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Botany: a love you can’t force

Botanical philosopher Norbert Peeters talks about how people treat plants in general and weeds in particular.

‘How we see plants, how we treat them and how they appear to us: that’s how you could describe my object of study. Botanical philosophers study how the relationship between humans and plants has changed over time and still continues to change. The concept of cross-pollination and the relationship between flowers and pollinators only became widespread at the end of the 19th century. For long it was thought that plants pollinated themselves. So the telephone had already been invented before we knew about bees and flowers.’

Plant blindness

‘I used to pass a big Lebanon cedar at the Hortus botanicus on my way to archaeology lectures. An imposing tree to see but I didn’t notice it. Strange because you wouldn’t fail to see an eye-catching building or a large animal. This inability is known as plant blindness. We just don’t notice greenery. They make smart use of that at Disney theme parks by painting their service entrances and ventilation grills, in short, the places people shouldn’t notice, a particular shade of green: Go Away Green.’

‘Even conservationists and activists have a blind spot where plants are concerned.’


‘We people see plants as either useful – food, fuel and medicine – or decorative. We don’t want them to cause too much mess or smell. Even conservationists and activists have a blind spot where plants are concerned. Their campaigns focus on “cuddy” animals. But you’ve got the wrong end of the stick if you want to save monkeys but not the forests where they live. It should start with plants and insects. They are the most dominant species on the mainland.’


‘There’s a value judgement in the term weed. An American philosopher once said that what we label as weeds are just plants whose value we humans have not yet discovered. What we consider to be weeds can change. Oats and rye started as weeds in the fields of prehistoric farmers only to become an important crop.’


‘In light of biodiversity there seems to be a growing focus on plants. Here at the Hortus visitor numbers are increasing. Perhaps we discovered during the pandemic how nice it is to have plants around us and that we like to be near them. I’m no botany activist. It’s a love you can’t force. I myself only discovered how rich the plant world is at the end of my philosophy degree. Plants are complex organisms. They know how to seduce and lure animals or conversely how to repel them. They know what their up from their down, can perceive the world around them and are busy surviving. And they are crucial to our survival.’

Norbert Peeters studied archaeology and philosophy in Leiden and is a botanical philosopher. He is a Studium Generale programmer and a speaker, writer and external PhD candidate at the Institute for Philosophy, where he conducts research into the history of weeds and invasive species.

This article previously appeared in Leidraad alumni magazine.

Text: Job de Kruiff

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