San Marcos,
16:20 PM

Ethnobotany Garden is a Living Laboratory

By David Ogul

To the untrained eye, the landscaping along a sun-soaked CSUSM hillside looks like little more than a typical Southern California drought-tolerant garden.

But it’s not.

Since its inception in 2007, CSUSM’s Community Ethnobotany Garden has been providing students and the local community an outdoor educational laboratory to study coastal chaparral and woodland ecological systems, medical plant properties, landscape management, traditional food production and sustainability practices. It is a window into how the indigenous people of the region who have called this area home for thousands of years have used everything from deer grass and juncus to epazote and black sage for making everything from baskets to medicine.

“It’s important for people to know the traditions of this area and how these plants were used and are still being used,” said Diania Caudell, a North County resident active with the California Indian Basketweavers Association who belongs to the San Luis Rey band of Luiseño Indians.


Even the signs identifying the vegetation growing below the University Student Union have an educational component. All were crafted by students tasked with researching a plant for pharmacological uses and interviewing local knowledge bearers, such as indigenous Mexican migrants or local tribal members, for an understanding of its ethnobotany component.

The marker situated before a patch of agave, for example, notes that the succulents have provided myriad uses in Mexico and the southwestern United States for more than 9,000 years, including as a sweetener, a binding agent, or other food additives, not to mention as a tea or distilled spirit. Former anthropology student Maxx Hermann wrote on his marker that agave has long been used by indigenous populations to treat everything from infections, toothaches and scorpion bites to easing the menstrual cycle of women.

Students say the garden has been vital to their understanding of the role of the environment in both contemporary and past indigenous communities.

“The garden gave me a place to connect to the healing power of plants and the role they played, and continue to play, in indigenous cultures,” said Sam Grasso, who graduated from CSUSM last spring with a degree in medical anthropology.


The Community Ethnobotany Garden also provides the university with a professionally landscaped area maintained by students and the community, a landscaped area that recently captured an Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Best Practices Award for Sustainability in Academics from the California State University’s Chancellor’s Office. Winners in various categories were selected by committees comprising impartial judges with expertise in the relevant fields.

“Students work with community partners each semester to develop sections of the garden dedicated to sustainable food production, medicinal plant cultivation, plant community habitats and traditional cultivars from distinct ecological zones,” wrote Dr. Bonnie Bade, a professor of Medical Anthropology and Ethnobotany and chair of CSUSM’s Anthropology Department, in a successful application for the Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Best Practices Award for Sustainability in Academics.

“The plants in the garden are available to anyone, as long as they are harvested in a sustainable manner,” Bade said, “This is a community garden,” she added, noting that native weavers are free to harvest the deer grass and juncus and use them in basket weaving.

“The efforts of the community in the forms of plants and sharing of plant and cultural knowledge with students constitutes the foundation of the garden,” Bade said.

How vital is the site? After all, Dr. Michael Wilken, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, often takes his students on field trips to a variety of habitats in the region stretching from the San Elijo Lagoon at the southern edge of Encinitas to Palomar Mountain at the northern reaches of San Diego County. Students also trek to local reservations to learn about how such vegetation is used and managed today.

“The garden, though, brings some of the surrounding environment to us, enabling not only students, but the community, the ability to understand the rich habitats that we have here and how these habitats have sustained the indigenous population for thousands of years,” Wilken said.