Spending too much time indoors? You might be suffering from ‘plant blindness’

EXETER, United Kingdom — Many people may be suffering from “plant blindness” because they don’t spend enough time in the great outdoors, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Exeter say the phenomenon basically involves a lack of awareness and appreciation of native flora. Many people today don’t understand plants well enough because they simply don’t spend much time outside or in areas with green spaces.

Study authors explain that humans are not naturally bad at understanding flora, but our busy way of life limits our interactions with the natural world. However, plant blindness is “curable” through activities which put people in close contact with plants, such as wild foraging.

They add there is a common misconception that plants are “less alive” than animals, and that the cure to so-called “plant blindness” is to let people go to biodiverse places which will change their perceptions of how useful plants really are.

The team notes that plant blindness is a well-evidenced lack of interest in and awareness of plants among people in urban societies. People’s understanding of flora improves when they have frequent interactions with the plants that have direct relevance to their lives.

Even teachers are lacking plant knowledge

For the study, researchers from the University of Exeter and University College London read 326 articles published in academic journals between 1998 and 2020. Most of them showed people were more interested in and paid more attention to information about animals than plants. However, they did not find evidence that this is an innate human characteristic.

Instead, it seemed to be the result of our diminished experience with nature in urbanized environments. The authors say a decline in relevant experience with plants leads people to become more and more inattentive to them.

This can be addressed through first-hand experiences with edible and useful plants in local environments. Studies showed it was common for children, especially younger kids, to view plants as inferior to animals and not to be able to identify many species.

The team also found a disparity in plant awareness among teachers and students, particularly primary school teachers who did not study science at college. Older people had a better understanding of plants, which may be because they were more likely to have nature-related hobbies.

Researchers note that modernization or urbanization had a negative impact on plant knowledge in 35 studies. Our increased reliance on urban services and cash economies means plant foraging is less intrinsically useful to modern people.

Fewer people are learning about plants from older generations

Going to work and school also reduces the time we spend in the natural environment. Those factors also reduce the time we spend with family, meaning grandparents do not pass on as much knowledge about plants to their grandchildren.

“People living in highly industrialized countries have a plant attention deficit due to a decline in relevant experience with plants, as opposed to a cognitive impediment to the visual perception of plants,” says study author Dr. Bethan Stagg in a university release.

“People living in rural communities in low and middle-income countries were more likely to have high plant knowledge due to a dependence on natural resources. Interestingly, economic development does not necessarily lead to this knowledge being lost if communities still have access to the biodiverse environments.”

“The key is to demonstrate some direct benefits of plants to people, as opposed to the indirect benefits through their pharmaceutical and industrial applications, or their value to remote, traditional societies. The level of botanical knowledge in younger generations is shown to be directly related to their perceived usefulness of this knowledge,” Dr. Stagg continues.

“‘Wild plant’ foraging shows considerable promise in this respect, both as a way of introducing people to multiple species and connecting them with some ‘modern-day’ health, cultural and recreational uses.”

The findings appear in the journal Plants People Planet.

South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.

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