Taking Cues from Nature

It’s winter in the Pacific Northwest. Skies are gray, rain is abundant, deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, and the rest of the plants are weathering the annual cycle of cold and dark, just like the rest of us. I’ve often wondered why humans don’t hibernate like many other animals in the winter. I don’t mean curling up in a cave and stopping eating or doing anything at all, but more like prioritizing rest and recuperation, sleeping more, enjoying candlelight and firesides, reducing the hustle-and-bustle and extra commitments, and enjoying downtime. I suppose some of us do (Piccolo certainly enjoys naps in the winter sunshine!). For the rest of us, here’s my simple invitation to make the most of the rest of the winter by doing less. Or, if we are taking cues from nature, don’t necessarily do less, but do less visibly.

You might call this dormancy. In temperate areas, plants become dormant in the fall or winter. They stop putting energy into new growth or fruiting, favoring maintenance instead. Some drop their leaves and reduce water storage to protect themselves from freezing. The roots benefit from this reduction in growth and output and can thus survive the winter to be stronger in the coming year. They absorb the nutrient soup that comes from fallen leaf litter and rain. You can’t see them doing all this; you can just see them looking rather bedraggled or bare. Similarly, dormancy in humans makes us look bedraggled; it is the fatigue we feel each night, instructing us to rest and sleep. It is also the tiredness we feel at early morning alarms in the winter when the sun has yet to rise. Our bodies are saying, “Stay in bed! Rest! Recoup!”

It can be hard to take heed of our bodies’ messages to rest and recoup. We have jobs, other humans demanding our care and attention, and myriad other commitments. However, there is usually at least a handful of things we can do to slow down: say no to that extra activity, make a hearty pot of soup that lasts all week, stay in bed a bit longer on your days off, go to bed a half-hour earlier, dim your electric lights or sit by candlelight in the evening. Reducing the hustle and bustle—the outward activity—allows for an increase in inner activity—rest, repair, reflection, and envisioning.

Like in plants, dormancy in humans eventually yields to a new stage of growth when the time and conditions are right. Having the downtime to rest and recoup, to absorb and integrate the rich fodder of our more lively engagements, allows us to return restored, ready to grow into the next season. Just like the little crocuses starting to emerge, we can awaken again, renewed. And then, there’s another series of seasons to take cues from.

Elderberry Syrup

Elderberry syrup is a wonderful, immune-boosting tonic for the winter months. Kids love it, too, because it’s delicious. Let’s talk about why to use it and how to make it.

Elderberries are the fruits of the elder tree, which is usually Sambucus nigra or S. cerulea. If you’re located in far western parts of the Pacific Northwest, please don’t use the red fruits of the Sambucus racemosa tree, as they can cause severe stomach upset. Even so, S. nigra and S. cerulea fruits have to be cooked to be edible. All the Sambucus species fall into the Adoxaceae family (used to be categorized into the Caprifoliaceaes).

Elder trees are large, deciduous shrubs that grow up and out to ~20 feet. Typically, they grow in temperate regions, but some species are found in more tropical latitudes, as well. I’ve seen them in southern Mexico, where they are known as sauco. Most commonly, you’ll find them in Europe and North America. They grow in forested areas with patches of sun, on roadsides, and where they’ve been planted in landscaping. They’re not too particular about wet or dry soils. The leaves are arranged in opposite pairs, and the 5-7 leaflets are pinnate, with serrated margins. Look for its hollow stems – a friend told me she has made flutes from them!

Elderflowers and elderberries have a long history of use in medicine and as a beverage. In Europe, they are made into cordials, wines, and syrups. Have you had St. Germain liqueur in cocktails? It’s made from elder blossoms. The flowers also make an excellent diaphoretic, or fever-reducer, and soothe the skin and eyes when used externally. The berries have potent antiviral, antimicrobial, and antioxidant action, making them great for boosting immunity, warding off colds and flu, and reducing respiratory system bacteria. Not just the berries and flowers are medicinal—the bark is, too, though it is not commonly used in modern herbal practice—all these plant parts contain phenolics, glycosides, and terpenoids—those secondary metabolites in plants that give them some of their medicinal oomph.

