Plant Blindness and Prairie Urban Gardens

Most people raised in a western culture have heard of being blinded by love. Others may have actually experienced it themselves. However, not many are familiar with another, very common, form of perceptual impairment called plant blindness. Coined in 1998 by Wandersee and Schussler, the phenomenon is defined as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one's own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” I was first introduced to the concept last year during one of my plant ecology courses.

Growing up with a landscaper for a father, I spent many summers outside with my siblings helping to shape our yard into something beautiful. It wasn’t until my second year of university that I truly started to learn about the intricacies of over three hundred native plants and how incredibly important they are. Now, having learned so much, I can no longer walk anywhere without looking around to see what the world of plants is telling me, often sharing it with anyone who will listen (just ask my friends).  

Overcoming plant blindness does not necessarily require learning hundreds of plants; by familiarizing yourself with some of the local species, one can discover a new level of connection and awareness of their local environment. There are many different ways to do this, and while weather may not permit a casual wander through the river valley, it’s easy to start your journey of plant knowledge in your own backyard.

Ways to address with plant blindness

While the snow and frozen ground may deter you from going to your yard, before you know it the sun will be shining and flowers will be in bloom. There are many ways for you to start identifying the plant in your yard; here are a few to consider: 

1. Books - garden/landscaping or plant field guides

These are great if you like to have a hard copy on-hand, or enjoy making notes about plants you have discovered. For a free basic guide, check out Common Coulee Plants of Southern Alberta or 50 Best Plants for a Prairie Urban Garden.

2.Smartphone apps

I find these to be helpful when I’m out and about and see an interesting plant or flower I want to explore. The apps don’t always identify what I’ve found, but more often than not I walk away knowing about another plant to point out to my friends. 

3. Gardening centres

If you are having a hard time identifying some of your plants, take pictures and bring them to your local garden centre. They are typically staffed with experts who will be able to provide assistance. You can also casually browse the beautiful plants on display and familiarize yourself with an even broader range of specimens.

Once you have done a little bit of research and have learned about a few plants, keep an eye out for them when you are out and about. Turn it into a game with your family and friends to see who can identify the most plants when you go places. These are great ways to start combating plant blindness and raising your awareness of the natural world. Once you are familiar with the plants in your yard, try adding a few more plants to your knowledge base. Warning: you may find this is so enjoyable that you won't be able to stop!

Let’s take a look at some native species that you may discover this spring:

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia)

This perennial wildflower stands tall and upright at 45-70cm with large showy purplish-pink flowers to attract pollinators. Its simple leaves are linear and lanceolate in shape and are 30-45 cm in height. Growing in full sun to very light shade and in well-drained soils, flowers can be found full bloom mid-summer to mid-fall.

Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora floribundaor Potentilla fruticose)

A member of the rose family, this multi-stemmed, deciduous, low mounded shrub reaches 60-120cm in height and has small yellow flowers. The leaves are pinnately compound with 5-7 leaflets. This shrub is very hardy to Southern Alberta and blooms between June to September. Other cultivars include white, orange, or pink flowers.

Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)

With an upright oval canopy, this large deciduous tree can reach 15m tall. Growing in full sunlight to partial shade in well-drained soils, it is easily identified by its dark green leaves with deeply irregularly lobed margins and acorn fruit. You read that right: acorns are considered fruits in the world of plants.

Prairie Urban Garden Workshop

As you start to think about your garden this spring, consider the benefits of creating your own Prairie Urban Garden, which showcases the beauty of Southern Albertan native flowers, creates creature habitat, requires less maintenance, and saves water! 

Choose native and drought-tolerant plants that can naturally thrive in our dry prairie environment. By doing so, you won’t need to water as frequently and likely won’t need to resort to pesticide or fertilizer to keep your plants happy. You’ll have more free time to enjoy your garden, and you will be protecting the quality of our water quality by minimizing the amount of nutrients and unwanted by-products you are releasing into the storm drains, and eventually, into our river.  

If you are interested in creating your own Prairie Urban Garden, the OWC has an upcoming Prairie Urban Garden Workshop, which will be led by local expert Steve MacRae from Prairie Xeriscape Designs. The workshop will equip participants with the skills they need to design their own local and sustainable garden. By discovering more about the plants around us, we begin to understand the crucial role they play in our environment and daily lives. This is a great way to love our plants, yards and watershed. Love is blind, but when it comes to plants we don’t have to be!

Click here to register for the workshop. Limited space is available!

*Photo: Planting Western Hemlock and other native trees during a field trip to help restore part of the forest near UBC.