Northwest Ethnobotany Classes At Whatcom

Story by Rob Andrilla

Anyone who was raised in the Pacific Northwest is likely aware of previous inhabitants of the region. Native American tribes lived on the coast of the Pacific for many years before Europeans arrived, and these people had a uniquely sustainable relationship with the land and plant life around them.

The Northwest is home to a host of flora not to be found anywhere else in the world. A class offered at Whatcom Community College that explores the Northwest’s distinctive ecosystem and how natives interacted with it is Anthropology 150, or Northwest Coast Ethnobotany.

Taught by Thomas Lloyd, this three credit course explores the indigenous plants of the region. The class encompasses a plethora of information regarding the plant life of the Northwest and their traditional uses by the original inhabitants of the area.

Ruby Nichols, a student in Northwest Coast Ethnobotany, said she mostly learned about “Native uses for plants and how they were processed” by the original populations of the Pacific Northwest.

Jasmine Chang, another student in the class, said “the indigenous culture of the Pacific Northwest was emphasized, as well as different uses of traditional plants.”

Nichols described it as “a lot of fun, not a stressful class. You’re really active.”

The class teaches students how to identify many of the Pacific Northwest’s unique plants. General plant biology is also covered, giving students a background of how these specific plants function in the Northwest environment and how they have evolved to do so.

Chang explained that she “learned about what plants are annual or perennial, as well as different plant classifications.”

“We learned what the different parts of plants are. Some don’t have what others do.” Nichols said, of the plant biology lessons she received in the class.

The class also teaches how plants were used by the indigenous inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest region, whether they were for medicinal, nutritional, or other purposes. “[The class] was more about the human uses of plants than how they worked,” Nichols said.

“Most of the class was about material use of the plants,” continued Nichols. “Learning about native uses of the plants was the most interesting part [of the class].”

Anthropology 150 “heavily emphasized Native American uses of plants,” said Chang.

Native Americans in the Puget Sound area were known for their sustainable relationship with nature. Some of the specific trees the class learned about and saw in the wild were the Western Red-cedar, Douglas Fir Tree, Big Leaf Maple Tree, and Oregon Grapes.

Western Red-cedars were used for the widest breadth of purposes, from clothes and twine to canoes and fuel to dry caught fish, Nichols said.

Other trees served essential purposes as well though. Nichols said Douglas Firs were used for spear handles, brooms, caskets, and repairing any waterworking tools or items.

Some uses of plants were more ornamental than functional. Western Hemlock trees were utilized for dyes and pigments, said Nichols.

There were three required field trips for this class, to directly observe and identify the plant life of the region. On Thursday mornings, the class headed to various city parks to witness the indigenous plants in their natural habitats.

The first field trip was to Woodstock Farms by Chuckanut Bay on April 29, which has been a city-operated conservation site for 109 years according the city of Bellingham website’s history of the park. The class also traveled to city-owned Cornwall Park on May 9 and Whatcom Falls Park on May 30 to see more plant life.

Fieldtrips were the Chang’s favorite aspect of the class. She appreciated being “actually in nature and having a hands-on experience.” Being “in the woods rather than in a classroom” really helped her with learning about the Northwest’s flora and the alternatives they posed to Western medicine.

Through the observations, students learned further about sustainability in within the local ecosystem. Nichols took the class because she was “interested in sustainability, and wanted to learn what plants were in the wild as sustainable resources.”

Now that she has taken the class, the benefits of the new knowledge are showing. She said it is “a lot easier to identify uses of plants” when she sees them.

Of Northwest Coast Ethnobotany, Nichols said: “It is a class that benefits you in the future. Take advantage.”


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