Nature-Based Learning: Learning through the Lens of the Wild Orchid

“Writing professor Kyhl Lyndgaard finds that 19th-century attitudes about ‘Indian removal’ were echoed by a notable shift in the common names of native orchids.” This is the sentence that begins the article, “Taking Off the Moccasin Flower and Putting On the Lady’s Slipper,” published by Potash Hill, the magazine of Marlboro College. Using the Lady Slipper (sp. Cypripedium acaule), in which we’ve seen a “bumper crop” this year, as a catalyst for learning, let’s begin here, the renaming of native orchids and other plants. Learning about the history and origin of different native plant species names can support a wide variety of subjects, including Native American studies, U.S. history, ethnobotany, poetry, and ecology. In Lyndgaard’s article, these subjects are tied together by weaving a story about Indian Removal through poetry, history, and the renaming of the Moccasin Flower.

Ethnobotany weaves together countless stories through the study of the relationship between local culture and people and the traditional knowledge and practical use of local plants. For decades, ethnobotanist Nancy Turner has roamed Canada’s west coast, recording how First Nations elders dug roots, picked berries, and prepared ancient foods. Here she shares one of the stories she has documented:

Guided by local plant phenology and looking through the lens of ethnobotany, we can support our learning about traditional cultures and native plant species within the context of the season. Look for local resources with primary source context, like the burning of mishoon canoes with Nolumbeka Project and living examples of native plant species used within the context of ethnobotany at botanical gardens like the Berkshire Botanical Garden. Check out books from your local library to support your learning, too, like Native Plant Stories by Joseph Bruchac for early learners and Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel E. Moerman and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer for life-long learners. Get curious as you explore, asking questions, and seeking answers. The Native American Ethnobotany Database is an online resource for discovering plant-based foods, medicines, fibers, and dyes of Native American Peoples. Type in a native plant species near you and let the answers and your curiosity lead your learning.

Returning to the Moccasin Flower, our learning can easily branch from Native American studies and ethnobotany towards ecology, art, and even mythology. Here are a few links to continue your learning through the lens of Cypripedium acaule. Pick your point of entry and let your interests lead the way:

Photo credit: (c) Sienna Wildfield.


Nature-Based Learning with Curly Willow on the Westfield River. Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains on the east branch of the Westfield River, Curly Willow on the Westfield is an emerging space for the passionately curious. A convergence of mindfulness and community-based education. Member, Community-Based Education Network™.

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