Ethnobotany – FULL


Broadly speaking, Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between plants and human cultures. In this BMSC class we will learn about these complex and often fascinating relationships, with a focus on the traditional plant knowledge (including seaweeds!) and management practices of both European and coastal British Columbia Indigenous Peoples. This course covers subjects such as (but not limited to): biodiversity and ethnoecology, basic plant taxonomy/classification, 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, and dying with native plants. Students will also participate in a 2-night ethnobotany survival camp where the class will meet many of its needs (some 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 not only about traditional uses for important BC native plants, but how these species were historically cared for and encouraged. A focus of your learning will be a local ethnobotany service project, TBA. Previous projects have included rebuilding the community food garden at Anacla, working cooperatively with the Bamfield school children to research uses and stewardship practices of local medicinal and food 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, including a 2-night ethnobotany survival camp that necessitates a challenging 3-hour hike with heavy packs, and one snorkeling trip through a kelp forest. Students must be able to swim, physically fit, comfortable being in a remote setting with no wifi or phone, and able to keep up with the group.

The ethnobotany course activities result in increased risk to students who have a life-threatening allergy or medical condition, such as an anaphylactic response to shellfish or bee/wasp stings. Students with this condition be aware of this and disclose this information on their application.

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 class. 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 guides such as Stella Peters and also her Auntie Angie Jo, who last year generously invited us to visit her at her 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.

Our class has held the ‘cordage olympics’, testing the strength of different cordages we made 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….!). We have made short educational videos in collaboration with the local Bamfield school kids, focusing on native plant ID, Huu-ah-aht usage and stewardship practices, often including knowledge and practice from European or Asian traditions (for example, many plants like nettle, cattail and yarrow grow in many places/cultures around the globe).

Seaweeds are a focus of this ethnobotany class and we usually 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 organisms. 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, culinary and health properties. Our seaweed snorkel 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 (weather dependent) a traditional pit cook at Pachena beach with the local Bamfield school children and extended community. Truly a community effort and success, and it is great fun to share our learning on to the enthusiastic school children and their teachers.

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