Tackling plant blindness: Botany by stealth…

School lessons devoted to plants may be off-putting to those students who are already plant-averse. So, why not smuggle bits of plant information into lessons on topics as diverse as Geography, History, Art & Design, and Computing to show how relevant plants are?

The spectre of plant blindness stalks the land and we should rightly be fearful about humanity’s future where the roles of plants are underappreciated at best, or unrecognised and ignored at worst. At its most basic, plants and their products feed us, clothe us and make us better. If we are ignorant of such fundamental truths we risk losing or destroying the very organisms that ultimately allow us as a species to survive on this planet. We therefore need to increase and extend mankind’s awareness of plants and their role in crafting human society to ensure greater ‘botanical literacy’ for all. It is only in that way that our green inheritance is valued and its true worth recognised, and nature’s green bounty is used more sensibly and sustainably, and in an environmentally sympathetic way. Although that challenge of overcoming plant blindness is a big one, we need to rise to it. But, with so many distinct audiences that need to be reached, where should we start?

Education is the key

I recently had the pleasure and privilege to present some of my thoughts on an approach which I believe will instil greater plant-awareness amongst Secondary Schoolchildren (specifically in the context of the education system in England, and who are aged from 11 to 16 years of age). This proposal was aimed principally at non-Science subject specialist Secondary Schoolteachers. However, there were very few of those in the audience at the University of Reading’s Big Botany Challenge symposium on 8th November, 2019 where these ideas were first floated.

Therefore, in the spirit of trying to reach a bigger target audience, who may be interested enough to take up these ideas, I’m hopeful that a blog item on Botany One might help to spread the word further and wider. I realise the main teaching audience for Botany One is likely to be plant-minded/Science specialists, but if they can be encouraged to direct the attention of their non-Science subject specialist colleagues to this item, then we might get somewhere.

If plant-aversion amongst the population is as widespread as believed, we risk making that worse by subjecting youngsters to plants-only teaching sessions.* To achieve increased plant knowledge and understanding amongst schoolchildren I propose ‘smuggling’ bits of plant-relevant information into lessons in the National Curriculum in subjects other than Science. The hope is that the plant component is neither overwhelming [and therefore potentially perpetuating plant blindness…], nor seen as a separate educational topic. Instead, with this approach plants should be recognised as a natural, relevant – and essential – part of their learning about that other subject. In that way I hope that the intimate relationships between plants and ‘other stuff’ are revealed and become embedded within the students’ core knowledge.

The ultimate goal of this approach is to ensure our young people are ‘plant-savvy’ and get them to appreciate that knowledge of our relationships with plants can help us make some sense of the modern world. Maybe, just maybe, that might make them appreciate the important roles that plants have played, are playing, and will continue to play in their future. After all, a plant-deficient education is a pretty poor one! And a plant-literate population is the ultimate civilised society.

But first some caveats…

I am a Botanist

I claim no expertise in History, Geography, Computer Science, Art & Design, or Design & Technology [which is why my notes relating to those subjects are rather brief – naïve even? – and should be seen as indications of how plants could be integrated into the curriculum; they are not in-depth, expert commentaries – hence the need to get the subject-specialists involved!]. I’m not a Secondary School teacher. And I don’t have any in-depth knowledge of the National Curriculum. However, as a Botanist and aspiring ‘botanical educator’, I do know something about the importance of plants to the lives of people. All I wish to do here is to share with you some ways in which plant-relevant information can be incorporated by stealth into lessons on almost any curriculum subject you can imagine – particularly in sessions where the National Curriculum gives the teacher some discretion in what is actually taught.

Although I don’t necessarily have the secret to curing plant blindness, I do believe that everybody can benefit from being a little more aware of the influence of plants in the world: What better place to start this plant educating goal than in school?

Where might ‘botany by stealth’ be possible within the National Curriculum in England (NC) [Fig. 1]?