To make approximately 2 quarts of elderberry syrup, follow these instructions: Place enough berries into a large cooking pot so that 2 quarts of water cover them (probably 6-8 cups fresh berries or 3-4 cups dried ones (because if they’re dry, they’ll expand as they cook)). Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Let the mixture bubble away and cook down the berries until they burst, and then some (30 minutes at least). Mash the berries with a potato masher or other kitchen instrument. Keep simmering until liquid is reduced to 1.5 quarts (you can guess on this—it doesn’t have to be exact). Strain out the berries and press all the liquid (the strong tea or decoction) from them. While the tea is still hot, stir in 3-6 cups of organic sugar. Use the lesser amount in that range to reduce your sugar intake, and if you don’t mind keeping your syrup in the fridge for best storage. Use the larger amount to make your syrup more shelf stable and preserve it longer. Alternatively, you can use honey. If you opt for raw honey, cool the tea a little before mixing it in so that you keep the beneficial properties of the raw honey intact. Lastly, add in about a half cup of any hard alcohol you have around—vodka, brandy, Everclear—anything will do. I recently used a mandarin-flavored vodka; it left the syrup tasting daintily of citrus. The alcohol helps preserve it. Keep your syrup in the fridge and take 1-2 tablespoons daily throughout the winter as an immune tonic. Take that amount every couple of hours if you feel a cold coming on. If you catch it early, you can reduce the severity of illness.

Don’t love syrup? Elderberries can be made into tea or tinctures, too. To make a quart of elderberry tea (trust me, you’ll want to drink a whole quart—it’s that good), place ½ cup dried elderberries in a cooking pot with just over a quart of water. Bring to a boil and then turn down low to simmer for 10-15 min. Turn off the heat, mash the berries with a potato masher or a large fork, and let steep for another 10 min. Strain, sweeten if desired, and enjoy! Drink 2-3 cups daily to ward off a cold or other virus and to boost immunity.

Looking for more elderberry learning resources? Here is another great syrup recipe from Rosemary Gladstar, and here is more info on elder’s medicinal properties from LearningHerbs. Have fun learning about this incredibly useful and delicious herb!


Nettle lore (and recipe!)

In the Pacific Northwest, the verdant spring has sprung, and the clearest tell-tale sign of this is the emergence of Stinging Nettles or Urtica dioica. I know they get a bad rap as a prickly, rash-inducing weed to avoid. Still, when approached with care, they are an edible, medicinal, and delicious spring green you can incorporate into your seasonal cooking repertoire. Here’s some info about the traditional uses and health benefits of nettles, as well as one of my favorite family recipes for enjoying this nutrient-packed forest-foraged food.

Identification: Nettle is a perennial herb, meaning it grows back every year—the goodness keeps on giving! Nettle grows 1-6’ tall in clumps or large stands in the sun or shade in moist woodlands, streambanks, disturbed areas, and along forest margins. Its leaves are opposite, have toothed edges, are wider at one end and taper to a point on the other, and are generally 3-6” long and 0.5-1.5” wide (although I’ve seen some that are wider). Flowers droop in clusters from the leaf axils and bloom in late spring and summer (once they do, don’t harvest nettle for food or medicine). There are two native subspecies across North America, gracilis in more Eastern zones and holosericea in more Western zones. The dioica subspecies is native to Europe and naturalized across North America. The glandular hairs on the stalks and undersides of leaves give nettle its sting.

Uses: Native Americans have historically used Nettle for food, medicine, cloth, and cordage, and those uses continue today. To eat nettles, they must be cooked to remove the sting. They can be used instead of cooked spinach or kale in any recipe or served as a side dish by themselves.

Medicinally, nettle has many uses. It is a general spring tonic and nutrient-rich plant that improves the health of various body systems, including blood and bones. It is one of the highest botanical sources of iron. Nettle is effective for allergic complications such as allergic rhinitis, seasonal allergies, food allergies, sinusitis, and allergic conjunctivitis. An infusion can be used as a hair wash to stimulate hair growth. Nettle is effective against joint pain and acts as an anti-inflammatory for osteoarthritis when used as a cream or in fresh leaf applications.

