Human Flower Project

Fauna Favoritism

Plants lose out in the contest for government protection.


Saskia as Flora (detail), 1634

Rembrandt van Rijn

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

With nearly 1300 species on the U.S. Endangered Species list, bats, onions, monkshoods, and mice are all witlessly campaigning for survival.

Eric Hand of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch laid bare the system’s zoo-chauvinism. Citing a 2003 report of all state and federal expenditures on at-risk creatures, Hand wrote, “Plants make up more than half of the 1,290 plant and animal species on the federal endangered or threatened list. But animals get 97 percent of the money.”

Animals inspire more and louder human advocacy. We were startled to note that even the National Resource Defense Council’s webpage on endangered species is zoo-centric. This science education feature from Yahoo includes photos and information about endangered animals, but no plants at all.

imageNelson’s checker-mallow, (Sidalcea nelsoniana)

Threatened plant, native to Oregon’s Wilmette Valley

Photo: Center for Plant Conservation

Hand’s article refers to “plant blindness,” botanist James Wandersee’s term for the general neglect of leafy species. He writes that preference for fellow animals is partly evolutionary: “The human eye notices color, movement and danger — in short, animals.” People tend to see plants and flowers as “ground,” animals as “figures” heroically striding or comically skittering across a green backdrop. According to NatureServe, “there are 16,100 native plant species in the United States. Of those, 5,474 — more than one-third — are considered at risk,” especially so, since they’re existential “wallflowers.”

Truly, how does milk vetch hope to compete with flipper-swashing whales and trotting foxes? The squeaky wheel gets greased, and the cuddly species funded.

Perhaps contemporary artists, rather than churning out a thousand more still lifes of tulips, would be wiser to revive Flora, goddess of fertility and the vegetative world. As antidote to “plant blindness,” the ancient Romans honored flowers in the surest way they knew how—by making them a person.

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