As I understand it, the NC specifies subjects to be studied at each of 4 Key Stages (KSs). Thanks to a great new resource [Angela Hall’s “Plants in the national curriculum audit”], it is pretty clear where plants can be employed within Science sessions. However, quite what scope we actually have to incorporate plant information in any of those other NC subjects I don’t know. But! I’m hopeful that plant knowledge can be included, with a little imagination and creativity and stealth – both by science teachers and their NC subject specialist colleagues at school.

Right, now for some examples of botany by stealth in action…

Cotton is a VIP

Image: United States Department of Agriculture / Wikipedia

I showcase here some ways in which one particular plant could be used to add that desirable plant awareness to several core and foundation subjects at KSs 1 – 3. That ‘botanical guinea pig’ is cotton, the common name for several species in the genus Gossypium, part of the mallow family, the Malvaceae.**

Early on in human history, we discovered that the seeds of cotton bear hairs, which can be spun into a durable, light-weight, dyeable, breathable, cloth. This property has been exploited for hundreds of years and generated huge fortunes for some: Cotton has quite literally been a real money-spinner.

During its long association with people, cotton has left an indelible mark on the course of human history: Cotton is a VIP, a Very Important Plant. It’s not the only VIP, but a brief survey of its relationships to people illustrates its importance and relevance to humankind, an appreciation of which gives us a better understanding of the world…

The Plantation System [History]

A cotton plantation on the Mississippi, 1884.

Like tobacco and sugar cane,*** cotton is traditionally grown using the plantation system. Cotton is resource-hungry and its success has relied on a lot of manpower to sow, tend, and harvest the crop. In the past, much of that manpower came from slaves, principally transported to the Americas from Africa.

Cotton and its connection with slavery, European exploitation of Africans, and man’s inhumanity to his fellow man – and woman! – is a major topic that can be studied from many different angles, in several KS topics, not just History. Although it does have a lot of other historical relevance, for example…

The Industrial Revolution [History]

St.Rollox Chemical Works at the opening of the Garnkirk and Glasgow railway in 1831 painted by D.O.Hill.

A major destination for the harvested cotton from the southern states of the fledgling USA was the cloth-making mills of Lancashire, in England. The combination of coal or water as energy and power sources, entrepreneurship and technical innovation of late 18th and early 19th C inventors and industrialists, abundant raw material, and an accessible workforce helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution in the UK.

The Industrial Revolution is often cited as one of the most important stages in the development of the modern world; arguably, at its heart was our relationship with cotton.

Cotton and the Communist Manifesto [History]

The environments for the workers in the dark, satanic mills of the UK’s cotton industry were extremely poor. And those workers weren’t only adults; very young children worked long hours, often in desperate conditions with no trades’ unions, poor pay, few workers’ rights, and barely-existent health and safety. All of this was noted by Friedrich Engels, who also had first-hand knowledge from his own family’s mills in Salford (near Manchester). His concern for the plight of the mill-workers helped to form his political views, which, with input from Karl Marx, became the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

So, exploitation of cotton by British capitalists help to spawn Communism, a political ideology at odds with Capitalism. A consequence of tension between those two opposing political systems was…

The Cold War [History]

Image: Carlos3653 / Wikipedia

…in which the Capitalism of the USA was pitted against the Communist Soviet Union. Although, in some respects the Cold War ended shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, tensions between East and West, and Capitalism versus Communism persist to this day, not least in the trade war between Capitalist USA and Communist China.

American Civil War [History]

American Civil War Battle of Spottsylvania [sic] by Thure de Thulstrup, restoration by Adam Cuerden. Image: Adam Cuerden / Wikipedia

Although the inhumanity of slaveownership and cotton plantations wasn’t the only cause of the American Civil War [1861-1865], it was a major contributing factor. That war, which set southern States against those in the north, and citizen against citizen, was America’s bloodiest conflict with an estimated 750,000 deaths.

One of the widely recognised good things to have come out of this conflict was the official abolition of slavery throughout the majority of the United States in the mid-late 1860s. However, this civil war arguably set the scene for decades of racial tension in the USA through the 19th and 20th Centuries, and into the 21st Century.

