Landscape architects are often involved in designing and programming botanical gardens and arboretums. But how many have designed, or even heard of, an ethnobotanical garden? Forgoing the minutia often attached to the definition, ethnobotany is simply the study of the interaction of plants and people within a certain context, generally within a certain place in history and time. For example, the study of how the Timucua Indians in pre-colonial St. Augustine used plants and for which purposes the plants were used is studying ethnobotany.
In general, ethnobotany is concerned with how a culture used plants for food, medicine, shelter, defense, religion, clothing, textiles, dyes, and transportation. Perhaps the greatest use of ethnobotany has been in the pharmaceutical realm where ethnobotanists are embedded deep into forest with native cultures to record their medicinal plant uses. However, many industries have benefited from the study of ethnobotany as it helps us understand how people from different cultures have used plants in practical ways.
Although infrequently, gardens and other botanical facilities can, and have, been designed around such knowledge within different cultures. Most in the United States are built around Native American traditions and are in the West. Many ethnobotanical gardens are simply collections of plants catalogued with their uses and not necessarily designed as a facility for the public to view and learn.
More frequently, however, ethnobotanical gardens are being designed for the public. A good example of a well-designed ethnobotanical garden can be found in Oaxaca, Mexico where designers carefully orchestrated gardens, exhibits, and interpretive materials so that the public can learn how and when the displayed plants were used. Since ethnobotanical gardens are a newer construct, guidelines for landscape architects almost do not exist. In fact, I’ve only been able to find one article in the literature for landscape architecture or ethnobotanical gardens that outlines the attributes for a successful ethnobotanical garden.
Ethnobotany, however, can be used in another way: to add a layer of history to the landscape design of already historic cities. With research, informed design, and interpretation, ethnobotany can be a tool for creating a richer and more informative experience in the everyday landscape. More about how this works in Part Two…