Ethnobotany: Using plants for food and medicine

By Stephanie Erlandson

This Saturday (July 9) we got to strengthen our connection to plants by examining more closely what we eat, and how some common plants can be used for medicine.

We eat plants all the time, but we rarely take a closer look at what’s inside.  By dissecting plants, we can look at their seeds, their ovaries (yes, plants have ovaries!) and figure out if a specific plant part is a fruit, a leaf, a stem, or a root.  We can also learn more about how plants are related to each other.  For example, the African horned melon (kiwano) is actually closely related to the pumpkins, squash, and watermelons that are more common here in Minnesota.

There were a variety of plants available for dissection, and a map showing the origins of many different agricultural plants from around the world.  Many of the plants that we rely on for food are actually not native to Minnesota (e.g. wheat, oats, watermelon, peas, almonds, coffee).

Visitors were also asked to vote for their favorite berry, and many were shocked to learn that cucumbers are a type of berry, but raspberries and strawberries are not! After voting, visitors learned that a true berry is a fruit that is fleshy, has many seeds on the inside, and grows from only one ovary on a single flower.

Finally, we had some examples of medicinal plants (ephedra, spearmint, horsetail, ginkgo) to view, and we talked about which medicines they provide.  For example, pseudoephed came from the ephedra plant and aspirin came from willow bark.  Willow bark contains salicylic acid, which is a precursor to aspirin.  What plants did the medicines in your cabinet come from?

There are many more medicinal plants around the world that are still unknown to science, and the process of discovering them is still ongoing.  For example, a new chemical was recently extracted from the sweet wormwood plant, and it was found to be very effective at treating malaria.  The scientist to discover the drug, Tu Youyou, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2015.

Hopefully this market science day will help encourage people to take a closer look at the plants around them, and appreciate everything that they do for us!

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