fbpx June 2018: Ethnobotany | The Morton Arboretum

June 2018: Ethnobotany

A field sketch of prairie plants using watercolors and pencil .


According to the USDA Forest Service, “Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous (native) plants.” Ethnobotany examines the interrelationship between people and plants from historical and cross-cultural perspectives.

The study of ethnobotany is important because it documents how plants have helped different cultures and societies evolve. For centuries, peoples from around the world have tested and recorded the usefulness of plants. By passing along the knowledge of what worked and did not work, humans have been able to apply new scientific technologies to plants to utilize their full potential.

Indigenous peoples had a profound amount of knowledge of the habitats in which they resided, specifically on plants. As of 1998, in North America (defined here as North America north of Mexico, Hawaii and Greenland) there are 31,566 kinds of vascular plants (Moerman, 1998). The Indigenous peoples of North America used 2,874 of these species for medicinal purposes, 1,886 for human consumption, 230 as dyes, and 492 as fibers (Moerman, 1998). 

Prior to the 1830s, indigenous peoples, specifically the prairie band of the Potawatomi tribe,  inhabited what are now part of the Arboretum grounds (Craig, Dreisilker, Kiburz, Sommer). Because of the simplicity of their tools and structures, the Potawatomi population left minimal evidence of any enduring impact on the landscape of the grounds (Craig, Dreisilker, Kiburz, Sommer). Former Arboretum Prairie Ecologist and Curator of Collections, Ray Schulenberg, discusses the Potawatomi’s former presence on the Arboretum’s lands in his article, The Arboretum Landscape – A Sesquicentennial Perspective. In the article, Schulenberg claims that “pioneers tell of Indians camping at Round Meadow, where Lake Marmo is now.”


A black and grey photograph of an empty meadow with trees in the distant background.


The photograph above depicts Round Meadow as work was beginning to transform the space into Meadow Lake.

To view a letter to Joy Morton from a settler that mentions the indigenous peoples presence on what are now Arboretum grounds, follow the link here. To magnify the pages for easier reading, hover your mouse over the black bar to the left of Joseph Yackley’s name. Then click on the button that looks like a magnifying glass and says ‘Zoom’.

Knowing that the Potawatomi at one time camped at the Arboretum, let’s examine a couple of the plants and trees they may have used while living here.


A black and grey photograph of a 250 year old sugar maple tree.


The image above is of an Acer saccharum, an indigenous sugar maple specimen over 250 years old, that exists at the Arboretum. The maples were a sacred tree to the Potawatomi. A Potawatomi elder can be quoted saying: “The maple is the chief of trees. We planted it on the reservation to show how things are made.” Maples were used by the Potawatomi to build wigwams, as a source of food, and used for ceremonial purposes (Toupal, 2006). Learn more about Sugar Maples

Another plant used by the Potawatomi that still exists at the Arboretum is the Asclepias tuberosa, or the butterfly weed. This plant is said to be used as a seasoning for food and as heart medicine (Toupal, 2006). To learn more about the butterfly weed and where it’s located on the Arboretum grounds, follow the link here.

The Sterling Morton Library has a variety of resources that can help you learn about ethnobotany and how different plants were used by different peoples!

At the Library
Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel E. Moerman
Ethnobotany of the Hopi by Alfred F. Whiting
Plants, people, and culture : the science of ethnobotany by Michael J. Balick
Tales of a shaman's apprentice : an ethnobotanist searches for new medicines in the Amazon rain forest by Mark J. Plotkin
Medicinal wild plants of the prairie : an ethnobotanical guide by Kelly Kindscher
Cherokee plants and their uses : a 400 year history by Paul B. Hamel

Braiding Sweetgrass : Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Kimmerer*
Ethnobotany of Pohnpei : Plants, People, and Island Culture by Michael J. Balick*
Ethnobotany in New Europe : People, Health and Wild Plant Resources by Manuel Pardo-de-Santayana, Andrea Pieroni, and Rajindra K. Puri*
Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge : Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America by Nancy Turner*

Peoples of Northwestern North America by Nancy Turner*


*Access the Library’s e-book collection by entering the number on the back of your Sterling Morton Library card.

On Saturday, July 28, Arboretum Instructor, Cindy Crosby, will be teaching the course Prairie Ethnobotany! To learn more and register, follow the link here.