On not being plant blind


Natalie Angier praised plants in an elegant piece in the International Herald Tribune (17 Apr 07).

Show somebody a painting of a verdant, botanically explicit forest with three elk grazing in the middle and ask what the picture is about, and the average viewer will answer, “Three elk grazing.” … What you’re unlikely to hear is anything akin to, “It’s a classic temperate mix of maple, birch and beech trees, and here’s a spectacular basswood and, whoa, an American elm that shows no sign of fungal infestation and, oh yeah, three elk and a blue jay.”

According to Peter H. Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, many of us suffer from an insidious condition called “plant blindness.” We barely notice plants, can rarely identify them and find them incomparably inert. Do you think that you will ever see a coma as vegetative as a tree? “Animals are much more vivid to the average person than plants are,” Raven said, “and some people aren’t even sure that plants are alive.”

In the northern Spring, the article urges us to “venture outside and check out the world through nature’s rose-colored glasses-and the daffodil, cherry blossom, dogwood and lupine ones, too. If this view doesn’t move you, you’re pushing up daisies. Angier goes on to describe how plants are the basis of “virtually all life on earth”. “The most important chemical reaction on earth is photosynthesis,”

You don’t need much encouragement to notice plants from where I sit. Our courtyard, tended by James, is crammed full of roses, as well as camellias, gardenias, and other things. There are two parks just a few metres from our apartment and our street is lined with tall oaks and other trees. Maples are slowly growing outside my study window and I can see Black Mountain in the distance, covered with native bushland-we are fortunate to live where we do. The Australian National Botanic Gardens are not far away.

I notice plants, a lot; I’m frustrated by knowing the names of so few of them. Inner Canberra is a good place for plant lovers to live. We thoroughly enjoyed all manner of plants on our recent American journey. But we were glad to see elk, as well.