Aromatic Lessons

"The novel Where the Lilies Bloom by Bill Cleaver first motivated my eighth graders to try raising and investigating herbs," reports Nashville, TN, teacher Nancy Ives. "It's a story of some Appalachian children whose parents die and who must rely on their wits and understanding of how to use plants to survive," she explains.

The story inspired Nancy's students to list the herbs that were referenced -- catnip, blue cohosh, witch hazel, sage, yarrow, and so on -- and to research each one, then plant as many as they could find in what became the Cameron School's literature garden. "The students felt that the garden helped bring the story to life," notes Nancy. To keep the stories alive, students created a regional "wildcrafting" guide, complete with pressed herb specimens, which detailed how each plant was used historically and included recipes for herbal products such as sassafras tea. Through research, students discovered stories and folklore associated with the plants, then created some tales of their own.

"This project seemed to help the kids make meaningful connections with plant life and recognize the importance of plants to people from all times," observes Nancy. "The students continue to be keen detectives, searching for evidence of herbs in our lives," she adds.

Herbs in History

Herbs ... today the word conjures up visions of bottled spices and oils, soothing teas, or the green flecks in spaghetti sauce. But these aromatic plants played even more vital roles in earlier times. In many cultures, herbs and spices were considered more valuable than gold, and people took risky journeys to find and trade them. After all, it was the desire to find shorter routes for trading valuable spices that motivated New World explorers like Columbus to journey from home. What made early peoples revere these strong-smelling plants?

Invite your students to transport themselves back in time for a moment and imagine how people coped hundreds or thousands of years ago without drugstores, grocery stores, sanitary facilities, cosmetic stores, or adequate, clean bathing water.

What might they have done when they had a headache, for instance? Through trial and error, people discovered that certain plants could be used to treat illness and injury. As it turns out, these observant people of earlier times were onto something. It wasn't until the late 1800s, though, that chemists began actually isolating the chemicals in plants to promote healing. (The word drug comes from the old Germanic word "drigan," which means "to dry," since drugs were originally dried herbs.) Although many of these active chemicals are now created synthetically, new medically important substances are constantly being found in plants and herbal remedies still used in some cultures, and many of our drugs are still plant-based or synthesized from plants.

Illness and injury weren't the only concerns in earlier times. Without refrigeration, food would have spoiled quickly. What better way to disguise the odors and tastes of spoiling food than with aromatic plants? The fragrances of many of these plants were also used in the form of potpourri, perfumes, or lotions to keep homes and bodies smelling fresh. During the medieval period, freshly cut herbs were actually strewn on floors to scent air and repel pests.

Perhaps due to their strong aromas and flavors and importance to physical and mental health, herbs have historically played a key role in religious rituals, superstitions, and in inspiring fascinating folktales.(Did you know that it was once believed that parsley, which takes a long time to germinate, went "nine times to the Devil and back" before sprouting, and that it did best when planted by a pregnant woman? Or that one could cure baldness by sprinkling parsley seeds on the head three nights a year?)

With such colorful histories, adaptations, and variety of uses, it's no wonder that herbs provide a compelling multisensory centerpiece for classroom investigations.

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