As a fiber, dried nettle stalks can be made into cloth, twine, rope, sewing fiber, and for weaving and knitting. Around the PNW, Coast Salish and Interior tribes use the fiber for making fish nets, snares, and tumplines. Nettle also produces a dye for coloring basketry materials.

Harvesting and Processing: For culinary or medicinal uses, harvest the tender greens in early spring with care to avoid their sting. Forage in clean areas free of chemicals. Harvest the leaves before the plant flowers; older plants develop particles called cystoliths that can irritate the kidneys. Wear gloves to protect your hands. The “sting,” caused by formic acid, causes an itchy, burning rash that usually decreases within a few hours. If you get stung, wash the area with soapy water or rub mud on it and allow it to dry before washing it off. Cook the top ~8” (~20 cm) and use as you might use cooked spinach or kale; nettle’s stinging effects are diminished after the plant is cooked, crushed, dried, or chopped. Dried leaves store well for later use in tea; dry them in a warm, shady spot or a paper bag. To make tea, steep a tablespoon of dried nettle leaves in 1 cup of freshly boiled water for at least 15 minutes. The longer you steep the nettle, the more nutrients are extracted. For cordage and fiber uses, dried stalks historically were crumpled by hand or gently pounded with a stone to free the inner fiber from the woody part of the stalk.

Other Notes: Considered an invasive, weedy plant, nettle is often eradicated from the landscape because of its sting and spreading nature. However, it indicates high soil fertility and provides cover for small animals and birds. Nettle is highly nutritious and is thus gaining a reputation as a “superfood.”

Recipe: This is a recipe for spinach pies, like spanakopita, for which I substitute nettles for spinach. Thanks to Margie for passing down the recipe!

You’ll need these for the filling:

~1 brown paper grocery bag half-full of freshly harvested nettles (the original recipe calls for 1.5 lbs. fresh spinach; see harvesting tips above for safely foraging nettles) – lightly steam the leaves, press out the excess liquid, chop if large, and put in a bowl

8 oz. feta cheese, crumbled

8 oz. jack or provolone cheese, cut into small cubes

1 bunch green onion (or two leeks), chopped

8 oz. mushrooms, quartered

1 zucchini, cut lengthwise then sliced

2 Tbsp. olive oil

2/3 cup bread crumbs (I use gluten-free breadcrumbs)


You’ll also need:

4 sheets 13x9inch puff pastry (I used gluten-free phyllo dough)

1 egg, beaten with 1 Tbsp. water



  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Sautee the green onion, mushrooms, and zucchini in the olive oil in a skillet until soft and lightly cooked through.
  3. Mix all of the filling ingredients in a large bowl.
  4. Cut each sheet of dough into 6 squares. Spoon 1/12 of the mixture (or however much reasonably fits) onto each square.
  5. Take opposite corners, pinch together, and twist. Same for other corners.
  6. Brush each with egg wash and arrange on greased cooking sheet.
  7. Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden. Let cool. Serve warm or room temperature and enjoy!


Let me know if you make these yummy nettle pastries and if you come up with any creative ingredient alternatives worth sharing! Happy nettle-eating!



Selected Bibliography:

Gendron, F., and R. Karana, L. D. Cyr, and M. P. Ferreira. “Immunomodulatory Ethnobotanicals of the Great Lakes.” In Polyphenols in Human Health and Disease, 453–61. Elsevier, 2014.

Moerman, D. E. Native American Ethnobotany. Vol. 879. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1998.

Gallagher, J. Stinging Nettles the Super Food? Learning Herbs. https://learningherbs.com/remedies-recipes/nettles/

Pojar, J. and MacKinnon, A., eds. Plants of the Pacific Northwest coast. Lone Pine Pub., 2004.

Turner, N. J., and Hebda, R. J. Saanich Ethnobotany: Culturally Important Plants of the W̱SÁNEĆ people. 2012. Royal British Columbia Museum.

Rayburn, K., E. Fleischbein, J. Song, B. Allen, M. Kundert, C. Leiter, and T. Bush. “Stinging Nettle Cream for Osteoarthritis.” Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 15, no. 4 (2009): 60–61.

Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. “A Selection of Pacific Northwest Native Plants Traditional and Modern Harvest and Use.” https://www.jamestowntribe.org/history/Tze-whit-zen%20village%20site.pdf

Koros, S. Northwest Coast Basketry. Teachers Guide to Basketry. Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. 2001. https://www.burkemuseum.org/static/baskets/resources.html

Herbs in drug discovery

Have you popped an aspirin lately? Thank a willow. Have you ever had your eyes dilated at the eye doctor’s? Thank deadly nightshade. Have you ever traveled somewhere tropical and taken preventive antimalarials? Thank you, cinchona. Used (or had a partner who used) hormonal contraception? That’s thanks to wild yam. Plants are potent medicines!

Willow (Salix spp.)

Yep, it’s true. These plants contain chemicals used to develop drugs with incredible actions on the human body. We all pretty much know in the backs of our minds that plants have contributed to pharmaceutical development, though the specifics of this might be fuzzy.

Let’s start by understanding the basics of how plants turn into drugs. You already know from high school biology that plants have chlorophyll and carbohydrates. They also contain lipids and proteins. These are the primary building blocks for plants to build and maintain their cells and selves.

Plants also have all sorts of chemical compounds (called secondary metabolites—secondary to those primary building blocks) that protect them from predation and pathogens and attract beneficial associations with pollinators or other creatures that help the plant.

Plants’ chemical compounds are mainly in the form of alkaloids, terpenes, terpenoids, glycosides, polyphenols, and phenolics. These chemicals are isolated, extracted, and transformed into modern-day drugs. Plant chemicals are sometimes no longer used to make drugs because the molecules can be synthesized artificially. But discovering and recognizing the plants’ chemicals helped us realize that we could get a medicinal action in the first place.

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Here are some (of the literally hundreds! of) plants used in the formation of pharmaceutical and over-the-counter drugs, either presently or historically:

Willow (Salix spp.) bark contains salicin, a phenolic glycoside that acts as an analgesic and is often used for reducing pain and fevers. Willow is aspirin-like in its use but also its contraindications, as both willow and aspirin can inhibit blood clotting, promote bleeding, and irritate the stomach.

Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) produces atropine, a sedative with parasympathetic innervation effects on the iris, among many other uses. (Also, the berries of this plant likely killed Shakespeare’s Juliet. Just because plants are “natural” doesn’t mean they are safe.)

Atropa belladonna

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is the source of digitoxin, digitalin, digitalis, and digoxin, all used in heart medications. How does it work, you might ask? The active compound digitalis blocks and disables the sodium-potassium ion pumps in the cell membranes of heart cells. This makes the level of sodium and calcium ions rise inside of these cells, making the heart muscle contract more strongly, providing a stronger and more regular heartbeat.

Cinchona (C. ledgeriana and other spp.) produces quinine, that oh-so-important discovery that gives tonic water its bitterness and gin-and-tonics their antimalarial activity. The common antimalarial drugs chloroquine and mefloquine are synthetic analogs of quinine.

Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) produces diosgenin, which mimics estrogen and progesterone and can be converted into active steroid compounds in a lab.

Mormon tea (Ephedra sinensis) produces ephedrine, which is hypertensive and also useful for allergies.

Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) has alkaloids (vinblastine, vinorelbine, vincristine, and vindesine) used in many popular cancer-fighting and anti-tumor drugs.

Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is the source of aescin, used as an anti-inflammatory.

Camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) produces camphor, which is used as a bronchodilator (opens up airways) and rubefacient (promotes circulation on the skin).

Poppies (Papaver somniferum) produce codeine, which is an analgesic (pain relieving) and antitussive (helps calm coughs).

Bouganvillea (B. spp.) produces pinitol, an expectorant (which helps expel mucous from the lungs and sinuses).

Wild yam (Dioscorea spp.)

The list goes on and on. And more drugs are being discovered all the time. Pretty cool.  Pretty powerful.