Clearly, cotton has a lot of relevance to History. But it can also be applied to Geography…

Cotton and the catastrophe of the Aral Sea [Geography]

A comparison of the Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right). Image: NASA / Wikipedia

This pair of images  dramatically shows the shrinking Aral Sea [in 1989 (left) and in 2014 (right)]. Situated between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia it was once the 4th largest lake on Earth; now it’s little more than a salty puddle. The main reason for its dramatic reduction in size is the damming of the two major rivers that feed the freshwater lake, under the instructions of Joseph Stalin (as leader of the Soviet Union). The was done to irrigate desert land around the Aral Sea so that the USSR could grow crops, especially cotton.

The shrinking of the lake had knock-on effects to the related ecology of the area, and is – or should be! – an environmental ‘warning’ to us all. There were also direct effects on human health as a result of intensive and extensive use of chemicals, such as pesticides, to keep the cotton crop safe from insect attack…

GM crops and Bt cotton [Science]

Cotton bullworm. Image: Agricultural Research Service / Wikipedia

One way to reduce pesticide use is with genetically-modified (GM) plants. Most cotton grown in the USA today is GM’d, particularly so-called Bt cotton. Bt cotton contains a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis for a protein with insecticidal properties. Bt cotton thus produces its own insect defence, reducing the need for externally-applied insecticides. This means reduced risk of harm to the workers applying the chemical, and to the environment – because some of the added compound may remain in the soil where it could cause ‘damage’.

This topic certainly is plant science, but GM is also a matter that divides opinion and therefore of public concern, so can be smuggled into lessons on several other subjects, maybe as a For/Against debate?

It’s not just Science, History and Geography, cotton has also played a major role in the Arts…

Cotton and cinema [Art & Design]

Film poster for ‘Gone with the wind’. Image: Employee(s) of MGM / Wikipedia

From the early days of the movie industry, until the advent of digital media in the late 20th Century, films were recorded on celluloid. Celluloid is made from cotton and its cheapness, flexibility, and transparency made it eminently suitable as a medium to record images, such as movies. And what an influential medium it’s been; for good and bad – education, entertainment and propaganda of mass audiences worldwide.

Unfortunately, the material was unstable and highly flammable(!): Many old movies are still only available as ageing, rather dangerous celluloid film reels.

Celluloid also deserves mention as one of the first synthetic plastics – which thereby helped to spawn the Plastic Age we are all experiencing and battling with.

And keeping right up-to-date with Space Age hi-tech…

Computing cotton clothing [Computing/Design & Technology]

In this technology, transistors are made from threads of cotton coated with gold nanoparticles and other chemicals. This creates cotton that is stiffer than that in a standard shirt, but is more elastic and able to carry a current, turning the fabric into a computing matrix.

Potential uses of this electronic textile include: Firefighters’ uniforms detecting dangerous chemicals; biomedical garments monitoring heart rates and perspiration; carpets measuring allergens or humidity, etc.

Finally, …

Don’t forget the Science lessons!

Science subject specialists: Don’t overlook the obvious! Consider using cotton as your example plant in plant biology sessions. After all, it has: anatomy (stem, root, leaf, flower with cells); physiology (not just photosynthesis, stomata, and water transport); growth requirements (including carbohydrates, water, and minerals); ecology; and agricultural relevance.

Plus!, you can use this as an excuse to mention cotton’s connections to: Slavery; the American Civil War; the Cold War; environmental mismanagement; computing, etc.

Guerrilla botanists battling plant blindness

A gorilla sitting in the grass and eating from a big plant. Image: Tambako the Jaguar / Flickr

There are many more ways in which cotton can be stealthily incorporated into other lessons and topics.**** However, I hope this essay has given you some ideas of ways in which a plant agenda can be ‘smuggled’ into non-Science subjects in the National Curriculum. So, do speak with your subject specialist colleagues and get them to help spread the word!

