PHOTO: Pitcher's thistle (Cirsium pitcheri)

It’s not easy being green!

PHOTO: Prairie bush clover, a threatened species.
Prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya) in flower on the prairie in summer.

When I mention endangered species, what comes to most people’s minds are pandas, bald eagles, or maybe the gray wolf. It’s probably not Pitcher’s thistle (Cirsium pitcheri), prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya), or the host of other plants that are on the United States federal endangered and threatened species list. Plants make up nearly 60 percent of the species on the list, but the vast majority of the attention and the funding for species recovery goes to the “charismatic megafauna” — the mammals, birds, and fish.

Part of the reason for this discrepancy may be “plant blindness” — described by James Wandersee, co-author of Seeing Plants: A Theory of Plant Blindness, as “the inability to notice the plants in one’s own environment.” This inevitably leads to “the inability to recognize the importance of plants.” In other words, we tend to conserve what we notice and care about. I would argue that plants are even more worthy of our attention and concern! Not only do they beautify our landscapes and provide habitat for wildlife, they fundamentally support human life by giving us the air we breathe, the food we eat, and many of the medicines that cure our ills.  In fact, virtually all life on earth depends directly or indirectly on plants.

The chart below compares total endangered species spending by the federal and state governments for plants and animals over the last decade. As you can see, spending for plants has consistently remained at less than 5 percent of the total, and in 2011 was just 3.8 percent.


Scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden are actively conducting research, managing lands and banking seeds to conserve our priceless plant diversity. Next time you visit, stop by the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center to view us in action and learn more about our plant conservation activities.

©2012 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Published by

Kay Havens

Dr. Kay Havens is the Medard and Elizabeth Welch Director of Plant Science and Conservation at the Garden. Her research interests include reproductive ecology and conservation of plant species.

4 thoughts on “It’s not easy being green!”

  1. Another part of the problem is people can empathize and feel an emotional bond with animals, even animals they’ve only seen on TV. You don’t get that kind of reaction to plants. Species preservation is something few people think about as a matter of environmental self-interest.

  2. Thank you for this compelling graph and interesting write-up. The flat rate of funding compared to animal conservation is indicative of the minds of many voters, where plant conservation has low priority compared to . . . almost anything! There are many distractions in modern life. But I think there is potential for a groundswell of support if we can keep finding ways to get the message across.

    People who care about plant conservation can write to their elected officials and say, “Please give plant conservation a much higher priority.” We can seek improvements in funding for rare plant research and protection not only through the Endangered Species Act but through the Farm Bill too. We can approach NSF and ask that organization to issue Requests for Proposals that will fund plant conservation at a rate to help make up for the recent deficit. Funding from foundations might also be increased if we approach them with the information in this graph, Kay. Never give up.

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