. It is noteworthy that despite these popular attempts to draw in young students, plant life remains relegated to the background of human intentions. Other than the requisite photosynthesis diagram, plants continue to take up a marginal place in textbooks, suggesting that plants are implicitly expressed fodder for the more important creatures under consideration.

Plant life is not only disregarded in early education, it is further pacified by the suggestions of post-humanism, debates on extreme urbanism and the rhetoric of the anthropocene that continue to elevate humans and human knowledge veiled by a monolithic idea of ‘nature.’

This hegemonic account of the living world aims to elevate the ‘stuff’ of nature without reengaging the ways in which we build knowledge. In other words, it evolves from the same determinism that modern science was built upon. Each novel framework only proliferates egregious ‘end of the world’ paradigms and decline narratives, such as the twin threats of desertification and sea level rise, in order to advance humankind. At the same time, the scientistic sciences continue to splinter into specialties and expertise that proliferate more human exceptionalism.

Human exceptionalism enters the picture when scientists claim ‘truth’ over hypothesis and communicate a fragmented set of beliefs to the public.

As David Beerling so eloquently puts it: “Projections of future climates and ecology, like the retreat of mountain glaciers and the polar ice caps, the migration of forests, and so on, are really just proposals, made in spite of real ignorance about the critical physical and biological processes involved, and the difficulty of actually evaluating them.David Beerling is an internationally renowned expert on the co-evolution of plants and the environment, specializing in climate events over the past half a billion years. He is the Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate change mitigation and Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, UK.

This is a unique statement because it admits to our illiteracy and our tendency to fall into the same abusive patterns. For instance, the perceived threat of the Hemlock wooly adelgid (Mealnophila fulvoguttata) in the Northeastern United States helps fund the science of entomology. Labs, studies and reports confirm that there is no ‘solution’ to this powerful pest. In truth, the ignorance of the biological processes involved cannot be disclosed, thus the solution moves from the lab to the field as preemptive felling (cutting down the trees) is offered as a spatial solution. People can see the change, so they are comforted into thinking science is doing something. But these preemptive practices operate at human timescales, as they quickly wipe out any possibility that there are resistant strains of Hemlock in the forest.

All Hemlock must go, without any conviction that the plant might know something that science does not.

Instead, data proliferates through action, as millions of trees are forcibly extracted, leaving out basic evolutionary potential because that would give more agency to the plant than the human.

But what happens if the plants are just fine?

What if it is only the constructed image of the temperate deciduous forest that is under threat? What does that say for our species? Does it embolden more dichotomies and resistance to the plant life that is thriving or adapting?

Reengaging the terms of plant blindness encourages each of us to recognize the need for collaboration with the living, energetic environment and encourages each of us to think with complexity about the world we have created.

A tenant of modern ecology in most science literature is that a plant cannot just be a plant. Plants are resource, food, material, shade, medicine in humble service of humans and other creatures. In geographic terms, plants are persistently described as having evolved in large part by the physical environment, prioritizing the perspective of environmentalism over the adaptations of plant life itself.Niklas, Karl J. Plant Biomechanics: An Engineering Approach to Plant Form and Function. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. 53. Niklas attests the difficulty of the task: “This definition will be only a first order approximation, however—indeed, in a very real sense this entire book is merely a crude attempt to define the word plant.” This abiotic (physical) versus biotic (biological) proposition is precisely the type of dichotomous thinking evidenced two thousand years ago in Aristotle’s “Scala Naturae.” The hierarchy of relations emphasizes human dominance, refuting any possibility of co-evolution or symbiotic theory—implying that species are fixed. Such sharp discontinuities in complexity also assume that evolution is unilateral, or that any increase in size also increases complexity.For an excellent account of the conceptual frameworks of pre-Darwinian speculation see: Archibald, J.David. Aristotle's Ladder, Darwin's Tree: The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. But the basic differences between living matter are no longer the raw material of human speculation.