Still, it’s important to note two things:

First, all these drugs are based on isolating individual compounds in plants. It’s easier to study them that way within dominant Western scientific frameworks. But that’s not how people traditionally used plants throughout history. They used whole plants. In whole plants, there are many compounds with potential medicinal efficacy, individually and in combination. Sometimes plants’ multiple compounds act together to do something different – that idea of the “whole being greater than the sum of its parts” – which we call synergy. We should study whole plants and synergy more – much is left to understand about therapeutic impacts and potential.

Second, sourcing these plants to produce drugs has many environmental and social ramifications and connections that we tend not to discuss enough. Like how Indigenous knowledge almost always provides the basis for these amazing medicinal plant “discoveries,” yet Indigenous people and local communities who use these plants receive no acknowledgment or associated benefits of drug development coming from their knowledge. Nor have they typically had any power in conversations over their intellectual property and the applications of their traditional practices on a global scale. This issue deserves deeper discussion and serious corrective action to foster environmental and social justice.

Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus)

Lastly, I must give a disclaimer: Please do NOT try these plant medicines at home. Instead, do more research and talk to your doctor before ingesting any of these (and other) medicinal plants. I don’t want any readers to go the way of Juliet…

Some additional references and resources to learn more:

eCornell’s Medicinal Plants certificate program course materials 

Article: Plants as a Source of New Medicines

Article: List of Medicines Made from Plants

Sharing the plant love (for word nerds)

Echinacea blooming in my herb garden

I’m a word nerd. I blame it on plants. Each plant has at least three names—a common name in the local language and a Latin (or Latinized) binomial (meaning two names). These names usually communicate something. Take coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), for example. One look at these beautiful flowers and you know why it’s called coneflower. Echinacea comes from the Latin root echinos, meaning urchin (another look at the flower’s center tells you why—it’s so spiky!) Purpurea means purple. Echinacea purpurea: purple urchin plant. The names communicate a description of the plant.

Speaking of plants and communication, what about science communication (from the Latin scire, meaning to know, and communicare, meaning to share)? Science communication is all about sharing what one knows. Scientists do this all the time—they investigate a particular topic and then write papers and books or teach to share what they learned.

Sometimes, scientists only really share what they know with other scientists or in a language that is nfsknglakslk (ergo, incomprehensible; kinda like Latin). And that’s too bad because science (or seeking to understand the world, the universe, and everything in it) should be accessible to everyone. However, many scientists are upstanding in communicating their science to the world. (One fabulous recent book written by a scientist for everyone is Thor Hanson’s Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change. Check it out if you haven’t!).

Lately, I’ve been looking for ways to communicate my (mostly plant/people) science to the world. And here are three things I’ve been up to (with lots of pictures).

After our radio interview at the University of Sciences and Arts of Chiapas

1. At the tail end of a field trip last month to Chiapas, Mexico, I sat down with Dr. Felipe Ruan Soto, a biologist at the University of Sciences and Arts of Chiapas, for an interview on his University Radio program that highlights science (here’s the link if you want to listen—note, it’s in Spanish). We discussed ethnobotany and how its practitioners in the US often come to studies of plant-people relationships through a foundation in anthropology, whereas in Latin America, most ethnobotanists are trained first in biology. This creates differences in our approaches—including theoretical orientations and methods—that are neither good nor bad per se, but potentially complementary. We also talked about the traditional foods project we’ve been working on with colleagues and residents in and around Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello (Montebello Lakes National Park). The project documents traditional regional dishes through interviews and participatory videos so locals can circulate “recipe videos” that preserve culturally important gastronomic knowledge and practice (that’s science communication at its tastiest!).


Dancing like cedar trees. Forest School, San Juan Island, WA.

2. Back in the Pacific Northwest, I visited the Forest School on San Juan Island to take a plant walk with 3-6-year-olds. We meandered (and some ran helter-skelter) down a forest trail to the ocean’s edge, admiring and chatting about trees, bushes, ferns, and other plants along the way. The vibrant and interested-in-everything (but not any one thing for too long) energy of the young’uns inspired us to talk a little bit about plant uses… dance like cedar trees in the wind… munch on salal berry fruit leather… imagine we were doing spells like Harry Potter… pluck rosehips from their stems to brew in hot water to sip at tea time (thumb’s up to that!), and balance cedar bark crowns.



