Vegetation supports life yet so many know so little about it

'Plant blindness' prevails in movies as a whopping 57% of endangered species in the US are plants but they only get 4% of funding.


Yellow roses trigger me. If they appear in a movie set before 1910, their presence rudely awakens me to the fact that this is a poorly wrought fiction, its semblance to truth invalidated because the first true yellow hybrid tea rose was only presented to the world then.

I itch to throw bouquets of desiccated flowers at the screen when great clumps of wisteria, which first flowered in England in 1819, are shown in all their glory on movies set in the 1700s, and flower for months when their flowering season is but weeks.

Historical realism, it seems, does not apply to the floral kingdom. Cherry trees blossom out of season, plants entirely unknown to a particular time and place flower prodigiously and bouquets are sniffed at extravagantly despite being entirely composed of scentless flowers.

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The 2022 movie Persuasion depicts degraded meadows overwhelmed by Queen Anne’s lace, which predominates when fields are overfertilised.

Far from conjuring up a lush paradise, what we are seeing is overfarming and the diminishing of indigenous species that grow in poor soils in specific niches.

We can easily find out which plants grew during Vikings, but they pile the funeral ship with varieties unknown to that time and place.

Worst of all is that no-one seems to care about or even notice such dreadful inaccuracies with regard to plants.

Dubbed “plant blindness” by botanists, it speaks to how unaware we are that we are unaware. But they should have coined a sexier name and I propose anthotyphlo, a portmanteau of plant and blind derived from the Greek, which stands then in contradistinction to anthophile, a lover of flowers.

Movie makers are given space to warble on about creating furniture made by archaic methods and clothes designers get their own Oscars for work true to the period and even commission enthusiasts to weave and dye using traditional methods.

But all matters floral are utterly neglected, to the extent that set florists, whose creations are so critical to creating the ambience of scenes, are never even credited.

The exception to this is Yorgos Lanthimos, who gave Jenny Tobin her first on-screen credit for The Favourite, despite her undertaking over 60 films in her 25 years in the industry.

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You cannot blame set florists for not giving a toss about what bouquets they throw into the mix. But it is alarming because we are so blind we are not even aware of how lacking we are. Medicine – both modern and naturopathic – is unthinkable without plants.

With over 28 000 plant species used medicinally, you would think we would devote more than 4% of the funds for endangered species to preserving plant life, especially when 57% of endangered species in the US are plants.

But still we talk of “undeveloped” land as if it needs correcting, when it may be the repository of unique species.

And what is tourism without animals, the majority of which require grasslands to thrive and a rich diversity of other plant species make up the veld.

Our bird life is magnificent and again depends on plants which feed the insects. Since South Africa has an astonishing array of flowers and biodiversity hotspots and for tourism, agriculture and to protect potential medicinal patents, isn’t it more than time we educated ourselves out of blindness to the plants in plain sight which we never see.

• Kure is CEO of Steam Foundation, a non-profit company which improves the quality of science education by supporting practical science teaching and learning through the professional development of teachers in under-resourced schools

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