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Plant blindness

Photo: @AlbertFerré


What would our planet be like without plants and vegetation?

Plants are the organisms that have modified the conditions of the planet; without plants there would be no photosynthesis and thus no oxygen to breathe and no ability to transform solar energy into living matter. Photosynthesis has caused major changes in the Earth's atmosphere over geological time, leading to the formation and change of the physical surface of the planet (Beerling, 2017). In addition, vegetation, consisting of plants, largely supports and interacts with most other living things (Ozenda, 1986, etc...).


Plant conservation, essential for environmental and human health

Flora and vegetation are essential for human existence, but it seems that this primordial fact has been relegated so that we do not notice it, we do not see it. Perhaps it has become so obvious that it has become invisible. In 1999, two biology professors, J.H. Wandersee and E.E. Schussler, described the term "plant blindness" to define the declining prominence of plants at various levels, from education to the administrative level. These professors argue that the vast majority of the population is able to identify different animals (mainly vertebrates), but things get complicated when it comes to differentiating between trees in the forest next to the house.

Plants play an essential role in ecosystems by supporting other living things, providing them with shelter, oxygen and food. On the other hand, we only need to look at our environment, at home, and we will see the great amount of resources we have thanks to plants: food, medicines, furniture, clothes, cosmetics, etc.

Traditional botanical research is fundamental to many scientific advances and contributes to food security on many levels, as well as to the discovery of new drugs. This research, which starts with ethnobotanical studies to detect traditional knowledge about plants, can be a driver of development in different economic sectors such as the agricultural sector or business products (pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, textiles...) and biotechnology (biogas, biofuel...).

On the other hand, modern botanical research (ecology of species and communities, phylogenetics, agroecology, conservation biology, etc.), responds to the challenges caused by global change, and climate change in particular (loss of biodiversity, habitat degradation, imbalance of ecosystems, invasions of exotic species, etc.).


The naturalist tradition in Catalonia

In Catalonia we have a great naturalist tradition, and a long history of botanical studies for centuries "The naturalist tradition in the Països Catalans has its roots in the botanical studies that developed in. Catalonia and Valencia from the 16th century onwards, and in the creation of the first museums and history societies" (J.I. Català and J.M. Camarasa, 2007-2008).

Historically, we have had great internationally recognised scholars related to botany. We could make an innumerable list, among men and women, that goes back to the 16th century with Pere Jaume Esteve (~1500-56), Valencian and first researcher of the genus Stevia (the genus was named after him); Francesc Micó (1528-92), Catalan of the same century and famous for his plant collections, being one of the leaders of Catalan botany; and Joan Plaça (~1525-1603), also Valencian and founder of one of the first botanical gardens. From the 17th century onwards, with Jaume Salvador i Pedrol (1649-1740) and his disciples, botanical geography (or phytogeography) began to develop. Modern botany in Catalonia was headed by Antoni Cebrià Costa (1817-86), a Valencian and professor at the University of Barcelona, author of one of the first flowers of Catalonia, together with his disciples Estanislau Vayreda y Vila, Joan Texidor y Cuerpo and Frederic Trèmols y Borrell, all of whom studied flora. In the 20th century, Pius Font i Quer (1888-1964) was the first director of the Botanical Institute of Barcelona and founded the Botanical Garden on Montjuïc mountain. Cruz Casas i Sicart (1913-2007), a disciple of Font i Quer, became the first woman professor in this subject, excelling and creating a school in the field of bryology. Within the history of botany in Catalonia we also have the Bolòs family, which dates back from the 18th century to the 20th century: Antonio de Bolós y Ferrussola (18th century), Francisco de Bolós y Hermano (18th-19th century), Ramon de Bolós y Ferrussola (18th-19th century), Ramon de Bolós y Ferrussola (18th-19th century) and Francisco de Bolós y Hermano (18th-19th century). XVIII-XIX), Ramon de Bolòs y Saderra (XIX-XX c.), Antoni de Bolòs y Vayreda (XIX-XX c.) and Oriol de Bolòs y Capdevila (XX c.), the driving force behind the Catalan school of modern geobotany.


In recent years, for a variety of reasons, interest in botany has been declining in our society. At university level, it has been reduced to biology, environmental sciences, agronomy, forestry, pharmacy and marine sciences (in some cases, to a very limited extent), where there is little or even declining interest on the part of students. On the other hand, the mechanisms of evaluation and professional promotion in the field of research and university teaching do not favour botanical studies, which makes it difficult for new generations to make a career out of it.


Recovering our sight

In order to give back to plants the importance they deserve, it is essential to raise awareness of the plant world, to remember the importance they have for our subsistence as humans and for the rest of living beings. We are currently suffering an enormous loss of biodiversity, which will be difficult to recover if we do not act in time. This loss is accompanied by the destruction of habitats by human activity. Recovering degraded habitats means recovering the flora, vegetation and, ultimately, the life that depends on it. In short, the conservation of plants is essential for human health and environmental health. For this reason, work must be done to give importance to the value of plants from early childhood education to university education. In this, among other authors, the administrations have an important role to play in establishing incentives to attract new researchers in the field of botany, ensuring funding for research, creating structures that respond to the current needs for knowledge, monitoring and conservation of flora, vegetation and habitats, and with a communication strategy that gives relevance to the plant world and its study.