by Carmen Berlin

Part 2 of our 2019 Pacific Horticulture Student Blogs on Ethnobotany

As a high energy child growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, and in an era when children were meant to be “seen, not heard” I ended up being sent outside to play much of the time. For my siblings and I the fields, woods and waters of our Alberta farm supplied endless adventures and room for creativity. We built rafts from fallen branches, made mud pies fortified with grass and assembled hollyhock dolls using an open flower for the skirt and two unopened buds of different sizes for the body and head. For play we created with the plants around us and for my parents, our grain farm was our livelihood while our huge garden was a necessary endeavour that filled our pantry, cold room and freezer for the winters.

Maintaining a farm was hard work and yet our vehicles were purchased from a dealership, our house made from supplies from the lumber yard and our bellbottom pants and striped tee shirts purchased from a department store. I couldn’t imagine having to make, from scratch, from the plants around me, most of what we needed. No plastic, no steel, no stores to buy from. Yet that’s what I tried to picture as prompted by Hannah Roessler who spoke to our PHC class about Ethnobotany and the huge knowledge system tied to the plants and indigenous communities of Vancouver Island.

Hannah is a professional agrologist and ethnobotanist. She is the Founding Dean of the School of Permaculture Design at Pacific Rim College and a lecturer in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. Although that says little in comparison to the wonder, delight and respect she expresses for plants, plant knowledge and the indigenous communities who hold that knowledge. As a self-labelled plant nerd she’s been hands-on with much of the knowledge she’s obtained; dying fabric with alder bark, making stinging nettle fibre bracelets, creating skin care products and more. Her obvious love of plants was contagious and she encouraged us all to recall our own stories related to them.

I remembered, on my childhood farm, fall harvest being a joyous and raucously special time. Neighbours would move as a group from one grain farm to the next helping one another. While grain was separated and the straw bundled into bales, huge meals were being prepared to feed everyone. It was a time when dessert was eaten every day! I can still see the dirt that collected in the men’s ears and creases of their skin from riding on the open tractors. We children would try to stay out of the way of the adults as they ate, yet close enough to hear stories and jokes and possibly a few words we weren’t meant to hear. Those times were as integral to my childhood as other celebrations like Christmas or birthdays. They’re also one of the reasons I’m studying horticulture. I want others to have the opportunity to feel connections to people and plants similar to those that have enriched my life.

As the study of people and plant relationships, ethnobotany can also inspires in us an awareness of ecosystems and plant communities and how they make our lives fuller and richer. You can study ethnobotany in your own yard or at your dining room table. How do plants make your life richer? What is your ritual around cutting your lawn or caring for your garden? Do you grow flowers and herbs to make tea? Does cutting your lawn make you feel connected to your neighbours when they cut theirs at the same time? Do you prefer to eat the leaves of beets, while your partner only eats the roots? What knowledge have you obtained from working with plants and what social or cultural impact do they have in your life? What stories, memories or wisdom do you have to share about plants?

When we are aware of how plants impact us, it naturally leads to a desire to preserve those plants, the ecosystems in which they grow and the knowledge connected to them. As Hannah closed her lecture I hoped that she’d be back to take us deeper into the indigenous knowledge that she sees as equally important and exciting as our scientific and botanical training based knowledge. Although initially overwhelmed by the vast information she’s been exposed to in ethnobotany, she now feels a joy in knowing that she’ll never know everything and consequently she’ll never be bored…working with plants means that’s something we can all experience.