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Are You Plant Blind?

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Sun shines through a heart-shaped leaf

Tetiana Soares/Getty

Just by occasionally focusing on the natural world, you can bring more joy, peace, and wisdom into your life.

Are you plant blind? Many people are. 

While plants play an enormous role in sustaining life on earth, their importance is often overlooked. 

You may know that many of the medicines we take to ease pain and cure or prevent illnesses originally came from plants These plants grew naturally in forests, fields, and deserts. But did you know that plants have healing powers for the mind and soul as well as the body? You may have heard of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing.

Other forms of nature therapy involve the use of plants. Horticulture therapy, garden therapy, and aromatherapy are just a few examples. While you can access these therapies through a number of healthcare services, you can experience the benefits and joys of plant therapy on your own without going to a spa or hiring a therapist. You can start by spending more time with plants and giving them your thoughtful attention.

The therapeutic benefits we can get from plants shouldn’t be totally surprising. Our evolutionary forebears lived and thrived in plant-rich environments, as such environments gave them a sense of safety and belonging. Today, many of us seek natural places when we want a respite from our busy lives or to boost our happiness. We may spend time in our garden or backyard, take a walk in a park, or⁠—if we’re fortunate enough to have the time and resources⁠—visit a national forest or park. We may know from experience that spending time in natural areas helps us feel better. Scientists and therapists are telling a similar story—that is, that contact with nature can boost our self-esteem, increase our sense of well-being, and decrease our feelings of being depressed. 

One of the benefits we gain from being around plants comes in the form of restoration. Plants have the power to restore our minds and spirits. They help us bounce back from stressful experiences and allow us to recover from mental fatigue. Just being in green surroundings has a way of easing emotional tension and reducing feelings of anxiety. 

Green surroundings can also restore our ability to concentrate. This phenomenon is called attention restoration and is based on a theory proposed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in their book The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Kaplan’s attention restoration theory is framed around the idea that we tend to notice natural elements and natural happenings with effortless or involuntary attention. This type of cognitive engagement allows for the restoration or recovery of a fatigued-directed attention system. Since the 1980s when Kaplan’s book was first published, researchers have found convincing evidence to support their attention restoration theory.

The power of plants for easing emotional pain is reflected in the presence of flowers or plants in funeral homes, hospitals, hospices, and other places of caring. And the power of plants for aiding attention is being recognized by schools around the world. Several schools in Amsterdam, for example, installed green walls (walls filled with plants) in some of their classrooms. Several months later, students in the green wall classrooms scored better on selective attention measures and rated their classrooms as more attractive than children in classrooms without a green wall. 

Research shows that even having plants outside the classroom but within view of the students can reduce student stress and enhance their psychological well-being. So, if you spend a lot of time working indoors and are looking for ways to improve your concentration or reduce stress, you might consider adding a plant to your work space or placing your desk next to a window where you can view trees and other types of vegetation. 

The benefit of plants, however, go far beyond helping us stay on task or getting more work done. Plants are reciprocal partners in promoting our emotional and spiritual well-being as well. We take care of plants; they take care of us. We become healthier as we promote the health of plants; caring for something outside of ourselves⁠—even if it’s just a houseplant⁠—helps us become less self-centered.

As humans, we have self-actualizing and spiritual needs as well as material needs. Psychologists tell us that one critical component of self-actualization⁠—or achieving our potential as humans⁠—is being concerned about more than our own self-interest, as we aren’t born with such a concern. If nurtured, however, caring for others can develop over time. Caring for plants can play a role in this process. Being mindful of plants and caring for plants can take us to a deeper level of relationship⁠—a relationship that recognizes plants as more than things. Plants are our kin.   

Kinship, in some contexts, refers to a physical relationship, as in a familial relationship. But kinship can also be experienced as an emotional relationship. A related word, “kindred,” reminds us of this. We use kindred, for example, in reference to being similar or sharing certain qualities or characteristics. We share with plants the reality of being alive. And like plants, we have a better chance of thriving if nurtured and cared for. We also have a better chance of thriving if the environment in which we live meets our basic needs.

How we view plants matters. We can view plants through a scientific, poetic, or a religious lens. We can consider plants as resources or companions. Choosing just one of the possible ways of viewing plants inevitably limits our understanding and appreciation of them. Plants do more than nurture our physical bodies; they nurture our spirits and our souls as well. Viewing them as kin reminds us of this awesome reality.

Opening our minds and hearts to the plants in our lives can help us move beyond plant blindness to plant kinship. Living as if this kinship matters can enrich the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our lives.

Read more from Ruth Wilson here.


Photo of Ruth Wilson

Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., is a retired educator who now works with the Children and Nature Network as curator of the Research Library. 

She also devotes her time to writing and consulting, especially on issues relating to children and nature. Wilson has written several books and numerous articles on these and other topics relating to the way humans interact with the rest of the natural world.


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