How Lockdown Cured my Plant Blindness
Have Urban Dwellers Lost Their Connection to the Botanical World?5 min read

I might not have realised it then, but I spent most of 2019 with my head in the clouds. I mean that figuratively, and somewhat literally. Last year, I averaged about two trips every month working as a travel writer and photographer. Going back home to Amsterdam, where I live, used to feel like a treat. It was like seeing a friend I had promised to meet up with more often. A city so beautiful on its own, I didn’t really have an excuse to be away so often.

As COVID-19 crept closer to Northern Europe in February, it slowly began to dawn on me that 2020 might become the year where my lifestyle would undergo a drastic metamorphosis. No airplanes, no press trips, but a full-time commitment to Amsterdam, including a new job. If only I could Zoom with my 2019 self and see her face full of disbelief. She didn’t even know what Zoom was.

Summer flower field with trees in the Amsterdam Forest
Photo: Roselinde Bon

From Full-time Travel to Zero Trips

And so it happened: Lockdown, or self-isolation. I went from nearly full-time travel to zero trips abroad in 2020. Not travelling turned out to be easy enough. I was already aware that travelling, especially for leisure, is a luxury for the privileged. This pandemic has made that all the more clear. I couldn’t lament the loss of my ‘travel blogger lifestyle’ while thousands were and still are suffering from a deadly disease and its consequences. To combat loneliness and to cheer myself up, I would go on cycling trips in my local area nearly every day.

I suddenly started noticing the smallest, slowest changes in nature. Things I was never able to see when I was constantly travelling.

Funnily enough, spending so much time in the same place taught me a new way of observing the world. I suddenly started noticing the smallest, slowest changes in nature, in my local surroundings. Things I was never able to see when I was constantly travelling.

I noticed in April that the green countryside turns into a sea of yellow rapeseed flowers. In May the frogs start singing to find a mate. June is the best month to search for pink water lilies. Windy days in July are the best time to look for fields full of dancing wheat. Sunflowers will be full-grown in August, when thunderstorms light up the sky. And when summer is about to end, fading hydrangea will slowly lose their colours.

A young woman admires summer flowers in the Amstelpark, Amsterdam
Photo: Roselinde Bon

What is Plant Blindness?

I started noticing flowers that I had surely seen before, but for the first time I felt the need to know their names. I downloaded the iNaturalist app to identify them, finding both edible and poisonous plants in the parks, along the banks of the Amstel river, and in the cracks of concrete pavement. Lack of travel had finally confronted me with the natural rhythm of my home environment. The truth is that I had been largely ignoring plants and their fascinating life cycles for as long as I can remember.

I’m not the only one. In 1999, two scientists coined this inability to recognise local plants “plant blindness.”

They even provided a list of symptoms, including:

  • Lacking awareness of plants that are central to the carbon cycle.
  • Lacking hands-on experience in identifying and growing plants in one’s own geographic region.
  • Failing to explain the basic science underlying nearby plant communities (growth, nutrition, reproduction).
  • Failing to distinguish the differing time scales of plant and animal life cycles.

Research from the UK showed that most city dwellers couldn’t even name 10 wildflowers that were common in their area.

Other research from the UK (2016) has shown that this disconnect from the natural environment or “lack of botanical awareness” is common among those who live in urban settings. Most city dwellers couldn’t even name 10 wildflowers that were common in their area. This is in stark contrast to, for example, Shakespearean audiences a few centuries ago. They were able to immediately understand “allusions to dozens of wildflowers, weeds, and plant-derived potions”.

Winter is a wonderful time to read a book
Photo: Roselinde Bon

As most of us live in metropolitan areas, shopping at supermarkets and largely separating ourselves from agricultural and foraging practices, this cognitive bias has become more pronounced globally. Humans are animals, of course, and we are naturally more attuned to recognizing other creatures with faces. Favouring animals over plants is, to some extent, a biological trait. Our urban lifestyles, however, have exacerbated plant blindness.

Why Is Plant Blindness a Dangerous Thing?

You might be thinking: “OK, so I don’t notice or recognize most plants, so what?”. And you’re right, it doesn’t seem to pose an immediate threat to us personally. Plant blindness, however, is part of much bigger issues. You may have heard of a few of these curious phenomena before: global warming, climate change, deforestation and water scarcity.

When we zoom out, the biggest problem that contributes to these issues is a lack of awareness of how animal and plant species are interconnected. Lack of plant knowledge leads to an incomplete understanding of how our biosphere operates. This, in turn, leads to an incomplete understanding of how our actions impact the environment in the long run.

Wheat fields in Limburg, the South of the Netherlands
Photo: Roselinde Bon

How Do Plants Protect Us?

Trees, as you may know, provide shade and air filtering qualities for our cities, but did you know their roots also prevent soil erosion and landslides? And did you know that cities that are covered in too much asphalt and concrete are more vulnerable to both flooding and droughts? Soil and grassy areas, like urban parks, garden and forests, can absorb much more rainfall.

Have you ever thought about the common factor that strawberries, pears, cucumbers and melons have in common? They are just a fraction of the species that would go extinct if we lived in a world without bees. And without enough healthy, flowering plants, there aren’t enough healthy bees. Naturally, without healthy bees, humans can’t thrive either.

Human action affects both animal and plant life in our shared biosphere, and without substantial (rain)forests and sustainable crops, we won’t be able to lead healthy lives. Plant awareness, simply put, is a fundamental building block to understanding how we can protect the necessary environments.

These problems may seem daunting and nearly insurmountable on a global scale, but here’s the good news: the easiest way to cure plant blindness is by starting small, locally, by going on walks or cycling trips in your own area. It worked wonders for me.


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