Harvesting: Interrelationships Between Humans and Plants

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Ethnobotany, a specialized field of science that studies the interrelationships between humans and plants, can provide a "hook" for exploring and understanding cultural diversity and ethnic traditions. Social studies themes offer another springboard for exploring the historical relationships that different cultural communities have with plants.

  • Interview parents, grandparents and community elders about changes in foods eaten or plants grown over their lifetimes, culturally important recipes, medicinal uses of specific plants, and folklore about plants or food. Consider partnering with elders to grow "reminiscence gardens" based on their horticultural wisdom.
  • Compare cultural food preferences. Have students with different cultural backgrounds keep lists of all the plants they eat in a week, then compare lists and discuss observations and questions that emerge.
  • Visit an ethnic market. Identify unfamiliar 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.
  • Explore plant images and references in works of art, music and literature. Discuss what you can infer from the pieces about each culture's relationship with the depicted plants.

Adapted from the January 1996 issue of Growing Ideas, National Gardening Association.

"Theme" gardens focus on a particular aspect of horticulture (butterfly gardens, native plants, organic gardening) or on some value that promotes harmony and understanding.

  • A Rainbow Garden reflects the diversity of your school or community. Determine the plants grown and/or consumed by the various ethnic groups and plan an ethnic garden. Collect stories about the immigration experience from people who may have been "transplanted" to this country and share them with the class.
  • A Peace Garden emphasizes cooperation by having students from various ethnic backgrounds, skills and abilities work together to create a garden. Add an art element by painting a mural with a peace theme as a backdrop for the garden or by making stepping stones on which is inscribed the word "peace" in several languages.
  • A Garden Buddies program pairs preschool and elementary students with high school mentors. The older students visit the elementary classrooms to teach gardening basics and then bring the children to work in the high school's plot. Or, to ensure that gardening knowledge is passed on, arrange for youngsters to work with residents of a local nursing home to develop a garden area.
  • A Service Garden offers an opportunity for schools, religious groups and community organizations to collaborate to grow food and donate it to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Let students deliver the produce and, if possible, help prepare and serve it.