When people mention plant blindness* they tend to focus on the ‘lack of appreciation of the role of plants in the world’ notion. That is important, but there has always been another side to plant blindness, people’s apparent inability to see plants in the natural world. That second issue is part of the inspiration for the establishment of the 15º Laboratory in 1996 by one of the founding-fathers of plant blindness, the late Dr Jim Wandersee. We are told that it has been experimentally determined that individuals prefer to view objects that lie between 0 and 15° below the imaginary horizontal line that represents their own eye level. In other words, anything below 15° from one’s eye-line – such as small plants and even shrubs – may literally be overlooked.
As a graphic demonstration of the need to look down towards the ground (as well as scanning the horizon for threats, etc.), we have the discovery of a new species of saxifrage, Chrysosplenium ramosissimum by Yong-In Kim et al. This plant was quite literally ‘hidden’ in plain sight – and therefore ripe for botanical discovery – in Gangwon-do (South Korea), along a stream near a hiking trail to Guk-sa Seonghwangsa (temple) (Mt Seonjaryeong, Hoenggye-ri, Daegwallyeong-myeon, Pyeongchang-gun). How many thousands of walkers/temple-goers must have not seen or overlooked this ground-hugging rarity?
A similar tale – albeit from a road arguably less travelled than the temple trail of the Korean peninsula – comes from eastern Brazil. Yuri Fernandes Gouvêa et al. describe a “sticky and heavily armed new species of Solanum” Although Solanum kollastrum inhabits edge of small forest fragments, and especially at the base of, or upon, the area’s inselbergs, some populations were also found in disturbed sites such as borders of unpaved roads and pastures. As the Solanum paper’s authors state: “The discovery of S. kollastrum, a robust and conspicuous plant growing at the roadsides in regions close to large urban centres, highlights how insufficiently known the Brazilian flora is”.
New plant discoveries are out there, waiting to be made by those who have the good sense to look towards the ground a little more. And you don’t have to be a trained botanist to make these discoveries, citizen science can play an important role, as demonstrated by the discovery of a new species of mangrove in north-eastern Australia by citizen scientist Hidetoshi Kudo. Mr Cuttings can do no better than echo the words of Dr Norm Duke, who provided the formal description of the new species Bruguiera × dungarra: “There clearly remain unknown species out there. These findings confirm embarrassing gaps in our botanical knowledge. These new findings have been made in busy populated areas, who knows what we might find in more remote places!”. And by way of promoting the notion of walking-in-nature-with-a-purpose, Mr Kudo admits that he looked for mangroves for fun while walking his dog and made it a game to identify as many mangrove species as possible.
Finally, a tale from Australia and Ms Libby Sandiford who “noticed a plant that was slightly different”. “Shoved up against the side of a busy highway in Cranbrook, 90 kilometres north of Albany in Western Australia”, Ms Sandiford had rediscovered Acacia prismifolia which hadn’t been ‘seen’ in that area since 1933, and thought extinct. Consequently, we – botanists and citizens whether we be phytoenthusiasts or just phytocurious – need to up our game, both to lower the public’s gaze [and our own!] and raise the profile of plants.
[Ed. – whilst one doesn’t want to be a spreader of doom-and-gloom, and suggest that botanists are trying to remedy the irremediable, there is a suggestion that plant blindness may be an ancient phenomenon, that it’s the default position of humanity, and one that’s ‘hard-wired into our DNA’ since our cave-dwelling days. Has eradicating plant blindness just got a whole lot harder?]
*Mr Cuttings has recently been made aware of afflictions similar to plant blindness that are experienced by those whose interests are primarily insect-based in one of Simon Leather’s typically thought-provoking posts at his “Don’t Forget the Roundabouts” blog-site. These are the phenomena of entomyopia – “entomological short-sightedness” – and entoalexia – “entomological blindness”. Knowing how closely related – inexorably interdependently, intertwined even – are the disciplines of botany and entomology and the intimate connections that exist between plants and insects, this is a worrying revelation. But, it might be the only glimmer of hope in the otherwise doom-and-gloom-laden report by Francisco Sánchez-Bayo and Kris A.G. Wyckhuys that insect numbers are plummeting globally, and which has spawned apocalyptic news stories in the press. But, maybe the insect declines aren’t as bad as feared; perhaps they are more a reflection of decline in, and lack of, insect-aware individuals to give correct assessments. Cause for some hope, or just wishful thinking..?