Gothenburg Botanical Garden: a cure for plant blindness

Wham! The sensation strikes me as soon as I pick up the smell. The smell of damp, soil and greenery. My shoulders relax, and my pulse slows down. I enter our tropical greenhouse, and become keenly aware of how very important this is! Encountering the swarming diversity, being overcome by fragrances, colours and shapes. Letting all our senses be filled by the world of plants.

A new kind of blindness is spreading across the world: plant blindness. The phenomenon describes how more and more people lack basic knowledge about the green portion of our ecosystem. This results in plants merging into a green background, in which we fail to see the individual parts or the links between them. They become a green backdrop to our everyday lives, when in actual fact the green part of our biodiversity is of such unspeakable importance for our existence. I believe that we must unite our efforts in order to counter this trend. After all, if we don’t, who else will?

I remember entering a tropical greenhouse on another occasion. I was eleven years old, and the Edward Andersson Greenhouse at the Bergius Botanic Garden had just been opened. Banana plants stretched in front of me, reaching high up into the air, and I met one of the gardeners who told me more about bananas and their many different varieties, with skins of every colour from green to red. My eleven-year-old heart raced, and I became a rainforest obsessive growing large numbers of banana plants. (At one point, I had four 1½ metre plants.) I never actually managed to produce any fruit in my bedroom. But looking back, I can see that this was an important step towards beginning to see plants, and ultimately deciding to work in gardening. (Growing bananas is also great fun. They respond quickly when given the right conditions, and with plenty of water, nourishment and light they can grow rapidly. But going from that to harvesting fruit is another matter entirely…)

For me, a single visit to a botanic garden was enough to spark an interest that has become my life and my work. And we need more people to take this route. The horticultural industry is experiencing great difficulties finding qualified workers for various reasons. One reason is that the number of pupils applying for horticultural programmes at upper secondary level is extremely low. We can hope to spark an interest, but if we can just reach out and give our visitors an insight into the diversity that exists within the plant world, we will have made real progress. We welcome more than 500,000 visitors each year, and they get to experience more than just fantastic plant environments. A moment of escape from a long stay in hospital, a study visit as part of a horticultural course, a school trip (around 10,000 school pupils have visited us this year), a flying visit during a cruise excursion, a daily walk in the nearest green space, or a professional visit looking for new plants to grow.

Every visit is important, but if we are to counter plant blindness it is those who do not normally visit a botanical garden that we want to reach and give them an experience that breaks up the green backdrop into details and shapes. It’s not really a matter of just providing information, but of creating the right conditions to be responsive to this information.

I have carried out a great deal of work with communication linked to gardens, including talks, articles, publications and TV features. If there’s something I’ve taken away with me from this work, it’s that it is impossible to reach out without building bridges in the form of feelings. Things must be felt, really felt, in order for people to care. I am therefore convinced that we can only reach out effectively by working with spectacular flowering, striking planting and settings that surround and bombard visitors with impressions. There must also be a depth of communication, and it should be easy to learn more in the weave of knowledge. What makes the difference is a balance between impression, feeling and knowledge.

We have an enormously important task in acting as a window onto the world of plants and its research, while also providing research infrastructure in the form of our collections. I believe that the modern botanical garden should be a place to discover research, see diversity, obtain accurate information, and be amazed at the variety and adaptations of the world of plants. Visitors should also be able to take knowledge and inspiration home to their windowsills, gardens or horticultural companies.

We need more places where research and feelings can meet. Places where the right conditions are created to care about the complex system needed for our existence. Where blind greenery is broken up into the sensual variation of our world of plants. Beautiful science.

2-2015-anders-stalhand-400pxAnders Stålhand is the Head gardener at Gothenburg Botanical Garden


Ongoing research project at the University of Gothenburg in partnership with Gothenburg Botanical Garden and others: Beyond plant blindness