Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower

Posted on: 20 Jun 2017

Julia Glanville, Head of Biology at St Francis' College in Hertfordshire, argues there is now a serious skills shortage in plant work at a time when plant knowledge is greatly needed.

A recent survey of 2,000 people, undertaken by the UK charity Plantlife, found that 80% didn’t know a common dog violet, less than half of young people could name a bluebell and hardly any could identify a red clover. Should we be surprised? No. Should we be concerned? Yes.

Why shouldn’t we be surprised?

Plants, whether wild or domesticated, are often seen as boring. Grandparents and parents may enjoy tending gardens, whilst far fewer children actively involve themselves with plants and many of their attempts may stop after growing cress in eggshells. Unless a family member gives time to help nurture an interest, the slower pace of plant growth may not inspire interest as much as an active pet or an even more frenetic tablet screen. Children are more likely to recognise Super Mario’s Piranha Plant than a dog violet. Working parents may simply not have the time, with long working days, and weekends devoted to catching up and taxiing children to their many activities. Though many children travel in four-wheeled vehicles, few have ever seen one in its natural habitat. Most children do not now simply go for walks. Their exposure to the natural world may well be biased towards the exotic, thanks to the wonderful programmes of David Attenborough and others: a charismatic snow leopard will always trump a bluebell. Many families may feel that their limited family holiday time should be spent in a reliably sunny, all-inclusive resort rather than at a British destination, with the obligatory motorway traffic, frequent lack of investment and unpredictable weather.

But is it actually necessary to be able to recognise and name a particular plant? Shakespeare mentioned over 100 wild plants in his works, and plants have enhanced the richness of the writing of Chaucer, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Burns to name but a few; but what proportion of English teachers could recognise a significant number of them?

Few Biology teachers have a plant science background. Much less than 50 per cent of Biology GCSE specifications is about memorising facts and a far greater proportion is on understanding and application. The pressures of teaching to specifications, inspections and league tables leaves little room for much else. What little plant biology content there is does not entice or engage students sufficiently.

So why must we change this? And how can we change it?

We need to inspire children to consider becoming future plant biologists. Few students study plant science as a first degree and there is now a serious skills shortage in plant work at a time when new plant diseases are spreading and a growing world population means more plant biology researchers are needed to help find innovative ways to produce higher yields that cope with uncertain climate, on less arable land.

We need to prepare young people for the world of work. Most students have no idea that there are careers in plant science and related areas. Unless we tackle this problem, our food security and crop production will suffer and we will have more problems from loss of biodiversity and invasive species. We need to equip young people with skills and we need to communicate these career opportunities to them.

We are losing people who can identify things. Teaching children the names of wildflowers is one of many first steps to making them more interesting. Plantlife found that the majority of people would like to identify more wildflowers if they knew how. They have launched the Great British Wildflower Hunt and have produced downloadable spotter charts, which are suitable for all ages.

In an effort to raise the profile of plants in my Biology department, I have started a Houseplant Health Service. Having requested donations of sick, dying and neglected houseplants for scientific research from staff and friends, our budding plant medics assess and triage the plants and research what is needed for good plant health. Trying to get to the root of the problem has led them to branch out on a range or kill-or-cure treatments as they try and find out where the problem stems from, and the pupils complete medical cards containing the plant’s common and scientific names, condition upon arrival, and diagnosis. When, and if, successful, the restored plants have been discharged back to their previous owners.

Perhaps we should accept that Commonplace Plants and Where to Find Them may never have the appeal of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but we mustn’t stop trying.

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About Julia Glanville

Julia Glanville is Head of Biology at St Francis' College in Hertfordshire.