New York Botanical Garden lab group meeting participants

3. In my home office over Zoom, I met with members of the People and Plants Lab group at the New York Botanical Garden to discuss Indigenous rights in data and share about my collaborative foods project and how we strive to curate data ethically. The NYBG lab group is doing a really interesting project on Wixárika (Huichol) ethnobotany in Mexico and is looking for options to curate data online. In the food project, we created a digital database of recipes and related information using Mukurtu (“Moo-koo-doo”), a platform that respects Indigenous information-sharing norms. It does this by allowing fine-grained access options–some viewers have access, others don’t, and some can have access at some points in time, as determined according to established cultural protocols. These are essential considerations for science communication!

Sharing what we know is important, but not just for acquiring knowledge. With knowledge, we understand. As Dr. Jane Goodall says, “Only if we understand, can we care….” And caring about each other and the earth (and purple plant urchins) is what it’s all about.

Want more fun plant names demystified?

Lateriflora—laterally blooming flowers (like in Scutellaria lateriflora, Skullcap)

Papaver somniferum – Opium poppies

Somniferum—sleep-bringing (like in Papaver somniferum, Opium poppy. What’s that line in the Wizard of Oz? “Poppies will put them to sleep!”)

Rubra—red (like in Alnus rubra, Red Alder)

Rugosa—ridged or wrinkled (as in Rosa rugosa, that pretty, showy wild rose)

Melaleuca—black and white (as in Melaleuca alternifolia, Tea tree, for its multicolored bark)

Calendula officinalis—from calends, meaning calendar (because it blooms in each month of the calendar) and official (as in the official species used in medicine)

Now, please tell us about YOUR plant-name know-how!

Marigold Season

Earlier this year, in late July, and as an act of great anticipation of Halloween and the Day of the Dead, I went to the garden to sow seeds of one of my favorite plants. Known by many names, including flor de muerto (flower of the dead), cempasúchil (from the Nahua cempasúchitl, incorporating the root, xochitl, for flower), and African marigold, Tagetes erecta is a perennial plant that produces tufts of cheery orange blossoms resembling pom-poms. They smell at once pungent, fresh, floral, and aromatic. They’re said to keep away pests in the garden. And they have been used for ages to adorn graves and altars in central Mexico for Todos Santos (All Saints Day) and Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) at the beginning of November.

Over the weeks and months, I watched as my marigold seeds sprouted, grew, and reached up toward the lovely late summer sunshine. The lacey greenery made way for flower buds forming at the ends of the stalks. And then, in late October, just in time to see the flower buds begin to open into full flowering beauty, I had to take a trip. (Traveling: the bane of gardeners but the joy of adventurers.) But I wasn’t going just anywhere; I was headed to central Mexico, the native homeland of the marigold!

So it turns out I missed my marigolds’ flowering but traded it for the experience of witnessing more marigolds in flower than I had ever set eyes on before. In Tlaxcala, Mexico, marigolds adorned practically everything. Pots of them were nestled in with other varieties of potted plants around businesses in the main plaza, flower strings stretched across building facades and doorways, and women wore them in their hair during a parade of catrinas (skeletons). These flowers seem to take on an almost mythic quality as they overflow one’s awareness and attract the spirits of those who have departed to visit their loved ones for these few special days each year. (Additionally, it is not just Mexicans who appreciate marigolds and put them to use. Check out this National Geographic article about marigolds in Mexico, India, and beyond.)

Marigolds are not just a symbol and ornament but are also useful in food, medicine, and dye. The flowers can be sprinkled on salads or other foods, and the leaves are incorporated into salsas throughout the Americas (I learned of it as huacataya in Bolivia, where I ate it in the spicy, delicious sauce called llajua). The leaves and flowers are used in traditional medicine for gastrointestinal ailments, among other uses. And for good reason: the plant is active against intestinal worms and their eggs (check out this article). Furthermore, marigold flowers can be used to dye cloth for textiles and to add color to butter and, weirdly, poultry feed so that egg yolks appear a brighter orange.

This useful and happy flower has a long history of use and continues to brighten our lives and our gardens. I plan to grow it again next year. Hopefully, I’ll manage to see it in bloom.