Life, at all scales makes more of itself.See: Margulis, Lynn, Chapman, Michael J. Kingdoms and Domains. Academic Press, 2009. First published in 1982, this remarkable book offers a classification scheme consistent both with the fossil record and recent molecular, morphological and metabolic data. Rather than two Kingdoms (plants and animals) Margulis classifies life into 5 kingdoms, and 2 domains. microorganisms.

Recognizing plant blindness means identifying the subtle relationships that bind organisms and animate life.

This active rethinking invites expression rather than identification; as recognition, alliances, mergers and shared features are acknowledged. Accepting that living organisms have intelligence and that plant life behaves by modifying its relationships through collaboration can generate new terms of engagement.

Being a student of plant blindness reveals that the entire spectrum of human existence is reflected in plant life. Plants are the engine of human civilization. It resists the diorama that foregrounds creatures and backgrounds plants. Recognizing plant blindness unsettles the history of knowing plants and asks how plants make themselves known. It overcomes plant knowledge as a strictly human project, suggesting that agency is not limited to forces and creatures.

What is life as we don’t know it?

The term suggests an inability to recognize common ancestry with plants and how plant life conditioned the biosphere for human life. Blindness towards living matter—microorganisms and green organisms—is equally a blindness of the dominance of life that is not human. Perhaps we can learn the operative tools of other species as means to ultimately break apart the concept that individuals can be grouped into logical, biological units despite the fact that those species evolve and give rise to new species in evolutionary terms.

But advocating for an antithesis is not the intention of my argument. Reversing the insistence on the singularity of planetary forces as the author of global biomes is just as inadequate as suggesting the earth was formed by plant life. Instead, perhaps plant life can act as a major force in our histories, and as a symbiot—an organism with intention and purpose towards multiplication. Plant life has been practicing and getting better at terrestrial dominance for far longer than humans and other animals. We should acknowledge their temporal and spatial dominance, substantiated by the lack of consensus and evidence associated with, for example the sudden appearance of flowering plants.This a conundrum that Darwin referred to as an ‘abominable mystery’. “The rapid development, as far as we can judge, of all the higher plants within recent geological time is an abominable mystery.” (1879 in a letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens London.) Friedman, William E., and Pamela K. Diggle. "Charles Darwin and the Origins of Plant Evolutionary Developmental Biology." The Plant Cell 23, no. 4 (2011): 1194-207. Can the inclusion of plant life help reorder our environmental aspirations?

The climate of concerns that surround us daily deserve to be augmented with positive energy that accepts how plants are actually adapting, rather than the ways in which we hope or expect them to.

It is already 50 years ago that a Stanford report delivered a statement to the American Petroleum Institute, and in an attempt to grapple with rising carbon levels, warned that “if the rise is left unabated it could bring about climatic changes like temperature increase, melting of ice caps and sea level rise.’ Twenty years later, in 1988 James Hansen declares ‘global warming’ a threat and yet another decade later the Kyoto protocol is negotiated. These decades of decline mark our inability to change with the times and the living environment. And they were followed by decades of further inaction from 2000 to the present—

a time replete with high-level committees, datasets and evidence, whereby each pixel and debate really only evolves a correspondence between expert humans.

Now we can now safely add the sophisticated human failure to recognize the importance of plants (and the misguided ranking of plants on a linear ladder of life) to the challenges of a changing climate.

What if we could overcome our collective plant blindness and finally include plants in human affairs? Climate literacy veers off course when it fails to recognize how plants formed the climate that we inhabit, but the illiteracy is borne of a blindness that can be cured. It also means we can attend to the friction it causes. The suggestion accumulates potential when a report confirms that 2,000 new plant species are discovered yearly. It is further confirmed when much of those discoveries exist through the remnants of indigenous practices that never suffered plant blindness.See for instance the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer: Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass : Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. First ed. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2013. Thus, the question is no longer one of isolated science but one that gathers relevance as it acknowledges the contribution of plant life in society—not as a decorative afterthought, an exploitable resource, or a designation of capital—but as a living, breathing, earthly collaborator.

