In addition to the normal site inventory landscape architects perform, there must be a specific methodology for those using ethnobotany as a layer in their design. Using ethnobotany to design a landscape requires a specific process for site inventory and analysis that goes further than climate, hydrology, soils, plant life, and wild life. There should also be an inventory of non-landscape site inventory which includes cultural features, written resources, library holdings, and museum exhibits.
On any site there is the potential for occupation by many of generations of people and many types of plants with varied practical and cultural usages. First, we must look at the history of the people who lived on the site and when. I use the word “site” loosely as it could vary specifically from the specific land being developed to the general area in which the site is found. A good place to start is to find out if Paleo-Indians inhabited the site/area at some point. Find out which tribes, their history and culture, and which plants they used. Museums, books, universities, and seasoned historians and archeologists can be a good source for this information.
Depending on where the site lies, it may be difficult to find any information before the 1800’s. During inventory, note any remnants of activity within the town – both industrial and agricultural. There may be an old factory, horse ties, or silos still standing that will provide clues and even inspiration. Request any archeological information from the local government.
The best place to start finding information is the internet. Most towns have websites that explain the history of the town. From this some inferences can be made. The town may have been the corn capitol of the east or known for making shoes or tires. Each industry can be linked to plants used in manufacturing processes. Also search for native plants in the area and how they were used.
Old newspaper articles, magazines, and letters can also provide clues. Some publications advertise specifics plants, mention festivals involving plants in articles, or specify plants with which to cook. Though often idealistic, postcards and photographs are another way to visually identify not only plants, but how they were used and arranged and revered in a society. These publications are often found in books, at universities, and museums, but perhaps one of the best places is the local historical society. As always, oral history may also provide information. If your site isn’t too old, some in town may remember how the site looked or stories about the site.
If not already completed, a list of the plants found in the society should be determined and their use analyzed along with the other site analysis data. As mentioned before the ethnobotany is concerned with how a culture used plants for food, medicine, shelter, defense, religion, clothing, textiles, dyes, and transportation, so there may be more than one use for a plant or plants that are more important than others. In any case, make sure to gather as much information from as many sources as possible so you can begin the programming and design phase.
Once the target population and time to be interpreted has been identified, plants from the research can be chosen to use in the project. These plants can be used in several ways when applying ethnobotany to a design. Aside from using the plant itself in the design, a nod to the plant may be sufficient. If corn were important to the society – corn-based products could be used. Similarly, if oranges were the main crop, the color orange could be one focus of the design.
More about the creative use in ethnobotany in design in the next segment of the series.