Getting botanically literate in the Garden State

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by Alison Mitchell, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Anyone who invests a springtime in coaxing flowers, fruits, or vegetables out of the ground in this state we’re in will develop a healthy respect for plants. Despite our efforts to tame what grows in our gardens, plants have a way of advancing their own agendas.

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The flowering vine clematis waves its tendrils around until it finds a climbing station that suits it better than the trellis we push into the ground. Fig trees seem to decide independently whether they’ll offer fruit twice a year or not at all.

Their undeniable biological capabilities aside, research shows not many of us appreciate plant life. While interest in the intelligence of plants is growing (see Zoe Schlanger’s recent “The Light Eaters” for a breakdown, aimed at mainstream readers, of the sexual deception of orchids, among other little-known plant behaviors), our failure to recognize their importance may be getting worse. The lack of general exposure to nature is a major culprit. The amount of time we spend with devices can’t be helping.     

But here in New Jersey, an orchestrated shift in our appreciation for the greenery around us is quietly taking shape: In May, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Office of Natural Lands Management introduced a web page dedicated to botanical literacy, complete with a suite of learning tools.

The page, put together by Eva Popp, a project manager in the DEP’s Green Acres Program, is more than a tab on your browser for figuring out the difference between honeysuckle, hyacinth, and hydrangea. It’s an exploration of the phenomenon of humans ignoring the flora that surrounds us, and why it matters.

Julia Somers, executive director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, thinks it’s one of the DEP’s most important innovations. “It’s spectacular,” she said. “People protect the places they love, and what they love. And in order to love something, you need to know about it.” She’s hopeful that the new offering will rally empathy for plants and renewed interest in their conservation. Plants, after all, improve air and water quality, provide habitat for wildlife, and form the base of the food chain for all animals. They’re also the template for many medicines, and fight climate change. “Every environmental organization in New Jersey and everywhere should be supporting this kind of work.” 

Front and center on the botanical literacy page is a diagram that explains “plant blindness,” also known as plant awareness disparity.

Plant blindness is seeing plants more as wallpaper than as fellow beings. Reasons for the condition are both biological and cultural. Because plants don’t move much, grow close to one another, and are often similar in color, our brains lump them together. We unconsciously filter them out, assigning them the role of scenery.  

Then there is our bias toward “biobehavioral similarity” – our tendency to be drawn to the creatures most similar to us. “As animals ourselves,” we learn from the botanical literacy page, “humans tend to believe that animals are more interesting, complex, and worthy of study than plants.” That accounts for why animals are our team mascots and best friends. It might also account for the bull rescue that made headlines in Newark this year: A runaway bull roaming the train tracks will find rescuers and get a fresh start at a sanctuary. Some trampled pokeweed probably won’t.

The botanical literacy page takes a thoughtful stab at remedying plant blindness. “We took the approach of: it’s usually better to tell somebody what they’re supposed to do than to tell them not to do something,” Popp said. Six lesson plans aimed at educators of all levels, from kindergarten through high school, introduce exercises for tackling plant blindness. Five-year-olds can learn about plant habitats through a guided nature walk; an observation worksheet” gets teens and younger kids out in the field to look at pollinators and record their findings (sample prompt: “Observe one flower for one minute. Make a tally of how many pollinators visit it”).

You don’t have to be a teacher for the page’s content to be useful. A diagram explaining the cycle of plant blindness lays out the consequences of our indifference, including loss of biodiversity and how we manage land and natural resources. Plant blindness, it notes, “may ultimately lead to a limited awareness of the environmental and technological climate solutions offered by plants.”

A simple solution to plant blindness is to interact with plants more — something that shouldn’t be challenging in New Jersey, where we have more than 2,000 native plants (more than 800 are considered rare, with 356 species endangered). If we want to keep calling ourselves the Garden State, it’s practically our duty. But it can also be our joy, and a source of fascination. Flowers like the evening primrose make sweeter nectar when they sense honeybees approaching; pea seedlings bend themselves in the direction of flowing water. We need plants to survive. Botanical literacy is a smart first step toward rethinking the role of plants, and our own role, in the natural world.

Find the DEP’s botanical literacy page here:  https://www.nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/natural/heritage/botanical_literacy.html

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