RSE 1 Acer rubrumfrank

Acer Rubrum

Following a lightning strike, this Red Maple (Acer rubrum) formed a symbiotic relationship with a neighboring Ivy (Hedera Spp.) at the Harvard Arnold Arboretum in Boston. Both plants are now grafted, exemplifying that plants not only grow from a fixed location, but move in order to survive. At times they rely on the wind or the water for transport, but in this case, they use other plants for support. Specialized shoots or tendrils characterize climbing plants that thrive through dependence on other individuals but here, the Maple also benefits from an injection of structure.

RSE 2 Heptacodium miconioidesfrank

Heptacodium miconioides

Seven Son Plant (Heptacodium miconioides) is almost extinct in its native China, but persists in living collections globally, due to a relatively recent collection in 1980 by a Western botanical team. All plants in North America can be traced to this trip, and even further back to a common origin in a single parent plant at the Hangzhou Botanical Garden, like this mature specimen growing at the University of Rhode Island.

RSE 3 Lathyrusfrank

Lathyrus Sp.

One of the experiments that supported the plant blindness hypothesis is a fascinating experiment that recorded the tendency for human subjects to see animals before plants even when the frame is 90-99% composed of plant life. Seeing this image conjures “dog” in 93% of human subjects, rather than the flowering Sweet Pea (Lathyrus Sp.) Imagine an image composed of a bamboo forest, with a tiny speck of black. In these images 99% of human subjects replied “panda”.

Screen Shot 2018 05 20 at 9.22.31 AMfrank

Populus alba

Clonal dispersal is a method of distribution that adds to the overall abundance and vigor of a plant. Dispersal is essentially the inclination of a plant organism to grow away from its host or parent. The plant gains ground and achieves dominance by progressing horizontally through rhizomes, a modified stem that runs horizontally underground and bears roots in one direction and shoots in the other. This manner of dispersal yields other individual members that emerge at a distance from the parent plant and transform into independent plants, drawing resources both by association and through independent means. These shoots are called ramets and remain genetically identical—although they appear to be a clump of different plants they are all the same individual. The production of rhizomes enables Populus Spp. to dominate the rhizosphere.

RSE 5 Melothria scabrafrank

Melothria scabra

Melothria is colloquially known as mouse watermelon, cucamelon, or sandiita. To many readers it might seem an obscure or novel cultivar, but it is in fact an ancient plant that has been forgotten through the rise of commercial plantations. The delightful melony-cucumber taste is matched only by its entirely edible, endearing size. As a staple of Mexican and Central American diets since pre-Columbian times, it is also used in nonculinary ways, including in medicine, and for its vine and leaf. For the most part, its medicinal uses have been lost, but it still appears commonly in Mexican recipes.

RSE 6 Quercus suberfrank

Quercus suber

This stand of cork oak (Quercus suber) in Sardinia has been harvested for 400 years. But these trees are no longer cherished for their cork because they are part of a national forest preserve. Sardinia has undergone a progressive transformation from a primarily silvicultural and sheep farming landscape derived from a primitive landscape of Mediterranean forest to an agricultural landscape, with wheat fields in the plains, vineyards on the slopes, pastoral land in the highlands and remnant nature preserves that trace former practices.

RSE 7 Rhizospherefrank


While plant blindness describes the inability to perceive the visible plant, it also alludes to the rampant ignorance that continues to disregard the less visible features of plant life. The rhizosphere or rhizography introduces the world of roots and rhizomes as primary forces of landscape transformation. Although plants tend to compete for resources aboveground— underground they fuse, mingle, and cooperate inviting other organisms into their realm. The most remarkable interactions occur in this concealed space where the living of the plant is achieved, Plant life collaborates unseen in this lively world below our feet, under our buildings and beneath our infrastructure.