Ethnobotany Month One

Thanksgiving is over and I finally have a moment to sit and write about my Ethnobotany course. This is a life changer for me. Somehow, it will change my business, but I am not sure how yet. Whether by eliminating some product or adding some or both. I know that this will change how I grow the herbs that are used for my salves and balms. 


Ethnobotany is the traditional uses of native plants. My course involves plants native to the Pacific Northwest and those that grow in our environment. Over the next 10 months, I will be learning Permaculture Principles, Medicine making, Plant Identification in all stages of growth, and what to do with them when I harvest. Plus much more. We will even learn how to press oil, produce lye then make soap from those products. I like the idea of using all materials I personally produce. Whether or not this proves to be practical is yet to be seen, but I will know how to do it. I have always had a fascination for how things are made, from the ground up. I know a lot of this in theory, but I am excited to be able to put it into practice. To gain the hands on experience.


Permaculture is an idea that is strongly taking root, at least in my area of the world. Permaculture is a planting technique that mimics natural systems. This also allows for humans to be a part of the natural system without clearing or damaging those systems. In other words, I am learning to live in harmony with the natural world instead of trying to dominate it.

In natural systems, there are 7 recognized layers of growth (8 if you include mycology which my course does). This has been learned from observing the environments, particularly those that are in the process of regrowth, such as after a fire, or drought. The 8 layers are as such:

Rhizosphere, this is the root layers of the plants. This is more important than one might think. You don't see the root systems and therefore they aren't considered in the current systems of growing. But root systems have a large roll to play in the ecosystems that we are creating. Some plants are nitrogen fixers, that pull nutrients from deep in the earth and deposit them for the use of other plants. Also, if you have a deep rooted plant in which you want to harvest the root, you don't want to plant it right next to a tree. If you did, you would end  up having a hard time harvesting the root of the plant you want without disturbing the root system of the tree. 

Fungal, I am including this here because it is so close to the rhizosphere in most but not all cases. Fungi is fascinating. I did a presentation in college about Ergot, the fungus that taints Rye grass. I could go on forever about the magnificence of mycelium and the whole fungal world. I don't know as much about it as I would like, but mycelium, is the layer of fungi that is beneath the surface, be it the ground, a tree, or a fallen stump, what we actually see, is the fruiting body, the mushroom. Mycelium, is this vast underground network that aids the breakdown of leaf matter that has fallen. It has also been noticed that it works as a communication system in forests. I am not sure how this works, but I think it interesting. There have also been studies as to how fungus can help clean up pollution. 

Groundcover helps to shade out weeds. Now in permaculture systems, the natural world isn't particular about what this ground cover is. But, the thing about permaculture is, that if you leave out one segment of this system, nature will provide it for you. So, ground cover could be Kinnikinnick, clover, strawberries, or buttercup for example. In my area, if I don't provide a groundcover that is desirable, my yard will provide Buttercup. For my first colony, I am going to choose Strawberry. Strawberry is one of those plants that I think I have underestimated and so I look forward to getting to know it better.

Herbaceous Plants, are our next layer, these are the ones we are most familiar with in our gardens. These are the mints, and the daisies, the things that we usually plant in beds. They include a lot of our food crops. Although in this course we will be focusing on perennial vegetables and herbs. As a side note, there are more than 80 perennial vegetables that are tasty and provide better nutrition than many of the annual vegetables available at the supermarket. I am looking forward to learning and sharing more about these as I go. Burdock for example, this last class I tried some Burdock root broth that was so rich and tasty that you couldn't tell it wasn't a beef broth.  I found some Burdock root at my local Co-Op and can't wait to make some for David to try. 

Shrubs include most of our berries. Also roses, Oregon grape, Salal, and Current among others. Rose is another plant I think I have underestimated and am looking forward to getting to know better. Around my house a lot of these grow. I have a wealth of berries ranging from Thimbleberry to all 3 varieties of blackberry that grow in the Pacific Northwest. I am truly blessed in my location. I have wild black raspberries and little red huckleberries. YUM! I love summer at my house.

Vines can be the bane of all existence if not managed in a complete system. I am always hearing people complain about the Morning Glory. I personally love morning glory but I think I am the only person I know that feels this way about it. But, I have never had a problem with it, nor have I tried to eliminate it. I don't really have a good use for it, other than the beauty of the flowers and it makes me think of fairies and another world that I cannot see. But there are plenty of good and useful vines that can replace the Morning Glory. These could be grapes, hearty Kiwi and a new one for me Schisandra Berry. I want to grow this one as well. It is an adaptogen, which is a stress reliever and increases energy, physical performance and endurance. 

Small Trees make up the next tier of our system. Small trees include our fruit and many of the nut trees. These provide shade for more delicate plants, fruit and nuts for both humans and animals They provide a trellis for our vining plants and many also provide medicines.

Tall Trees make up the final layer. These are the Big Leaf Maple, Alder, Birch and the evergreens like Cedar or Fir. These are the final layer. The last to appear and longest growing of all. Our Old Growth forests are made up of predominately the Tall trees. 


I am going to go briefly into the medicine making portion of my last class. Mostly because other than the salves we learned about in class, I am not going to be using most of that in my business. We learned about the different ways to use plants as medicine. Tinctures- these are herbs that have been extracted in a menstruum. I have known about them for a long time, but have always preferred teas and decoctions for my medicines. Although, as I am learning, some plants will only let go of their magic in alcohol. This is one area in which I am interested but will not sell in my business. The regulation is too high and I am not confident enough to use them on others at this point. But, I have been experimenting at home on myself and David...when he lets me. I have been also learning about ferments such as Kombucha, which I must say tastes better home made than it does from the store, and Garlic fermented in honey. Also, fermenting syrups in honey which I found most interesting, and some of these syrups and ferments may eventually make the sales table, we'll see.


In a couple of weeks I will be attending my second class. In the next class we are really going to be focusing on the Permaculture aspect. We are planning a colony, which is what they call these plant systems, learning about water collection and Hugelkulture (building mounds of branches, compost, soil and mulch to build a strong nutrient rich mound to plant in. This system helps to collect water for the plants grown) We will also be learning about winter maintenance, pruning, grafting, and soil microbiology. 

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