"As part of our plant studies, I invited my fourth and fifth graders to brainstorm all of the items they could that contained corn," reports Tucson, AZ, teacher Michelle Tuchek. "They came up with a lot of ideas -- corn chips, cornmeal, popcorn, and more." Michelle then brought in a variety of labels from cereals, cosmetics, canned fruits (with corn syrup), and so on, challenging students to look for evidence of corn, then to group the items according to the number of corn-related products each contained. "Students were amazed at just how prevalent corn products were," she relates. "They began to read labels voraciously and created a running list (mini-ears on a bulletin board cornstalk) with information on all of the corn-related items they'd found." Through research, she adds, they discovered more about the importance of corn to the lives, worship, and folklore of indigenous people from their area.
From our morning breakfast cereal to our cotton sheets, we're utterly dependent on plants for much more than the life-sustaining oxygen they produce during photosynthesis. Plant products, interactions, and references are so much a part of the fabric of our lives that we rarely stop to even acknowledge their impact. Throughout history, plants have been the source of medicines, fibers, paper products, cosmetics, spices, building materials, and fuels, besides being our sustenance. They have affected (and been affected by) the course of human history. Perhaps the most significant shifts for both humans and plants resulted from our transition from a hunting and gathering people to farmers who to collected and replanted seeds of desirable plants. Since then, that continued human need to cultivate, acquire, and otherwise depend on plants has triggered wars, famine, and waves of migration. It has played a key role in social and technological shifts such as the Industrial Revolution, with both plants and humans continually adapting to the changing relationship.
Our language is rife with plant symbolism -- putting down roots, cool as a cucumber, and so on. (The Chinese, meanwhile, politely ask if your rice bowl is filled when they want to know how you're doing!) The multiple roles and depictions of plants in religion, folklore, celebrations, music, art, and poetry gives us insight into the different meanings plants have had for humans. Different cultures have had very distinctive relationships with certain plants. Many Native American cultures, for instance, dependent on corn for survival, had corn gods, corn maidens, special corn-sowing dances, and harvest festivals of thanks. They developed many ways to preserve and use corn -- even devising some of the earliest calendars to keep track of harvest and planting schedules.
Ethnobotany, broadly defined, is the study of the multiple roles of plants in a society -- the dynamic interrelationships between humans and plants. In the classroom, you can use these relationships as a lense for growing explorations. It can provide a "hook" for exploring history and cultures, engage students in appreciating cultural diversity and ethnic traditions, and instill a curiosity and appreciation for the need to preserve a diversity of plant life.
Ethnobotanists who study the relationship past cultures had with plants collaborate with anthropologists, archaeologists, and other scientists to look for a variety of clues -- How do present cultures use certain plants? How are plants depicted in ancient art? What evidence can we find by examining soil samples of seeds, pollen, and other plant parts? Your students can become ethnobotanists and explore people/plant relationships through many different types of activities. The related articles give you a broad appreciation for the range the possibilities for engaging students in exploring this fertile realm.
One entry point into ethnobotany is to start with specific cultures. Your social studies themes can provide a springboard for exploring the historical relationships different cultures (Native Americans, U.S. Colonial settlers, Mexicans) have with plants. Students might begin by examining their own use of and relationship to plants, or by finding out how their elders and ancestors or groups indigenous to their region use and relate to plants. The suggestions below may help spark your thinking about engaging students in a cultural/plant exploration.
Become ethnobotanical interviewers. Question parents, grandparents, and community elders about changes in foods eaten or plants grown over their lifetimes; culturally important recipes; special gardening techniques; plant or food folklore; memories of plants used for celebrations; and medicinal uses of specific plants. Consider partnering with elders to grow "reminiscence gardens." Or experiment to "test" some of the folk/health wisdom about certain plants (that mint tea eases indigestion, for instance), cautioning students not to try ingesting any plant preparation unless deemed safe by a reliable adult and reference materials!
Compare cultural food preferences. Have students with different cultural backgrounds keep lists of all of the plants they eat in a week, then compare lists and discuss observations and questions that emerge.
