Why nature interpreters should re-think explaining the historical uses of plants

I work a lot with plants – native plants, to be precise.  People seem to appreciate the value of these plants in the aggregate, but not as individual species.  If the Bay Area suddenly lost all of its native flora, people would probably regret the loss.  But if you ask why this particular species is valuable and should not be allowed to disappear, they’re likely to shrug.

Perhaps this is because they don’t use it.  It’s a reasonable hypothesis: we appreciate plants that we use, like cotton and bananas.  Many of us appreciate the individual species that we use to enliven our yards.  Yet few people I know use Achillea millefolium (even if it was once used to treat battle wounds) or Stipa pulchra (even if it is California’s official state grass).

We therefore find interpretive signs, brochures, and guided tours replete with information on the historical uses of native plants by American Indians and European settlers.

This is a mistake.

What’s at stake here?  Why are people trying to convince other people to appreciate particular species of plants?

The goal is preservation and protection.  The strategy seems to be:

Knowledge of use ⇒ appreciation ⇒ preservation and protection

But does appreciation that is based on how humans use something lead to its preservation and protection?

Knowledge of use ⇒ appreciation ⇒ ???

The first part of the strategy seems sound.  The more you know how to use something, the more likely you are to appreciate it.  And if the thing is no longer used today, but was once used, then knowing about that prior use should make you appreciate it too.


But this applies to lots of things.  It would apply to farm tools that we no longer use. It would apply to kerosene lamps.

Photo by Porovuori.
Photo by Porovuori.

Right now, I don’t particularly appreciate or value kerosene lamps.

But if I went on a ranger-led tour somewhere and learned how people used kerosene lamps before the advent of electric lights, I might.  (Particularly if the ranger was a gifted “interpreter”).  I may walk away from that experience with a newfound appreciation for kerosene lamps.  I might even buy one or two at an antique shop.  I may even start collecting them.

But would you write checks to organizations dedicated to their preservation and protection?  Would you consider the issue when voting for political representatives?  Would you join a demonstration or protest?


Knowledge of use ⇒ appreciation ⇒ enthusiastic hobbyist

The preservation of species is different.  It involves living organisms and is therefore an ethical issue.   Unlike the case of kerosene lamps, it has a moral dimension.  Our appreciation for species – if it is to lead to preservation and protection – must carry more weight than the appreciation for kerosene lamps.

I don’t think knowing how to use a species can carry that additional weight.

But there’s an even bigger problem.

If we appreciate living organisms for how we use them, are we treating them in the same way as we treat kerosene lamps?  As a tool?  As an artifact?

Is it possible that we are undermining the goal of preservation and protection by implicitly treating living species as non-living objects?

I think that we are.  Yet we don’t want to get mired in nature’s “intrinsic value.” Perhaps it’s that reluctance that drives interpreters to rely on the historical uses of species.

I see two possible solutions.

First, we can focus instead on ecology.  Instead of trying to instill appreciation for Achillea millefolium by talking about how American Indians used it, we can talk about its importance in the local ecology.  We can paint a dazzling picture of its relationships with other species.  To appreciate it, rather than how we use it, ought to carry the moral weight of its protection.

Most interpretive signs or brochures don’t do this.  At best, they may say that a species provides nectar for butterflies – or something equally vague.  Usually, they’re content to say that it provides “habitat.”  Why?  Because it’s hard to know a species’ role in an ecosystem.  Whether it’s hard for interpreters, or whether it’s hard for scientists too – I’m not sure.

A second solution is to continue discussing uses, but change the emphasis.  Instead of focusing on the use itself (e.g. Achillea millefolium was used to treat wounds), re-frame the discussion on whether the use was sustainable.

If we’re going to discuss uses, then we should do so wholeheartedly.

We should shift the whole discussion to uses.

Was the use sustainable?  Why or why not?  How did it compare to the way we use resources today to accomplish similar goals?

We can’t stop with the use itself.  (Achillea millefolium was used to treat wounds).  We need to go farther – to how that use was situated in a larger economic and cultural context.  (American Indians in Northern California used Achillea millefolium and other native plants for their medicinal properties in a way that, for X, Y and Z reasons, did or did not lead to depletion of resources/pollution/inequitable access to treatment/etc.).

This would require a lot more thinking than rattling off Achillea millefolium’s uses.  It would require a deeper understanding of what it means to live sustainably and whether other societies – many of which no longer exist – met that definition and how.

It would not require a list of “Did you know…?” or “Fun Facts” trivia.  And it would not lead to a trivializing of other living organisms.

It would lead, I hope, to the goal of preservation and protection.

Knowledge of sustainable uses ⇒ appreciation for sustainability ⇒ preservation and protection


2 thoughts on “Why nature interpreters should re-think explaining the historical uses of plants

  1. I agree that simply informing people about the uses of plants does not in and of itself lead to appreciation and protection. However people that experiment with primitive lifestyles love to learn these things. When exposing city folk to native plants, I have found that having them USE or especially EAT that plant quite often makes them care about it. The knowledge of use alone serves a small subset of the population, but experiencing the use of a plant does make them care about it (especially if it’s delicious).
    Kat Anderson’s “Tending the Wild” revealed that plants without a useful trait would often have no name at all in primitive cultures, presumably because no one cared about them. We, however, can appreciate both the ecological role and human use when considering native species.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Matt,

      I agree, but I think that nature interpreters should go a step farther and explain how past uses were sustainable. Sharing particular uses for plants is interesting, but doesn’t extend beyond trivia or “fun facts.” To inspire a deeper appreciation that is meaningful and relevant today, we need to understand the broader cultural context in which they were used. This isn’t easy, and may require more knowledge and understanding of past societies than commonly exists in the interpretive community.



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