PLANT BLINDNESS

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KEW GARDENS

 As a scientist I read an awful lot of papers- some are tremendously boring, some interesting once you get past the wall of jargon, but the absolute best will make you think. I recently came across a paper published a couple of months ago in Conservation Biology intriguingly titled ‘Plant Blindness’. It turns out that conservation initiatives are heavily biased towards birds and mammals and against plants, to the extent that, in the US, plants received only 3.86% of federal funds to help endangered species despite them accounting for 57% of the endangered species list. Degree courses in botany are disappearing, and so are the skills that these courses taught. There’s even evidence to suggest that we find it harder to ‘see’ plants compared to animals, and find images of plants less memorable.

This blog is certainly guilty of plant blindness, featuring only one post so far where plants were the main focus (you can read it here). I’m a zoologist by training and profession, which I guess accounts for the emphasis on animals- but my lack of knowledge, lack of attention, and in many cases a lack of empathy with the plights of many plant species is doing them a disservice. They are the basis of virtually all life on earth- but more than that , I want to start giving plants credit for being weird, beautiful and exciting species in their own right. Thankfully, all this reading and rumination on the importance of plants came just as I was about to embark on a two week plant taxonomy and identification course at Kew Gardens- if this didn’t help me ‘see’ plants, I don’t know what would. And I walked away totally enamoured.

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The first thing to note is that Kew is ginormous, and even after two weeks there were large swathes of it that I hadn’t set foot on. But man, the things I did see. The enormous palm house in which a fully grown cecropia doesn’t even touch the roof. The exquisite delicacy of the flowers in the alpine house. The waterlilly house, which was like falling through the looking glass into wonderland. Finding hidden follies surrounded by flocking ring-necked parakeets. Walking around the arboretum at golden hour between the dappled shade of the gnarled chestnuts. If you have the chance to go, I would highly recommend taking advantage of the early opening hours throughout the summer- it’ll be just you and the Canada geese with the whole gardens to explore.

The house gin is pretty good, too. I treated myself after successfully learning how to recognise 28 plant families. So here’s to botanising, and the wonderful work of Kew.

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N.B. Here is the link to the original plant blindness paper by Balding & Williams (sadly paywalled, but it’s an interesting read if you have access)

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