Visit an ethnic market. Identify unusual plant foods and products and check labels to discover how different plants and plant parts are used. Talk to owners about preparing different foods, then try some.
Discover the origins of plants growing nearby. Examples might include those in your classroom, outdoor garden, or a nearby field. If they're not native to this country, explore how and why they traveled here and map their routes from their countries of origin. Explore their folklore and historical uses and their ecological roles (food and shelter for wildlife, soil stabilization, etc.)
Explore what you value about plants. Have students choose specific plants or plant groups (e.g., trees) that they value and write about why they value them. Or have them choose several of the roles plants serve (e.g., medicinal, recreational, aesthetic, religious, culinary) and write about a plant they value in each category.
Grow foods or use gardening techniques from another culture. Discover through their folklore how and why they value different types of plants and planting systems. For instance, research, plant, and raise a Native American "three sisters garden" (corn, bean, and squash); a Colonial garden; an English cottage garden; a Japanese garden; a Mexican garden; an African garden; or a Southern plantation kitchen garden.
Brainstorm and discuss why you think certain foods or other plant products might have become important to certain cultures: potatoes to the Irish, corn to native North Americans, rice to the Chinese, for instance. Then research to find out, while also growing some of the crops.
Grow and save "heirloom" seeds of old plant varieties. Learn about their histories, and try to determine why different varieties were valued.
Explore different works of art, music, and writing to look for plant images and references. Discuss what you can infer from the pieces about each culture's relationship with the depicted plants.
Keep a running list of plant-related words and phrases that reflect plant-related images and metaphors(family roots, she's blossoming, cool as a cucumber, and so on.) What information do these phrases give us about plants or how we value plants?
Create a list of ways in which plants affect our lives, and a parallel list of ways in which we affect plants. Compare lists and discuss reactions and questions that emerge.
Become ethnobotanists/archaeologists. Imagine you are searching through soil samples for evidence of plants from a past culture. Bring in a range of soil samples to dissect and observe (you may want to add some small seeds, plant parts, and sand to make a diverse mixture of particles.) Analyze the mixtures and separate out particles by making a solution and repeatedly filtering it through cheesecloth or filter paper. What evidence can you find of plant materials?
Rather than begin a study of people/plant relationships with a particular culture, you might choose to focus your investigations on a particular plant (corn, potatoes, oak trees, peanuts) or group of plants used for a specific purpose (herbs, grains, medicinal plants, dye plants).
Your students might want to explore such questions as: Where did these originate? What myths and folklore are associated with them? How do different cultures use and value the same plant or plant group? Can we grow this/these plants in an indoor or outdoor garden? Can we process or use them as other cultures do, or experiment to "test" folk wisdom? How has the plant "adapted" to technological and other human-influenced changes?
Survey family members, grocers, community elders, and so on about how they use, grow, cook with, and value your selected plant(s). Explore why differences may exist between cultures' relationships with the same plant or group.
Trace the origins and histories of your plant(s), including the roles they played for different cultures, how and when they traveled to new cultures, and how they may have influenced the course of history. Explore how the evolution of technology (e.g., the transition from hand-held scythes to combines for harvesting wheat) affected plant evolution.
Exchange seeds of unusual, indigenous, or culturally significant plants with classrooms elsewhere, then try growing them. Share questions and information to discover how the plants are used and valued in different areas.
Research, then try to create some important plant products. Tap a maple tree and make syrup; make and use dyes from homegrown and collected plants; make paper; make aromatic oils or potpourriis with homegrown herbs and flowers; grow and grind wheat into flour.
Identify the origin and history of each ingredient of a common food, then try growing them -- a pizza garden or a tostada garden, for instance.
Conduct a botanical survey of a plot by observing, collecting, and mounting specimens. Describe, then identify the plants and discover which are native and which have been introduced, and how they've been used throughout history. Also discover what ecological roles they play.
Investigate ways in which humans use or grow plants to attract or protect wildlife. Try raising sunflowers for birdseed, gourds for birdhouses, nectar and host plants for butterfly gardens, or establishing wildlife habitat areas.
Grow an indoor or outdoor herb garden, and explore folklore, recipes, and other uses that different cultures have associated with each plant.
