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Roots of Diversity: Growing Culturally Significant Plants in the Classroom

Originally appears in the Summer 2007 issue

Over the last three years, I have conducted a number of workshops to provide teachers with the materials they need to establish windowsill gardens in their classrooms. During this time, the staff at a local outdoor education centre helped me establish an indoor demonstration garden in the windows of the entrance corridor. We have witnessed that students are drawn to the display not just by the diversity of plants but also by the labels that indicate their countries of origin and the related cultural celebrations. Although I’m a botanist, I have come to understand that the biology of a plant is not nearly as interesting to students as its stories and cultural connections. Somehow, the facts that a marigold has fibrous roots and is a member of the Composite family are not so engaging as the fact that the plant traveled 400 years ago from Brazil to India on sailing ships with Portuguese sailors who barely escaped pirates lurking on the high seas.

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Allan Foster recently retired as director of the Kortright Centre for Conservation near Kleinburg, Ontario. He is currently a visiting scholar at a small graduate college in Hong Kong where he teaches adult education strategies to teachers and preachers from 19 countries in Asia.