Originally appears in the Spring 2006 issue
Of all the tools I’ve used in many years of teaching, I’ve found plants to be the most exciting, if not transformative. Wherever my travels have taken me — to the inner city of Los Angeles, along the urban trails of Anchorage, to a camp for wayward youth in Michigan, a park in Atlanta, or a campus in Nova Scotia — familiar plants have been there to greet me. Certain plants that we often refer to as “weeds” are ubiquitous, many species being common to virtually all regions of North America. They are free for the picking and often found on or near school grounds. And if you’re hungry, they are rich in nutrients, have minimal packaging, and grow organically. Following are a few stories to whet your appetite.
I was invited to accompany a group of inner city youth from Los Angeles on a weeklong backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada of California. Many of the youth had never experienced the wilds outside of Los Angeles. Once we were on the trail it became apparent that we would have a major challenge to help them enjoy their experience in this strange if not seemingly hostile environment. Along with the unfamiliarity of their surroundings was the added discomfort of carrying a heavy backpack up several miles of steep trail. Although I had never visited the area, many of the plants were common to the mountains of northern Utah where I live, so I began introducing some of my favorites. As always, I found a bit of nibbling on some gastronomic delights to be highly engaging. Within a few hours the complaining had largely subsided as the students’ interest in the virtues of nearly every new plant we encountered overshadowed their fear and discomfort. As the week progressed, many of them became amateur ethnobotanists as their interest and excitement grew along with their taxonomic skills. They were soon teaching one another and constantly discovering new plants to key out.
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Jack Greene is a teacher, naturalist, activist, writer, and artist who recently retired from 30 years of teaching environmental science and outdoor education in various institutions, organizations, and agencies throughout North America. He lives in Logan, Utah.