Investigate common foods that have been important staples in another culture and have become popular "novelty foods" here (tortillas, which are a staple in many Hispanic countries have become popular here in the form of chips, for example).
Experiment to test the effectiveness, usefulness, or biochemical properties of plants (e.g., aloe for skin or burns or slippery elm for sore throats). Caution students not to try using any plant for medicinal or other purposes unless it's deemed safe by reliable adults and reference materials!
Examine a range of plant products. Invite students to work individually or in pairs to brainstorm some useful plants and products that are made from them (for instance, aloe plant and skin lotion). Collect matching items or photos, then mix them up and invite students to try to match each plant with its product. Encourage observations and questions that can lead to further investigations.
The following tidbits may spark your interest in a few plants your students can explore.
Garlic. Although it sends some of us rushing for the breath mints, this humble bulb has a rich history of folklore and use, from repelling vampires to building gladiators' strength to curing everything from the common cold to cancer. In the classroom, garlic grows rapidly from storebought cloves in water or soil mix. Invite students to explore it peeled, unpeeled, and crushed; describe its tastes; experiment with different ways of cooking with and growing it; and test some of the folk wisdom regarding garlic's powers.
Grasses. Grass seeds make up the basic foods of nearly all people in the world. Half of the world's population depends on the seeds of one grass alone: rice. The ground seeds of wheat are believed to have been grown for food for 10,000 years (ancient Rome's wealth was in large part based on the wheat trade.) Corn, also cultivated for thousands of years, is used for animal feed, cereals, and breads, not to mention its use in corn syrup, corn oil, paint, plastics, soaps, whiskey and many other products. Sugarcane, one of the largest grasses, is raised for the sugar we obtain from the crushed, boiled, and crystallized stems of this plant. When you factor in the indirect ways that we depend on grass for food - via grass and grain-eating cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals - it becomes even more evident how important these plants are to our survival. (The root systems of grasses also play a key ecological role in preventing soil erosion.)
Invite your students to grow and compare some of the cereal grasses such as wheat, rice, corn, rye, oats, and barley indoors or in your outdoor garden. You can purchase these grain seeds from garden centers or health food stores. Although they won't grow to maturity indoors under lights, they can provide a backdrop for exploring and experimenting with these essential plants. Consider initiating such an exploration by asking students Who eats grass for breakfast?, then have them explore cereal boxes to discover the answer.
Peanuts. These strange underground seeds are world travelers, having originated in South America more than 5,000 years ago where they were honored by indigenous people. After being brought back to Europe by Spanish conquistadors, peanuts were traded for spices in Africa, where they were consumed and valued. They were finally transported to North America as food by Africans brought here as slaves. Although interest in peanuts as more than pig feed was initially limited here, improvements in planting and harvesting equipment and the fertile imagination of George Washington Carver (who developed more than 300 uses for peanuts!) helped their popularity soar.
Peanut plants from storebought, raw, unroasted peanuts are relatively easy to grow in the classroom, providing a nice backdrop for studying history, geography, and nutrition, and for a range of growing investigations.
Potatoes. Throughout history, they've been alternately maligned as food fit only for animals and revered as "apples of life." Though they've been often misunderstood, these unassuming tubers kept Incan civilizations thriving, helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, triggered mass population shifts, and are now one of the world's four most important food crops. They are also used to produce paper, adhesive, biodegradable plastics, and even cosmetics.
In the classroom and outdoor garden, students might experiment with different ways of getting potato pieces to grow, test how different preparation styles affect texture and taste, explore and raise some unusual "heirloom" varieties, search for potato products, and try some potato dishes of different cultures.
Sunflowers. Native Americans discovered wild sunflowers, ground the seeds into a nutritious meal, and used different parts of the plant to cure maladies ranging from chest pains to rattlesnake bites and to make yellow and purple dyes. They used sunflower oil for cooking, treating hair, and as a base for pigment. These first Americans soon began to cultivate and domesticate sunflowers and paid the valuable plants homage in religious ceremonies. Early European explorers, always alert to new treasures from the New World, brought sunflower seeds back home, where they inspired little interest until they reached Russia. It seems that the church there in the 19th century had forbidden Russian people from eating any oil-rich foods during Lent, but failed to put sunflowers on the list, so people eagerly adopted them as a rich food source. Beyond mere practical uses, these compelling flowers have remained an inspiration to artists and poets!
