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How to get started in Ethnobotany?

 
Cassie Rauk
pollinator
Posts: 92
Location: Southeast MN (Zone 5b)
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Hi Heidi,

As a newbie but someone eager to try, what is the simplests ways to get your feet wet with Enthobotany?
 
Xisca Nicolas
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Location: La Palma (Canary island) Zone 11
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You mean you want to learn what edibles you can eat from nature?
I think you live in Nouvelle Calédonie and that traditions are still strong enough to find a guide, have you tried?

I have learned with books, which mean patience:
- You have to learn identification from the flower
- Then it is usually too late for eating the leaves.
Some flowers are edible hehe...
- Learn to recognize the leaves when your ID is done.
I also taste so that I can recognize the taste later on.
- Take your chance one year after, and if you are not sure, then you check with the flower again!

Try to learn if some toxic plants look like the one you want to eat.

And always try to develop you memory of tastes!
 
Cassie Rauk
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Location: Southeast MN (Zone 5b)
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Thanks for response Xisca, unfortunately I don't live in that Caledonia, I live in the states.
I am definitely have to get some reading materials,
 
Heidi Bohan
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Location: Snoqualmie Valley, Western Washington
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Hi Cassie,

Great question I'm happy to answer.

As a study of how people use plants there are many ways to get into ethnobotany. To learn about the ethnobotany of the land you live in or when visiting new land I recommend seeking out tribal cultural centers, natural history and history museums of all sizes, and to visit natural areas and park interpretive centers. I scour through the book stores in these places to look for the local information. I’ve found some great jewels of information from small print runs for a special exhibit, or written by a local expert in a particular subject such as natural dyes, wild foods, etc. Often these cultural centers and museums offer workshops or special programs about basketry, carving or other traditional skills which are great opportunities to gain hands on skills.

Learning plant identification is key and there are many ways to gain these skills. I seek out native plant display gardens, often at local arboretums or museums, which also often have interpretive signage to help with identification and traditional uses. Look for herbariums or displays identifying plants in these places, and keep them in mind when you are trying to identify a plant. I found a herbarium (collection of pressed and labeled plants) at a local arboretum which let me dig through them to identify some of the very difficult plants to ID in our area, such as our many species of lomatium, which was an invaluable resource for me. Seek out people who offer walks or skills programs related to plants. Also consider joining the Native Plant Society if you have one in the region you are studying, which can be a great way to connect with knowledgeable people, and usually are well worth the membership fee with free plant ID walks, guest speakers, newsletters, access to native plants or seeds and more.

I encourage people to look to their own ancestral knowledge whether you live in your ancestral lands or not. This can be done through research online, in books ore personal interviews, or better yet a visit to those lands if you can pull that off. There are always commonalties between cultures such as the techniques of cordage making from fiber, and sometimes with the plants which are used, as with nettle which is used for fiber in every region it grew in around the world. Finding those commonalties is empowering for getting a sense of ‘place’ in new homelands, and helps build respect towards the culture of the land you are in.

I really encourage people to pick a few plants that stand out in your research and get to know them well, for all of their uses- medicinal, material, fiber, dye, food and more. This helps build on the tradition of using all parts with no waste and creating a relationship with these plants. In the process of learning about those plants, there will be overlap with other plants. There will be new skills necessary to learn such as weaving, drying and preserving herbs, and so much more. And please remember that more is not better, I always start out with just a handful until I know how I’m really going to use something, the next year comes around faster than I can believe, or I just go to a higher elevation to extend the season. I believe one of the greatest things I learned while learning about the plants was learning about time, about celestial events, about the seasonal rounds. I loved doing the seasonal rounds drawings in my book because I think they are so core to cultural knowledge.

And along the way it is the relationship with people that ends up being the greatest teacher. I learned that I had to do a lot of the work first though before I was ‘gifted’ with knowledge. I learned that knowledge is not something to expect, it is something that is earned.

I hope this helps, it’s pretty much the path I went down and continue to use when I visit new lands. Thank you for this great question.
 
Dennis Lanigan
Posts: 174
Location: Philomath, OR
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Some books that might help in your area: Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel and Forager's Harvest by Sam Thayer (the author is from Wisconsin).

For the Pacific Northwest: People of Cascadia (of course!), Discovering Wild Plants by Janice Schofield, Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Pojar and MacKinnnon, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West by Michael Moore, and any book by Nancy J. Turner.
 
Cassie Rauk
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Posts: 92
Location: Southeast MN (Zone 5b)
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Heidi,

Thank you for the suggestions and encouragement. I studied horticulture in college and need sharpen my rusty skills.

Dennis, thank you for the book idea
 
Xisca Nicolas
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Location: La Palma (Canary island) Zone 11
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Sorry Cassie, I saw "Caledonia" quickly when I was clicking on "post reply", as I would have know something was wrong just with your climate zone!

If you studied horticulture, then you will know how to use books as well.
 
Xisca Nicolas
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Location: La Palma (Canary island) Zone 11
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I can add a few of my tricks, some may be obvious though I had to discover them little by little.
When I learned about a plant, it took me some time to get the idea that I should learn and remember if it was annual or perennial.
And you can find both types of nettles for example!

Then I found useful to learn to group them in my mind by categories such as their family, as they would have some common points.
When I see a square stem with some types of leaves, then I think about the lamiaceae, and no doubt with the flower of course!
The cabbage family is distinguishable too!

