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Rhododendron? Hydrangea? America Doesn’t Know Anymore

Rhododendron 'Arthur Grumiaux

By Douglas Belkin

The country has a growing case of ‘plant blindness’—a term used by botanists to describe the inability to identify basic plants. Even biologists struggle.

The U.S. is running short of people who can tell the forest from the trees.

Organizations such as the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management can’t find enough scientists to deal with invasive plants, wildfire reforestation and basic land-management issues.

Botanists use the term “plant blindness” to describe the growing inability by Americans—and even well-degreed biologists—to tell the difference among even basic plants. Quick: Rhododendron or hydrangea?

The issue has prompted botanical gardens around the nation to raise the alarm. Colleges are beefing up plant identification coursework for a generation of botanists more focused on their microscopes than studying leaf patterns. Bills introduced in the U.S. Senate in July and the U.S. House last year are aimed at promoting botany education.

“Imagine a medical doctor who didn’t know how to identify the correct body parts,” said William Friedman, a Harvard biology professor. “You wouldn’t want that guy working on you.”

Camila Martinez, who is finishing her doctorate, bumped into this phenomenon when she interviewed for a spot in the botany Ph.D. program at Cornell University. Afterward, she and a handful of other candidates took a tour of the plant conservatory.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018