We are battling plant blindness, but to do so effectively, we need to be a little bit canny. So, rather than take on the enemy in a direct frontal assault, why not employ a ‘skirmishing’ approach, successfully used by many threatened groups throughout history? Let us therefore engage in a bit of botanical stealth, smuggling our plant message into as many different classes as possible, and be proud to be part of a new band of ‘guerrilla botanists’!

Maybe we need a Plant Education ‘Czar’?

But, rather than rely on plant-passionate individuals trialling this on an ad-hoc, hit-and-miss basis in individual schools, perhaps we need a more directed approach from on high. Do we, for example, need a dedicated individual – or team – who can advise those with responsibility for setting the educational curriculum to ensure that a plant-relevant message is built into all subjects taught in schools? In that way, plant literacy would be embedded within the legally-set – and enforceable… – educational system? Just as we in the UK have a so-called ‘drug czar’, who advises the UK government on matters such as drugs education, do we need a ‘Plant Education Czar’?

Take home message

To summarise the above, why not treat plant knowledge like maths and numeracy knowledge in our young children’s education? The text below is taken from the National Curriculum in England Key stages 3 and 4 framework document:

What I’d urge all Secondary Schoolteachers to do is to tweak that wording a little, so that we aspire to achieve this:

Although this on its own probably won’t eradicate plant blindness, I believe it can be an effective step in the quest to produce people who are plant-aware. And, as a bonus, it might eradicate any lingering plant blindness amongst the subject specialists who take up the challenge of including plant examples in their lessons!

If you’re a Secondary Schoolteacher, do let me know if it works for you.

Could/can this realistically work within the National Curriculum in England in all schools?

Could/can it also work in the curricula for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland?

Could/can it work for Primary Schoolchildren (ages 4/5 to 10)?

Why limit these ideas to the UK, what about trying this approach in the Rest of the World?

What else can we consider to get our ‘plants are so relevant to the past, present and future of humanity’ message across?


* Although there’s absolutely nothing wrong in ALSO having plant-dedicated sessions!

** Other members of the Malvaceae are cocoa, durian, Hibiscus, jute, baobab, kapok, balsa, and okra [http://www.malvaceae.info/], all of which plants that have their own stories to tell, and be stealthily smuggled into classes…

*** Either of these other two crops could also be used to smuggle plant literacy into many other subject lessons. In fact, cotton, tobacco, and sugarcane make a great teaching trio for raising plant awareness.

**** For example, English, and Chemistry (a component part of Science):

What’s in a name I? Denim, famous as cotton material for jeans and clothing for the upper body is so-called because of its French connection: Denim is a contraction of ‘serge de Nîmes’ meaning ‘coarse, coloured, twilled cotton cloth of/from the French town of Nîmes’. And ‘jeans’ is apparently a corruption of the French word for Genoa, Gênes, in which Italian place cotton corduroy was manufactured

What’s in a name II? Cottonopolis – name for Manchester (from 1854), the cotton manufacturing capital of the world in the 19th Century; polis is Greek for ‘city’.

What’s in a name III? To ‘cotton on’; means to like, adhere to, or agree with any person; “to cotton on to a man,” to attach yourself to him, or fancy him, literally, to stick to him as cotton would.

Aside from the unintended consequence of flammable celluloid movie reels, cotton components have been deliberately converted to explosives. Treatment of cellulose (the harvested cotton hair is almost pure cellulose) with a mix of nitric and sulphuric acids produces cellulose nitrate. Its old name of guncotton gives a clue to its potential: It is an explosive. But, unlike gunpowder, guncotton produces much less smoke. Which means the gunner’s view is not impaired so s/he knows where to aim the next barrage of death and destruction. And, reduced smoke diminishes the chance that the gun’s location will be given away to the enemy. I don’t know if 21st Century health and safety will allow guncotton to be produced in a school lab, but what a dramatic demonstration of the power of cotton that could be!