What is Ethnobotany?
Did you know that common aspirin is a synthetic form of a natural chemical found in the bark of willow trees? Or that extracts of garlic, ginger, and cloves fight bacteria?
Ethnobotany is the study of how different human cultures use plants as medicine, food, and seasoning, and in ceremonies. Cultures of the American Southwest have used plants for many centuries and in some cases, for millennia. While some plants are local, others were brought or traded from elsewhere. Europeans—including cooks and friars serving as medics on Spanish expeditions as early as 1540—brought dried plants, cuttings, and seeds here. Plants from other continents, especially Asia and Africa, have also become part of our medicine chests and kitchen cupboards. Native plants of the Americas are used for healing and cooking in other parts of the world too.
To learn more about individual plants in this garden, identify them with a smartphone app, such as Seek by iNaturalist. For further information, enter the plant's name into your browser.
Plant remedies are the foundation of traditional healing worldwide and play a role in both history and culture. Knowledge of which plants can treat pain, infection, or illness is often passed down through many generations.
The U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) is a directory of legally recognized drugs. Almost half the plant remedies in the USP's first edition in 1820 were native plants used by Native Americans; the rest were from other continents. Plant remedies were gradually replaced, often with drugs synthesized from natural plant chemicals. Yet at least 200 plant remedies that originated with Native Americans are still on the USP.
A Word of Caution
The plants in this garden can be helpful, tasty, or healing. However, please do not eat or handle any of them. Without a full understanding of how to prepare them, some of them can be bad for you.
Who created the Ethnobotanical Garden?
This garden began at the Olivia White Hospice Home, where curator Laura Davis established a medicinal plant garden in memory of Michael Shaw Moore (1941-2009), a southwestern herbalist who taught and mentored many students. Moore also co-founded the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association (AERA) in Flagstaff, together with his colleague Phyllis Hogan of Winter Sun Trading Company. In 2016, a road realignment made it necessary to relocate some of the plants from the hospice home to Willow Bend. Volunteers continue to add plants and care for them.