Since she began teaching at Rutgers 13 years ago, botany professor Lena Struwe has seen growing student interest in learning about plants. But that desire often comes without the basic plant knowledge that previous generations of students arrived on campus with. They studied plants in high school biology class, spent their childhoods playing in the woods, and picked raspberries with their grandmothers.
"Many times, I have to teach from scratch. 'This is a petal. This is a leaf. This is a branch,' " said Struwe, who, like plant-science educators across the country, bemoans what has come to be known as "plant blindness" or plant illiteracy among not just college students, but adults and children, too.
What to do?
Botanists, horticulturists - all manner of plant scientists, really - own a piece of this problem and are working on ways to combat it.
"Science literacy, or the lack thereof, is a profound issue," said Paul B. Redman, executive director of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square and a leader of the nascent national movement to promote horticulture as a critical area of study and employment.
Now botanists, too, long considered practitioners of "a quiet science," are speaking out about the work they do in plant ecology, conservation, forestry, and molecular biology, to name a few areas of expertise - and why it matters.
"The time is really good right now because we have a lot of talk about global warming and trying to conserve resources and do things in a sustainable way, and that all ties into plants," said Marshall D. Sundberg, editor of the Botanical Society of America's Plant Science Bulletin, who teaches botany at Emporia State University in Kansas.
The 3,000-member society, joined by more than a dozen other scientific associations, offers educational programs, materials and online mentorships that link plant experts and junior high and high school students and teachers around the country, as well as in Indonesia, the Netherlands, and Nigeria.
By year's end, more than 14,000 students will have taken part in the program, which debuted in 2006.
While not a new phenomenon, the term "plant blindness" is beginning to bubble up in conversations beyond the scientific community, which first heard it in 1998. It was coined by two botanists, Elisabeth E. Schussler, now at Ohio's Miami University, and the late James H. Wandersee, of Louisiana State University, who defined it as "the inability to see or notice the plants in one's own environment" and the "misguided, anthropocentric" tendency to rank plants as inferior to animals, rendering them the biological equivalent of wallpaper.
The result of this inability to see, said Timothy A. Block, botany director at Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill and adjunct biology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is that "people don't understand that plants are absolutely integral to our survival and the survival of every other living thing on the planet. We could not live without them.
"Unfortunately, people think plants are boring," said Block, who grew up in rural Ohio hunting, fishing, and foraging for mushrooms and wild greens with his family.
But even he understands: Studies show that we are naturally drawn to things that look like us. Dogs, for example, have faces, they're cuddly, and they can get very excited.
Try asking your holly tree, "Want to go for a walk?"
It's no accident that animals dominate popular culture and biology class, an orientation botanists lament as "zoochauvinism" and "zoocentrism."
"The solution is not to denigrate dogs," said Pamela K. Diggle, University of Connecticut botany professor and, until last month, former Botanical Society president. "It's to make the case that plants deserve time and space in academia, starting at a very young age."
That idea underlies the work of Christopher Martine, Rutgers University alumnus and professor of plant genetics at Bucknell University. "If little kids can be taught that 'cows moo' and 'pigs oink,' I think we can also teach them to match a potato to a French fry," he said.
But the task is daunting beyond the classroom, too.
"When people find out I'm a botanist, they often ask, 'Do you grow marijuana?' " Martine said. "It's a signal that the science of botany is poorly understood or not taken seriously - or, at least, needs an image dust-off."
For three years, Martine has worked to revamp that image with Plants Are Cool, Too!, a lively Web series (youtube.com/plantsarecooltoo) cosponsored by the Botanical Society, in which he introduces viewers to interesting plant life in the fossilized forests of Idaho, the wilds of northwestern Australia, and other locales.
"By not paying attention to this whole kingdom of life, we lose something really important - I work every day to combat it," Martine said.
Some trace the origins of such inattention to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, which marked the beginning of the end of Americans' intimate relationship with the land.
The problem's DNA also includes:
The migration from rural areas to cities, where more than 80 percent of the country's population now lives, and the post-World War II ascent of Big Agriculture, which decisively separated us from our food sources.
The trend toward overscheduled kids and structured play, leaving little time for unscripted outdoor adventure. (Children between 8 and 18 spend more than 71/2 hours a day on entertainment media, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.)
Perceived dangers of the outdoors, including Lyme disease, West Nile virus, even bee stings and poison ivy.
Many botanists are optimistic that "plant blindness" can be overcome. They're encouraged by the uptick of interest in local food, the environment, and climate change.
"We find lots of students wanting to start CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture], work in conservation biology, and save the world," said Rutgers' Struwe, who calls the trend "a new wave" of botanical idealism.
And more botanists are embracing social media as an educational tool. "We all know it can take over our world," Martine said, "but we can use it to really increase people's exposure to plants."
Until that happens, Block has some advice for parents: "Get your kids outside. Look at plants on the sidewalk, if you have to. And plant something."