Raising sunflowers in classroom gardens (even indoors!) can provide a centerpiece for exploring plant growth and tropisms; pollination, fertilization and seed production; plant/animal interactions, nutrition; and to inspire lessons in history, math, and the arts.
Consider investigating the rich histories and ethnobotany of some of the following plants and plant groups: amaranth, chile peppers, chocolate, coffee, corn, cotton, dye plants, flax, ginger, gourds, grapes, herbs, horseradish, and trees (as a group or as individual species).
"Our school's focus on multiculturalism prompted my thinking about how we might use studies of the diversity of plants to help us appreciate human diversity," reports Chapel Hill, NC, fifth grade teacher Barbara Elder. With support from the local botanic garden, Barbara's students had explored plant habitats and adaptations as part of their ecology unit. Their intrigue with kudzu, an introduced plant that has become a pernicious weed in the South, provided a focus for a range of cultural, geographic, ecological, math, and other investigations.
"The kids here were familiar with kudzu, but didn't realize that it was actually imported from Japan to feed cattle and prevent soil erosion," says Barbara. Her class began questioning why it did so much better here that it became a nightmarish weed, then compared the latitude, climate, and other factors in both countries to make some inferences. They explored ways in which it was used in Japan - as a food source and thickener, then tried making their own stir-fries thickened with kudzu. "This got students curious about why we use cornstarch here instead of kudzu, which prompted an exploration of the economics of processing each plant." The 50-foot vines, she adds, also provided fertile ground for a variety of math challenges. The fast-growing, tenacious weed even became the inspiration for some creative writing, as students first brainstormed appropriate adjectives - out-of-control ... insane ... monstrous - to describe the plant, then created their own kudzu-based science fiction stories!
To inspire creative problem-solving during an herb study, enrichment teacher Marge Tirpak of Aurora, OH, created an imaginary situation in which students were to be 17th century travelers shipwrecked in the New World, having salvaged only a wooden box of herbs. She charged students with developing a fictitious settlement (they named it Herbaria), then creating characters and journaling about why they had emigrated.
The herb plants and seeds students discovered in the box (such as basil, thyme, and lavender), prompted investigations and research on how to grow and propagate them, and what uses - culinary, decorative, medicinal, and so on - they might have for the colony. While the herbs grew in the GrowLab, Marge threw out occasional challenges such as sickness hitting the colony or holiday celebrations nearing, and encouraged students to research how herbs might be used in these contexts.
"The discovery that herbs did not only exist on spice racks amazed students and prompted their interest in growing them and discovering more uses," says Marge. "They began to examine household products such as shampoos, toothpastes, and cosmetics to search for herbal additives." A culminating herb fest featured student interpretations of their herbal adventures - from an original song to a skirt decorated with hand-printed herbs.
Scientists have learned to breed and engineer crops that can grow bigger and faster, and are disease resistant. But at what cost to our cultural and ecological diversity? Although there are certainly benefits to these advances, many experts are concerned that this focus on "engineered" plants has caused us to rely on too few species of crops and to lose vital genetic information available from naturally evolved plants. Another threat to "genetic diversity" is rapid deforestation, which destroys many wild species of plants. Some scientists are increasingly recognizing the importance of having access to wild native forms of plants and old varieties of cultivated plants - with genes for different types of natural resistance and defenses, nutritional value, medicinal potential, and so on - and are searching for wild plants and collecting and saving plants and plant varieties that people have cultivated for generations.
When plants or entire habitats are lost, we also often lose some of the knowledge, values, folklore, and even cultures associated with them. We can find evidence of loss of plants and plant diversity in our own backyards. Invite your students to explore this loss in their own lives and neighborhoods, and to consider actions they might take to preserve biodiversity. There are gardeners who recognize the historic and ecological significance of plant diversity who are working to grow, save, and maintain seeds of a diversity of garden and crop plants, to maintain these vital genetic resources.