Plants & People

Are Botanists Threatened with Extinction?

Scientists argue that we won't be able to protect the natural world, if we're not training the next generation of botanists with the necessary skills, writes Sebastian Stroud.
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Sharing the gift of plant love. A pair of hands offers an plant to another han.
Photo: Annika Geijer-Simpson

Plant blindness, or plant awareness disparity, fostering plant love, growing plant awareness – I could go on. These are the multitude of names which weave their way throughout the literature but describe the same fundamental phenomenon. However, their core message is simple. People don’t value plants, people don’t understand plants, and people don’t see plants – despite the fact that at every moment in most people’s lives, there is likely a plant or plant product within their field of vision. This is the issue at the heart of our latest publication in Ecology and Evolution.

There are many studies which explore this topic is detail, ranging from the evolutionary context that plants occupy within our field of vision, to those discussing how our understanding of plants can be linked to broader environmental and ecological education and how an understanding of plant ecology is essential in developing a species literacy.

As you’re reading this on Botany One I am quite certain that you are a plant aware individual. If not, you’re well on your way to becoming one. You likely know about the power of plants and how important their relationship with us is.

I’m also sure that many of you – who, like myself, have come through the education system recently or teach within higher education – are aware of a pervasive notion that students are not interested in plants, or more grotesquely, that plants are not interesting. Botany and plant science modules don’t sell. They’re not always seen as sexy science. “Students aren’t interested in plant identification modules”, “it’s not relevant” . Perhaps these aren’t said out loud, but the narrative is one which many botanical educators may hear.

This is certainly the case within UK-based plant science degrees. My co-authors and I explored the number of students graduating across a variety of programmes and found that students studying plant science are outnumbered almost 1 to 200 by those studying general biology. The content delivered to these students is also not hugely different: when module offerings were broken down, it was found that only 14% of the content offered to plant student was solely focused on plants, with both groups receiving little-to-no identification training.

Student being educated in botanical garden. Photo: Annika Geijer-Simpson

Doubly, we believe the problem starts much earlier in education. We looked at the UK’s primary national curriculum and found students are only required to identify and name a variety of common wild and garden plants during their early school years with little additional plant ecology or natural history.

Plant teaching in secondary education is focused on bioenergetics, reproduction, and anatomy with little on plant ecology and no identification skills. In our analysis of the UK School Curriculum there are hardly any references to exploring plant diversity and ecology, and the few present are mostly for young children.

This problem is not isolated to the UK alone, but rather a global trend. More recently, indigenous and local communities’ knowledge of landscapes and habitats has been recognized as critical to global conservation goals (Conservation Matters, 2021). One Swiss study of several thousand participants aged between eight and 18 could on average only identify five plants, although this study also noted there was a generally poor ability to recognize species (Lindemann-Matthies, 2002).

Analysis of South African educational texts followed similar trends to other studies, with the authors noting the content taught is likely not sufficient to provide a strong knowledge or skills foundation in the plant sciences and is subsequently unlikely to encourage positive development of values toward plants (Abrie, 2016). Recent research has even revealed potential threats to indigenous knowledge and observed economic development which has led to reductions in local ethnobotanical knowledge (Saynes-Vásquez et al., 2016).

This cuts to the heart of the issue – a process we term the “botanical education extinction”. Students are not introduced to the diversity of plant forms and function and are certainly not engaged with how fascinating and dynamic the flora world is.

At its core, the extinction of botanical education is comprised of two simple interacting cycles:

  • A fall in plant awareness through a lack of exposure to plants and
  • A loss of knowledge through a diminished demand and provision of botanical education

Within our paper we argue the consequences of these two simple interacting phenomena, if not reversed, may have irreparable and disastrous consequences for our society. We pose the question; how many generations of botanists remain before we no longer have the expertise to understand the tipping points of ecosystems? The longer we allow the cycle to continue, the more difficult it will likely become to halt and reverse it.

We are not the first to recognize this phenomenon of botanical knowledge loss. Multiple papers have discussed the decline of botany as a science (Crisci et al., 2020; Drea, 2011), but often these papers focus on the threats to biodiversity (Baldini et al., 2021; Prather et al., 2004) without a focus on the broader existential threats to ecosystem health. We pull on further examples from across different botanical disciplines to highlight how valuable a botanical education is to facing the contemporary challenges of the Anthropocene.

We believe the key to reversing the botanical education extinction is to ensure a strong holistic plant narrative that focuses on plants’ critical importance to society and global change in curricula that permeates primary through to university education.

Framing personal narratives between individuals and plants enable us to increase nature connectedness. Botanists and others in allied disciplines can support these goals and ambitions but, ultimately, change needs to come from those who define policy.

Policies must support the science and skills of botany in schools and universities. As such, we must pose the extinction of botanical education not only in terms of financial risk but also in opportunities for positive social change for institutions, policymakers, and funding organizations.

We need to mobilise as educators, as collaborators, and most importantly as botanists to bring botany back into the classroom and beyond.

Plants have significance to every person on the planet, most just do not know it yet.

Stroud, S., Fennell, M., Mitchley, J., Lydon, S., Peacock, J., & Bacon, K. L. (2022). The botanical education extinction and the fall of plant awareness. Ecology and Evolution, 12, e9019. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.9019

About Sebastian Stroud

I am a botanist and PhD student in urban ecology at the University of Leeds (Leeds, UK), my research focuses on macrophytes, ecosystem services, urban greenspace, and green infrastructure.

My first love is however teaching others about plants, horticulture, and botanical literacy. I am always happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing, talking, or projects and opportunities (though, probably on a slight hiatus because the perennial problem of writing my PhD thesis does keep rearing its head!). [ORCID: 0000-0002-7482-6791].

6 comments

  1. The problem is due to British/EU anti-science anti-GMO ideology which has prevailed for decades. GMO technology and CRISPR are driving superlative R&D in plant science in USA & China. Meanwhile, in EU the Greens blocked R&D into plant genetic manipulation and commercialisation.

  2. The problem is your definition of Botany=Ecosystem/ecology. Plant science is not driving toward extinction but is vibrant, interesting, relevant to society, and attracts molecular scientists. The more you drive toward ecology the closer you get to politics & further from science.

  3. The attack on ecology is so interesting, because with any deep study of plant/animal interactions the complexity of the interrelationships, and how poorly we understand them becomes abundantly clear. Those who attack the idea of “ecology” are typically interested in only one thing…themselves, and their own perspective. To simply study plants for our own benefit without regard for how they are depended upon by THE REST of the world’s living thing too is quickly emerging as one of the biggest mistakes we have made as a species. The world is becoming a vacant lot ecology…which is a shadow of its former co-evolved productivity. The problem, IS in my mind the attitude of the commenter above.

  4. Informative post! It’s request to owner to enrich the contents and want to keep all updated here

  5. As far as plant literacy goes, my 7 & 9 year old children can name more than 5 species for sure. But we home school in a 9 acre homestead so probably count as being in that indigenous subset. If the early education system is a key performance indicator for the issue, policies confluent to more homeschooling may be a more viable and effective than change in the behemothic public school system. For posterity’s sake, my relevant bias is that I am an atheist artist with ASD. Triple A

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