Rhododendron? Hydrangea? America Doesn't Know Anymore
|This is a vital need for greater botanical knowledge.|
|Wall Street Journal|
|The U.S. is running short of people who can tell the forest from the trees.|
Organizations such as the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management can’t find enough scientists to deal with invasive plants, wildfire reforestation and basic land-management issues.
Botanists use the term “plant blindness” to describe the growing inability by Americans—and even well-degreed biologists—to tell the difference among even basic plants. Quick: Rhododendron or hydrangea?
The issue has prompted botanical gardens around the nation to raise the alarm. Colleges are beefing up plant identification coursework for a generation of botanists more focused on their microscopes than studying leaf patterns. Bills introduced in the U.S. Senate in July and the U.S. House last year are aimed at promoting botany education.
“Imagine a medical doctor who didn’t know how to identify the correct body parts,” said William Friedman, a Harvard biology professor. “You wouldn’t want that guy working on you.”
Camila Martinez, who is finishing her doctorate, bumped into this phenomenon when she interviewed for a spot in the botany Ph.D. program at Cornell University. Afterward, she and a handful of other candidates took a tour of the plant conservatory.
One candidate stopped in front of a magnificent orchid, she said. He remarked on its strange leaves. Ms. Martinez grew up in Colombia, where she studied plant identification. She waited for someone to say something. No one did.
“There are two plants in that pot,” she finally said. “That leaf is a part of a fern.”
Another result of the declining interest is that schools are getting rid of their herbaria, the sometimes vast collection of plants that form the spine of a botanist’s education. In the past 30 years, the New York Botanical Garden alone has absorbed collections from 15 colleges and universities that no longer have space, budget or interest in maintaining it.
Barbara M. Thiers, who directs the herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden, estimates about a quarter of the world’s 3,200 herbaria are at risk because of physical threats such as hurricanes or administrative apathy.
“If a collection is sitting stacked up in a hallway, it’s just bug food,” said Austin Mast, director of the herbarium at Florida State University.
Virginia creeper Photo: iStock
Poison ivy Photo: iStock
The term plant blindness was discussed in a 2001 essay in the Bulletin, a publication of the Botanical Society of America. It laid some blame on how few Americans today make their living off the land. It also noted that animals have faces and can move; plants can’t. The paper noted “zoochauvinistic introductory biology instructors” who use “zoocentric examples” to teach basic biological concepts to stack the deck against plants.
Also, “human-eating plants do not exist, and we all know it.”
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The authors complained that botanists aren’t particularly good advocates. At the entrance to the Royal Botanic Gardens near London was an intricate, wood-relief mural depicting the gardens during a storm. “Yet, inexplicably, about two-thirds of the sculpture’s surface area is devoted to images of animals.”
Co-author Elisabeth Schussler, now an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said plants have an uphill battle because children are raised to like animals better. Think stuffed animals and Snoopy.
Not only are there fewer university botany programs but those who graduate from them may not be well versed in plant identification. The cutting edge of plant science, which has commercial applications, is molecular. Students and universities are following the significant money.
A woman and her dog walk the trails in Mayor Baxter Woods in Portland, Maine.
A woman and her dog walk the trails in Mayor Baxter Woods in Portland, Maine. Photo: Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
“Molecular biology is the underpinnings for how organisms work, at the other end of the spectrum there is global ecology,” said Dr. Friedman, the Harvard biology professor who runs a course every summer which helps graduate students learn how to identify plants. “The area in the middle is all about how a plant grows; that is disappearing from most university curricula and we need this information because things are changing really fast.”
The Harvard program addresses the deficit with an intensive two-week course in an arboretum to help them learn to identify plants in their natural environment.
Molly Edwards, who attended Dr. Friedman’s course two years ago, said students looked closely at the difference between thorns, spines and prickles. It may sound esoteric but since each is generated by a different biological system (leaves, epidermis and stems), it is fundamental to their structure.
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Hilton Carter has nearly 300 plants in his Baltimore apartment and studio. He calls them his “green friends,” adding, “I’m not the crazy plant person. Am I?” Video/Photo: Natalia V. Osipova/The Wall Street Journal
“It’s addicting,” she said. “It’s like a gateway drug to the sciences.”
Many botanists who accrued knowledge specific to their regions over decades are retiring from the federal government faster than they can be replaced, said Greg Mueller, a chief scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Today, there is roughly one botanist on the federal payroll for every 20 million acres of land, he said.
Dennis Woodland, a professor emeritus at Andrews University in Michigan, said the extent of plant blindness was made clear to him several years ago when a man came to his office and asked him to identify several flowers and shrubs that were growing in his yard. The visitor said he had been to four other colleges and no one had been able to help.
The plants were neither rare nor uncommon, Dr. Woodland said.
“We are creating a virtual world and we are not paying attention to the natural world around us,” he said.
Write to Douglas Belkin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the August 15, 2018, print edition as 'A Rose by Any Other Name Might Just Be a Rhododendron.'
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