Plant Blindness

When my sons were very young, we would walk to a nearby park. The distance was short, but the journey would take us quite some time. The world to a toddler is a wonderous place. A dandelion growing in a crack in a sidewalk is a fantastic sight, a gift handed to me by little dimpled hands. They wanted to touch and smell everything in sight. Seeing through their eyes was a gift, renewing a sense of wonder long lost in childhood. 

Plants surround us. Their presence is often unobserved, taken for granted. We usually don’t think of them as anything other than part of a generic landscape. Botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler coined the term "plant blindness" to describe what they saw as an inability of our society “to see or notice the plants in their environments.” My grandmothers could name every plant around them, as it was essential to everyday living. I am hopeful we can all learn these skills again.  

My grandmothers’ knowledge kept that feeling alive to get to know the plants around me. I have a plant book addiction, my library is full of gardening, herbal medicine, foraging, and my most favorite, plant dye books. Admittedly, I have spent my adult life mostly being an ‘armchair herbalist.’ I have lived in many places, and when looking at a new potential home, the question “could I have a garden here?” was always foremost on my mind. 

We can easily integrate an awareness of plants into our daily life. My love of house plants began many years ago by submerging an avocado pit in some water. It was a small wonder as the vine unfolded and grew around my kitchen window. I’ll never forget the first time I made tea from fresh chamomile grown in my backyard. My senses were struck by the immediate calming and soothing of the flowers as I drank the infusion. I ran next door to my neighbors, teapot in hand, to share the experience. A favorite rosemary bush by my front door yielded a fragrant, gorgeous yellow dye. I have grown and experimented with many plants that produce great dye colors from hibiscus, eucalyptus, and everyday pot marigolds. 

Author Rosemary Gladstar says that “the plants have enough spirit to transform our limited vision.” Herbalists say that plants that are the best for our health and well-being will naturally grow near us as if responding to our needs, unbeknown to us. I have attended herb walks by my local naturopathic university to identify and forage plants. We only had to walk 50 feet to be shown a multitude of what we consider ‘weeds’ that carry a treasure trove of concentrated vital nutrients that strengthen our bodies, minds, and spirits. There is medicine simply in recognizing their healing abilities and interacting with them, which is why I enjoy the dyeing process so much. 

Learning about plants with hands-on experience also takes its shape by exploring my local landscape, bringing me back to the sense of wonder I watched when my children were young. I play with the plants from dandelions, blackberries, and nettles to see what surprises they have to show me through the creative process. The unfolding of the fabric revealing the colors is always exciting as I never know what to expect. Constantly revealing new insights, it’s a never-ending fascination of their gifts. The season and origin influence the color brought to the surface. It is the alchemy of time and space through the interaction of the elements. A connection to the spiral of life, helping us to see the plants that surround us in our environment.        

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