We are plant scientists and co-founders of Let’s Botanize. This educational nonprofit uses plants to teach ecology, evolution, and biodiversity. In recent years, we’ve seen a plant boom and a surge in the number of people who enjoy plant-based hobbies. Plant appreciation is growing, from cultivating houseplants and foraging for wild food to outdoor gardens.
Botanizing means spending time with plants to observe them and appreciate their living nature – similar to birding but for subjects that remain in one place. Botanizing transforms a walk in the forest into an experience that is shared by many species. Knowing your nonhuman neighbors can help you engage with the changing world.
Plant collection and colonialism
The history of botany is long and tumultuous. For thousands of years, humans have classified and analyzed plants, usually to determine what they could safely eat or grow.
Europeans were looking for plants that could be used as medicine, food, or other purposes when they began colonizing the world. In the early 17th Century, the Dutch East India Company occupied the Banda Islands, now Indonesia, to control the lucrative trade in nutmeg.
Victorians in 19th Century England became obsessed with plants and ferns. The craze became known as Pteridomania or fern flu. This craze coincided with a time of European imperialism when plants from distant places were collected in large quantities.
Despite this, today, many botanic and Arboreta gardens – which focus on trees and bushes – have changed their mission from public education to scientific research and biodiversity protection. These gardens can be a good resource for learning how to botanize.
A staggering 40% of plant species in the world are threatened with extinction. This includes many that have not yet been identified.
Plants are the raw material for our homes, food, and oxygen. They are essential to life on earth.
Many people still see plants as an accessory to life rather than a vital part. This phenomenon is known as plant knowledge disparity, a cognitive bias that causes people to undervalue the importance and diversity of plants.
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) soaks up the last nutrients from its dying leaf on a cool fall morning before it enters winter dormancy.
Researchers have shown that being outdoors in green spaces or indoors around plants is beneficial. Even Western doctors are beginning to recommend nature walks as a way to reduce stress and increase physical well-being. Spending time outdoors and observing the minute details of plants is a great practice.
Botanizing is also a great alternative to social media. Experts have noted that online platforms are so tailored to each user that they participate in their version of reality. This trend has led to an increase in antisocial and combative behavior. Botanizing allows you to step away from the tailored worlds of online platforms and engage deeply with human and nonhuman community members.
Plants are the basis of life on Earth. Therefore, taking care of them is an act of love for our planet. Botanizing can be a simple way to encourage change in our lives.
Ferns do not produce flowers or fruit. They reproduce instead by dispersing their spores. Spores are made by small structures known as sporangia that line the edge of the leaflets on this interrupted fern Claytosmunda Claytoniana. Let’s Botanize, Inc., CC BY-ND
Tools of the Trade
Botanizing can be done in many different ways. Botanizing involves:
Since plants are everywhere and do not move, you can study them in any location, even on your windowsill or walkway.
How do you begin? You can choose to focus on the structure of plants, their ecology, interactions, colors, textures, scents, or even tastes if you are bold. It’s not necessary to spend a lot or travel far. You can learn a lot from your houseplants, your food, your furniture’s wood grain, and the plants that grow in your gardens, sidewalks, or green spaces.
Here are a few essential tools:
A handheld lens can provide a glimpse into the world of plants. A hand lens is as important to a botanist’s work as binoculars for birders. We recommend one that has 10x magnification, which means it magnifies the object you are looking at by a factor of 10.
A local field guide can be your textbook of reference. You can cross-reference identifications using a good field guide for your local plants. It will contain images and detailed text.
An app for plant identification can confirm your identification. Machine learning algorithms have become increasingly adept at matching images of plants with their species. Seek app is a popular choice. It is powered by iNaturalist. This online social network allows people to share information and receive help in identifying species.
Nearly every U.S. region has local botanical groups that organize regular meetings, workshops, online communities, botanizing events, and more. It’s a great opportunity to learn and meet people who share your interests.
Flowers such as this magnolia, magnolia Sieboldii, have evolved in order to attract insects and other pollinators. The magnolia produces pollen from its blood-red stamens, while the cream-colored column formed by fused carpels is what makes seeds. Let’s Botanize, Inc., CC BY-ND
We recommend looking for a plant that sparks your interest – a plant that is exciting, engaging, or meaningful to you. You can choose a plant you know but have never seen in person, a completely new one to you, or one you associate with an important moment.
Botanizing must be reimagined as a 21st-century pastime that is both critical and evolved. This means that plants should be viewed with respect, not just as a product for humans but also as interconnected and foundational members of life on Earth.