Spring 2020

Front List

An illustration shows families in a wooded setting. The people and animals are depicted in bright colors and the trees and other plants are a single light shade of gray.
Illustration by Danielle Lamberson Philipp
  1. “Plant blindness” is the inability to recognize or notice the plants in one’s environment. For many people, it’s far easier to discern or recall an image of an animal than that of a plant, and this deficit diminishes interest in the critical role that plants play in the biosphere and human affairs. American botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler first gave plant blindness its name in 1998 after noting its rapid spread — a trend that has continued under the pressure of forces such as urbanization and digitization.
  2. Plant blindness results in an underappreciation of plants and limits future interest in plant sciences and conservation. This is problematic because plants matter for human health, and more time spent on digital devices leads to “nature deficit disorder” — a term coined by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. While not meant to be a medical diagnosis, a lack of connection to nature can lead to serious negative health effects — mental, emotional, and physical.
  3. Public gardens are in a unique position to help reverse plant blindness. These spaces provide meaningful and authentic experiences with plants that invoke curiosity about the flora in our midst and help build personal affinity and awareness. Where I work, at UW–Madison’s Allen Centennial Garden, we achieve these experiences through community co-creation and participation, which means we carefully craft our offerings with — rather than for — the audiences we want to reach.
  4. Public garden experiences can combat plant blindness by increasing public engagement with plants in innovative ways. One example from Allen is our annual Plant Adoption Day. Participating students agree to adopt and care for an indoor plant. Our student interns also become involved in the adoption process by educating new “plant parents” about each species’ unique needs. In 2019, when nearly 2,000 UW students participated, the event evolved into a collaborative social media project between the interns and “master gardener” volunteers through an Instagram account.
  5. We must cultivate a new mind-set among younger generations to ensure that plant blindness does not persist. As a living museum, Allen is a repository of our community’s natural and cultural commonwealth. Our events make plants provocative; they transform plants into social objects that mediate conversations and spark connections. As a result, students want to work with us — with plants, in a garden. This is evidenced by the 100-plus applications for summer internships we received last year. We’re cultivating a community of future leaders who are inspired to care about plants and pursue professions that nurture, support, and embrace nature. We believe gardens can — and will — save the world.

With a background in landscape architecture and sustainability studies, Benjamin Futa is passionate about connecting people to plants — and each other — through public gardens. He is executive director of Allen Centennial Garden, the Department of Horticulture’s living laboratory, outdoor classroom, and public botanical garden.

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