Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between plants and human culture. In this class we will learn about the relationships between people and plants with a focus on the traditional plant knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and how this knowledge is shaped by cultural perceptions. We will cover basic plant taxonomy and classification and the Western scientific approach versus. Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Additional topics include (but are not limited to): biodiversity and ethnoecology, kincentric ecology, traditional land and plant resource management, plant uses (as fibres, pigments, medicines and in technology), ‘keeping it living’ sustainable plant management practices, plants as food, changing diets and the nutrition transition.

Learning will be accomplished through academic readings, class lectures and discussions, a major class project, and a broad range of practical/experiential exercises such as making a traditional pit cook and cordage from native plant materials. Students will also participate in a 2-night ethnobotany survival camp where the class will meet many of its needs (food and beverages, first aid and medicine, and technology such as shelter) from the surrounding landscape. A special effort will be made to teach students about traditional uses for important BC native plants. A focus of your learning will be a local ethnobotany service project, TBA. Previous projects have included rebuilding the community garden at Anacla, working with the Bamfield school children, and researching local medicinal plants. Powerpoint presentations, plant samples, forest and foreshore walks and a project will be used to facilitate this learning. This is a fascinating, fun and delicious class!

Research Skills: Students will develop strong critical analysis and writing skills through course lectures, a project and a term paper report. Practical, hands-on experience with traditional fibre materials such as stinging nettle, cedar and willow as well as native berries and other foods and medicines will be an important focus of this class. Students will learn to identify common native plants through field outings.

Prerequisite: Third year standing or permission of the instructor.

Note: This course is offered for Biology credit at the U of Alberta, U of Calgary, and UBC. At SFU it is a course in First Nations Studies, and at U of Victoria it is a course in Environmental Studies.

Physical Requirements: We will be doing a lot of hiking on this course, as well as a 2-night ethnobotany survival camp, and one snorkeling trip through a kelp forest. Students must be physically fit and able to keep up with the group.

Boat Use: You will be given the opportunity to drive boats if you choose to do so. Boat driving is not recommended for this Ethnobotany. Students who wish to drive boats at BMSC must hold a PCOC and valid first aid certificate and will participate in an introductory boat check-out on the first day of orientation.

Textbook: None required.


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The Ethnobotany course, held in early summer provides lots of berries, shoots, seaweeds and other native plant goodies to fuel us on our hikes and learning. We are privileged to work with local Huu-ay-aht cultural guide Stella Peters and also her Aunties Angie and Eunice Jo, who last year generously invited us to visit them at their remote Sarita estuary home. Stella took us on a memorable and poignant hike to the ancient village site of Keeha, where her ancestors are from.

In 2013, the class held the ‘cordage olympics’, testing the strength of different cordages we made in class from traditional as well as modern materials. Bull kelp (Nereocystis lutkeana) stipes did well, cattail (Typhus latifoli) was OK, but it was the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) that won hands down. (Did you know that the English word ‘net’ is derived from ‘nettle’? – well, now you do….).


Seaweeds are a focus of the ethnobotany class and we enjoy a low tide and boat ride with renowned algae guru Louis Druehl to learn more about the botany and modern uses of these amazing organisims. We dry them in our classroom (with a very creative system), eat them dried/fresh/cooked, use them on our skin (Fucus makes a great sunscreen!), and learn about their medicinal and health properties. Our seaweed snorkel at Scott’s Bay is a highlight for many students, especially those from the prairies.
In addition to the classroom lectures and learning, this course is very much experiental.  A highlight near the end of our class is a traditional pit cook at Pachena beach with the local Bamfield school children.Truly a community effort and success, and it is great fun to pass our learning on to the enthusiastic school children and their teachers.

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