Now I can travel and at least know "ho this is a sort of nightshade".
Very nice feeling when you are surrounded by "strangers" in a new country!

My main tip, I repeat it, after the first step with the flower, is to focus on recognizing WITHOUT the flower.
Now, I train with my local plants to recognize the tiny thing coming out with its first "false leaves"!
Very useful for weeding... (and to know what tender bit I can put in my mouth!)
 
Neil Evansan
Posts: 69
Location: Valley of the Sun
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Aloha Heidi!

Reading the various questions and observations, I had a little realization .....

I was born and raised in the Willamette Valley, and had many Indian friends, some quite observant of their ancient cultures, but more who cared little for the ways of the old, whereas more than a few of their Parents and Grandparents were skeptical of the ways of the new. I liked learning about Native Life through their eyes and experiences, especially when they spoke of ancestors from hundreds of years ago, and adopted more than a few of those ideals.

This is a rather short-sighted confession ..... up until reading some of these posts right now, I never really thought about Cascadia as being more than the rich fertile Valleys of the northwest, but of course Cascadia also includes the lands East of the Mountains. I also lived in Kennewick & the Moses Lake area for a couple years in high school, and explored Bend/Deschutes during many visits over the mountain, but didn't really have opportunity to meet any "Natives" outside of daily life.

I now live in Phoenix (Valley of the Sun), looking to move to Sedona in the near future. Although geographically hundreds of miles apart, I'm guessing there are practices common to the Desert regions of the Great NorthWest and the SouthWest. In your studied and observational opinion, what are several practices the Desert Cascadians used that could be of great value here in the higher elevations of Arizona?

Mahalo! Look forward to reading your book!

~ Neil ~
 
Morgan Morrigan
Posts: 1400
Location: Verde Valley, AZ.
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Would get the Botany In A Day book first.

Is really helpful before all the other books, and in not poisoning yourself.....
 
Heidi Bohan
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Location: Snoqualmie Valley, Western Washington
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Hi Neil,

I love hearing of your revelation, I had the same one years ago when I realized that it’s all one mountain range, just different sides of it. The Snoqualmie people, whose territory I live in, as with many of the ‘upriver’ tribes in Western Washington had close relationship with the tribes on the other side of pass, with intermarriage, exchange of goods and more. The Snoqualmie spoke the Yakama language (the tribe living on the eastern side of the mountain) as well as their own, and the local trade jargon, and many tribal members descent from Yakama lineage as well, and can remember their family members making the trek over 9,000 year old trails on horseback or by foot taking days to do so as they gathered and hunted along the way. There was definitely a cultural exchange as well, which showed up in the clothing, regalia and foods.

I spent a little time in Phoenix and Sedona, and I remember how exciting it was to discover this new set of plants, some familiar, some very different. To answer your question, one of the first things that came to my mind are the ponderosa pine, with needles which can be used to make the coil pine needle baskets, and the bear grass which tribes in Arizona used in the coil basketry technique to make amazing baskets and trays . I have one which is a treasured item. The coil basketry technique was really major with most of the tribes in Washington, primarily using cedar root, but adaptable to all these other plants. It is such a versatile and forgiving technique I love to teach it to beginners, especially those who think they won't be successful.

Other common plants between regions include chokecherry, which was crushed, seed and all, and dried to use as a form of pemmican, I imagine the use must have been similar there. I would imagine the medicinal uses would have been similar as well. Both regions have acorns which were undoubtedly used in Sedona, and both also had access to a form of pine nut (Pinyon pine in Sedona, Whitebark pine in the Cascades). I would imagine the techniques for processing these would have been similar. I saw many grinding stones up in the rocks outside of Phoenix.

Rabbitbrush, horsetail, scouring rush and cattail are common to both regions. Though different species there are also rose, alder, ash and willow. Their use for medicine, dye, and wood were almost certainly similar.

I've had the privilege of spending time with Warm Springs and Yakama Tribes of Eastern Washington and Oregon over the years , (this year I traveled on Canoe Journey for three weeks with the Warm Springs, Cowlitz and Chinook down the Columbia River through all of those bioregions), and I know that honoring the first harvest of foods, from roots to salmon to berries was an important practice. This practice of gratitude is something we can all keep alive. The use of sewn mats made from tule or cattail was also widespread, these were used to make mat houses which were useful winter and summer, and were lightweight and portable. I'm not sure of the tribal history in Sedona, it may have been more of a resource gathering area? When I think of Sedona I think of colorful red rock, I would be curious about the making and trade of pigment.

Of course you also have yucca and cactus and a bunch of other really cool plants less common here. Actually Prickly Pear is another commonalty between Eastern Washington and Arizona, not sure to what degree it was used here, but it was used for food and material. I made some pretty cool pigment crayons once by mixing prickly pear cactus gel from the leaf, with some powdered pigment, and maybe some oil (it's been a while). I used this directly on leather, which sort of worked with my beginner effort.

So I hope that kind of helps. When I went to Phoenix I went straight to the county history museums there (not the big famous art ones, though I did eventually), and visited a bunch of parks with interpretive trails, plant walks and etc, even the malls had landscapes with interpretive signage, and was amazed how fast it was to pick up on the plants there. I also went to Frank Lloyd Wright's place overlooking Phoenix, and thought that was a pretty amazing bit of design with lots of integration with the environment. There is a lot happening there with seed saving, traditional foods, and more. Great place.

Thanks for the thoughtful question, makes me want to get back down there and visit.

 
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