For the love of people and plants

Do you like plants? Gardens? Forests? Eating?

Do you like people? (Even just one or two? Don’t worry, I won’t tell.)

Great. Me, too. And it turns out that PEOPLE and PLANTS are an amazing combination. People need plants to survive and thrive—we need plants to filter the air we can breathe, to create shelter and clothing, for food and medicine, and many other things. Do plants need us? Turns out they do (or at the very least, we’ve been pretty helpful to them). We tend, propagate, and spread them, thus continuing their legacies across generations and geographic expanses.

Here I am in 2013 in a botanical garden in Joensuu, Finland. I search out plants wherever I go. Obsessed? Yeah, probably.

You probably know this already, but studying the interrelationship of plants and people is called ethnobotany, and it’s my favorite subject (although I tend to be interested in everything). I study ethnobotany (among other things), and my research often focuses on medical ethnobotany—the knowledge and practice of plants for medicine. I’m going to tell you a little bit more about what I do and my general approach so you can see where I’m coming from as I write this and other posts.

Currently, my research takes place in the Maya area—specifically in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas—which is an incredibly diverse area—both biologically and culturally. So I study what rural and Indigenous Mexicans know about plants (for food, medicine, you name it), including how they use them and whether they grow them in gardens or forage them in wild places.

Here I am this past summer (2022) in Chiapas, Mexico, steaming leaves to wrap around tamales.

I also look at how people’s knowledge about medicinal plants varies among individuals in different communities. I look at this variation and try to figure out what it is related to–like differences in where people live, how close their community is to urban centers versus rural settings, their cultural background, age, education levels, and other factors. I also study traditional foods, because, you guessed it, I like to eat. Well, that and food is a powerful symbol of cultural identity and encompasses all sorts of environmental and social knowledge in its production and preparation.

One reason that medical ethnobotany is important is that plants provide the basis for most modern drugs (like quinine for malaria. No one wants to get malaria). And obviously, drug development is super important.

HOWEVER (and this is a big however), it’s important that in the future, new drug discoveries and other applications of plants take into account both sustainable sourcing of plant material and respect and equitable benefit-sharing for Indigenous and local people whose cultural knowledge informs us of how we might use plants for everyone’s benefit. This is a big deal, which I’ll discuss more in future posts. Being sensitive to these issues hopefully creates a better world for all—plants and people alike.

Susy and me sitting in her garden in Chiapas, Mexico. She just gifted me that freshly picked dragonfruit (pitahaya, Sp.) that I’m holding.

When I work in the field, my main goal is to connect with people and develop good relationships. With good relationships, I can interview local residents about everything plant-related: foods, medicines, gardening, foraging, and more. We usually do this while walking around gardens, forests, or lakesides or sitting in people’s homes or gardens. It often involves eating or drinking something local and delicious. With these good relationships, we can find ways to develop projects together that have direct benefits for local people.

And these relationships extend beyond the field. When I’m not in the field, I engage others in science by giving talks—in person and online—and doing hands-on activities with school kids and adults. Sometimes I lead plant walks. Other times, I get kids to do art related to plants and wild animals.

With colleagues, I’m also developing short educational videos related to our research, so locals can use these “recipe videos” to make herbal medicines and traditional foods, and folks outside of my research area can use them to learn about plant traditions in other parts of the world. My whole jam is ensuring that my work is useful to host communities.

I started this blog as a way to share the plant (and people) love. (OK, full transparency—the kind folks who awarded me a Botany in Action fellowship also requested that I write a blog about science education. Two birds.) I plan to write about research findings—mine and others’, info about plants and tips for using them, thoughts on being a white woman working with Indigenous people, important considerations for conducting ethical research, travel experiences, garden planning ideas, my quips with academia, and more. I might even write about cats and cold-water snorkeling (probably not at the same time).

If I never get another chance to mention snorkeling and cats in the same sentence, here it goes, with pictures of each!

I’m open to suggestions if you have a topic you’d like me to write about. I would also love to connect with you about our shared love of plants, so feel free to send me an email or find me on social media to tell me about your recent botanical activities or whatever excites YOU about plants.

Thanks for reading!