Ethnobotany at the Garden
By Barb Williams
Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous (native) plants. The native plants sprinkled throughout the Bellevue Botanical Garden remind us that Native Americans such as the Muckleshoot, Snoqualmie and Duwamish lived in this area for thousands of years and skillfully developed a plant technology to support their daily needs.
Containers were necessary to hold and carry a multitude of items. Native Americans discovered that the inner bark of the Western Red Cedar tree stripped longitudinally, softened when soaked and was ideal for weaving baskets. Local Bitter Cherry bark and Bear Grass were used for decoration, as were the shiny black stems of the Maiden Hair Fern. White Bear Grass was dyed yellow when boiled in children’s urine with the yellow inner bark of Oregon Grape. The inner bark of the Western Red Alder was used in the same way to dye items bright red or reddish brown. The urea in the urine was the mordant that bound the dye to the material. Cedar bark and Stinging Nettle fishnets were dyed reddish brown. The Native peoples discovered this color rendered the nets less visible to the salmon upon which they depended for food.
Baskets were essential when the women went berry picking. To aid in picking hundreds of berries from huckleberry bushes they made combs from the wood of the Big Leaf Maple tree. By scraping the combs through the branches, they collected the berries and leaves in their baskets. To separate the leaves from the berries, they rolled them down a 45-degree inclined cedar plank covered with wet cedar boughs placed so that the prickles on the undersides of the needles faced upwards. The prickles caught the leaves and the berries rolled down the slope into a trough.
Local Native Americans called the Western Red Cedar tree “The Tree of Life” due to its many uses for them. Because the wood split longitudinally and was rot-resistant, it was used to make dancing platforms, canoes, arrow and spear shafts, cradles, coffins and planks for houses. When soaked in warm water, the wood was easily bent thus enabling the people to make bentwood boxes. These boxes were watertight allowing for hot rock cooking, storing water and other items. Europeans visiting Pacific Northwest shores, valued these containers which were artfully made to fit snuggly into the bow of their ships.
Some plants were sources of food while others had technological or medicinal uses. Many of the traditional practices are used by Native Americans today.
The Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum), the logo plant for the Bellevue Botanical Garden, was often used to treat sore eyes and as a love medicine. This piece of ethnobotany seems most appropriate to the BBG: a garden of beauty, love and wellness. Trillium ovatum can be found blooming in a variety of places throughout the Garden in early spring. It is a visual treat for sore eyes.
Sources: Plants at Lewis Creek Park (booklet), Plant Technology by Nancy J. Turner