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NatureSpeak Articles

People and plants

Ever wonder how the first humans to this part of the world figured out how to survive? What did they eat? Where did they get the materials for shelter and clothes? How did they heal themselves? Ethnobotany is the study of all the above.

You may have heard of ethnobotanist Wade Davis, author of Serpent and the Rainbow, sometimes thought of as a true-life Indiana Jones. In this part of the world the expert is Nancy Turner who has been studying the relationships between plants and humans in British Columbia for years.

Humans have lived here in the northern Pacific coastal region for 10,000-14,000 years, around the time of the retreat of the last glaciers. These early people had an intimate relationship with their environment with teaching and experience being passed through generations.

In the traditional diets of Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast, meat made up the bulk of most meals, although plant foods were essential and contributed both diversity and essential nutrients. Plant foods in this area include fruits, green vegetables, root vegetables and the inner bark of many tree species. Most of these foods were processed for later use in the year mostly through a combination of cooking and drying (makes a grocery story seem like the ultimate luxury!).

Plants also provided many important materials for construction and technology. They used wood for fuel, construction and manufacture; fibrous bark, stem and leaf tissues for making mats, baskets, bags, cord, and clothing; bark and other materials for dyes and stains; pitch for glue, caulking, and waterproofing; and miscellaneous plant parts for makeshift mats and containers, abrasives, cleansers and scents. To try and appreciate traditional technology, the next time you see a red cedar think how you would go about making an outfit out of it.

Medicinal applications of plants in indigenous cultures in this region probably include several hundred different species. Traditional knowledge of the forest includes plants that would kill you if you tried to eat them but might also save your life when prepared as medicine. Spiritual beliefs and traditional medicine are closely linked and the two would never be separated, as we often do in modern medicine.

All plants that were used for food, medicines and materials were regarded with respect and appreciation, and often their collection and use involved special prayers, ceremonies and rituals. Makes you wonder what happened that human philosophy evolved into what it is today.

If you’d like to learn more about plants and people come and join us for a walk this Saturday with Ethnobotanist Nancy Turner. She’s the main contributor of Native uses of plants to one of the foremost plant guides, Plants of Coastal British Columbia (Pojar, Mackinnon). She will lead a walk to the Cheakamus Lake and focus on traditional uses of plants along the way. The walk will start at 9 a.m. and go to about 1:30 p.m. Meet at municipal hall, where carpools will be arranged. The tour will be by donation to the Whistler Naturalist Society.

Written by: Kristina Swerhun


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