Stop and smell the roses

Curing plant blindness during the coronavirus pandemic

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It’s springtime in Colorado, and as the trees, flowers and other plants around us leaf and bloom, will we take notice? That may be one “slight” silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic and statewide stay-at-home orders: More of us will be outside in our yards and neighborhoods observing the natural world around us, says Dave Kalyan, district manager at Davey Tree in Boulder. 

“You’re allowed out into your background, you’re allowed to garden, you’re allowed to even walk the neighborhood [making sure] social distancing is adhered to,” he says. “What a great opportunity to enjoy spring as it rolls around.” 

Kalyan has been an arborist for more than 40 years, helping Boulder County residents and companies keep trees healthy and structurally sound. But most of us are “arboriculturally challenged,” Kalyan says, completely unaware of what species of trees we walk by everyday, whether it’s out in our neighborhoods, throughout the city or in our very own backyards. 

“Everyone seems to think every evergreen is a pine; that obviously is not correct at all,” Kalyan says. “The state tree is a Colorado blue spruce, which I’ve heard called a pine from homeowners more than I’d like to admit.”

It’s a phenomenon known as “plant blindness,” a term coined by U.S. botanists Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee in the late 1990s to describe people’s inability to recognize or even notice plants in their everyday environments. Schussler and Wandersee say that plant blindness often starts at a young age. While animals are much more interesting, plants seem to all blend together, as they often don’t move or present any danger. 

But plants are an essential part of our balanced ecosystem and humans rely on them for much more than we realize: Not only are they integral in our food and medicinal systems, but also to our health. Author Richard Louv calls our disconnection from the natural world “nature deficit disorder,” and research has shown it can not only compromise physical and emotional health, but also lead to a lack of ecological literacy and environmental conservation. (Nature deficit disorder is not, however, a clinically recognized medical or mental disorder.)  

For example, more than half of the endangered species in the U.S. are plants, and yet they get around 4% of federal conservation funding. Plus, botany is a declining field of academic study, as many universities around the country have closed down departments or merged them with general biology or zoology. 

But one of the best ways to prevent plant blindness and nature deficit disorder is simply to immerse children and adults alike in nature, increasing the frequency we see and notice the plants around us. 

“A lot of people take for granted the trees of Boulder around them,” Kalyan says. “We tend to just keep going, sunup to sundown, again and again … and we don’t stop to smell the roses and take the opportunity to learn something.”  

There are several apps that help identify plant species by taking a photo of a leaf or flower, some even a twig or a bud. Kalyan says Virginia Tech Tree ID is most popular among arborists, but there’s also LeafSnap, Botany Buddy and PlantNet, among others. Or there are good old-fashioned tree and plant key books that can help identify flora. 

“Once you learn about trees you never look at them the same,” Kalyan says. “I walk down the sidewalk, and I’m looking up; half the time I’m tripping, but I’m looking at [the trees].”

As we transition from the dormant season of winter into the growing season of spring, now is the time to take notice of the plants in our yards and around our neighborhoods, Kalyan says. It’s the time for garden and plant maintenance, time to prune, plant, spread mulch and fertilize. 

And it can be very soothing, he says, as the world changes around us under the reality of a global pandemic. 

“It’s a very stressful time that none of us have ever gone through,” he says. “I can tell you that being outside in the sunshine, working in your garden in the soil, looking at the trees in your yard, especially as they start leafing out, I don’t think there’s a better time. We need it, the whole world needs it.”