President Dennis Ray is interested in feedback from ASHS Members. Please read the following article and provide any feedback in the form at the bottom of the page.
Reflections June 2020
Dennis T. Ray
We are Part of the Answer to Plant Blindness
I have to say that one aspect of being ASHS President that was daunting was writing 13 President’s “Reflections”. This is number 12, so I am almost done. Not wanting these Reflections to be only my ideas, I asked for suggestions from ASHS members and staff. In response to my pleas, Peter Hirst (Professor of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Purdue University) suggested a column on Plant Blindness. This was in early March, and frankly this was moved to the back burner because of the numerous important societal issues that have arisen since that time. However, it is important as horticulturalists that we help overcome plant blindness. By helping people understand what we do and its importance, we can bring a greater and more diverse population into horticulture careers. As with any issue, we must first acknowledge the problem, then learn as much as we can about the problem, and finally put our knowledge and ideas into actions. So, what are some ways we can help overcome plant blindness?
There are so many examples of plant blindness it was easy to see why this topic was suggested. One example that I experienced recently was when I was talking with a student after class (a Plant Sciences major, William Lampman), who said, "Before I started working at the Campus Arboretum, I never noticed how beautiful the plants were on campus. It was only after I began working on documenting the campus species that I realized just how many plants I had passed by every day, without even realizing that they were there." So, I acknowledge the issue—now what are some ideas on how to address the problem? Frankly, my contributions are mainly through classroom teaching, and some Extension work with 4-H and other local groups. However, an excellent source for ideas and examples of how to promote horticulture to diverse audiences, and as a result promote horticulture careers to a larger population, is the excellent work being done by Seed Your Future (https://www.seedyourfuture.org/).
Whether in a classroom, or among friends/family, just explaining what you do and its importance really opens peoples’ eyes. For instance, I teach the introductory genetics class for the college, and I use seedless watermelon as an example of sterility resulting from triploidy because I worked on seedless watermelon. My contributions were really very minor, but when I mention I worked on seedless watermelon, that gets peoples’ attention. We as horticulturalists do really neat and interesting things, and we need to tell people about them. The trick is to find the vocabulary to talk with different audiences. I explain things differently to graduate students, an undergraduate class, or to my family. But I still use examples you can see— for instance in the grocery store: color in onions or shape of different types of squash. Or, you are at a party that is dragging, explain how cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, Savoy cabbage, and gai lan, all came from Brassica oleracea. Be careful and make it fun and easy to understand, or you may never be invited to another party.
We all know that plants are important, but it is not obvious to most people. We are dependent upon plants for the very air that we breathe, the shelters in which we live in, the clothes that we wear, the beauty we enjoy, the medicines that cure our ills, and, of course, the food that we consume. It is this last benefit that I use in an exercise that I call Grocery Store Botany. The focus is on horticultural crops, what are commonly called fruits and vegetables, or we call specialty crops. In this exercise, students tabularize the food they eat over a 48-hour period (the common name, the scientific name, and plant part consumed). They must indicate which food item they consumed the "most," making up their own definition of most (i.e., calories, weight, nutrition, etc.). Finally, they write an essay on one of these foods, including the scientific name, the common name, the plant family, a description of the plant organ(s) we eat, where in the world and by whom the plant was first used as a food, its nutritional value, its preparation, and two interesting facts they found about the plant during their research. The fun part comes in the classroom discussion afterwards on whether their plant is a fruit or a vegetable. I start with a definition of vegetables as the edible parts of the plant body, stems, roots, leaves, and some flower parts. Botanically, fruits develop from the ovary of a flower and contain seeds. This becomes confusing since many foods we consider vegetables (e.g., tomatoes) are botanically fruits, and that potatoes are modified stems and the part of the apple we eat is not the ovary, just blows them away. They love that there was actually a Supreme Court decision in 1893, saying if it is sweet and eaten after the meal it is a fruit, and vegetables are eaten during the meal and are not sweet.
As I have written before, the University of Arizona Campus is the oldest continuously maintained green space in state of Arizona. This unique collection of trees and shrubs provides educational and research opportunities for students and faculty. Scholars from around the world travel to Tucson to study examples of plants from arid and semi-arid climates. I use Plant Walks to enhance the students’ appreciation of the diversity of plant life on campus and the rich history it represents. I do several of these a semester with different groups of students. The students then select a plant from the tour that particularly struck them and write an essay including the plant’s common name, its scientific name, tell what characteristic or quality attracted them to this plant, the particular family to which their plant belongs, general characteristics of plants in this family, and the importance of the family to humans. Finally, two interesting facts about their plant that will wow their peers when they talk about this plant in class. The final plant walk of the year is designed by the students, and includes each student’s favorite plant on campus.
These are just some ideas, and I hope someone can use some of these in a class or modify them for different audiences. I am interested in hearing what others are doing, so let’s start a conversation. Email me your thoughts.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or provide feedback in the form below.