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Take an ethnobotany tour around the University of Montana

The UM ethnobotany garden is dedicated to native plants of Montana and sharing Indigenous knowledge and cultural usage of these plants.
Ethnobotany tour sign
Posted at 11:17 AM, Sep 20, 2023

MISSOULA — “This is the traditional landscaping of universities in the United States. There’s a water thirsty lawn, there’s beautiful deciduous trees all very tidy,” ethnobotany garden caretaker Marilyn Marler pointed out.

“If you lift your eyes up to Mount Sentinel you’ll see that there’s no one up there irrigating and mowing," Marler continued. "There’s seasonal precipitation and there’s animals using that. And there’s hundreds of species in those grasslands and down here on the lawn there’s one species."

UM lawn
The lawn of UM has one grass type. Mount Sentinel (above) has hundreds.

Using ethnobotany, the University of Montana has brought living landscapes like Mount Sentinel to gardens on campus.

“Ethnobotany is the study of how different groups of people use plants," Marler explained. "The UM ethnobotany garden is dedicated to native plants of Montana and sharing Indigenous knowledge and cultural usage of these plants.”

As part of American Indian Heritage Days, Marler and intern Hannah Hornyak offered an educational tour.

Horyak has a long history of learning from plants that they grew up with on the East Coast.

They told MTN, “I am very appreciative of the knowledge that plants have shared with Indigenous people and Indigenous people have shared with our communities.”

Ethnobotany gardens
Each garden has an interpretive sign with great information.

There are eight small gardens, each flourishing with plants that naturally grow on the 8 different reservations around Montana.

“Yaro is a plant that is native to Montana and is widespread around Montana. In addition to putting it in teas for internal issues, digestive issues, if you chew it up or pound it up and put it on a cut or something, it’ll stop the bleeding,” Marler detailed.

Ethnobotany tour
Yaro when ground or pulverized can be used to stop bleeding

The Flathead Indian Reservation has wild rose, the Blackfeet Reservation has the Oregon grape, Little Shell has wild sunflower, and Fort Peck has white sage.

“Actually before religious ceremonies, this is cut off before they start to bloom, bundled together with string, dried out, and burned like an incense for purification," Marler explained.

The Northern Cheyanne Tribe has golden currant and wild licorice. Marler held a tall leafy plant,

“This is golden currant. Which is an early bloomer which is a big attractant for hummingbirds and this produces tons of edible berries.” Marler continued, “The root of wild licorice is traditional medicine for respiratory issues.”

Golden Currant
Hummingbirds love golden currant. Native plants are hubs for insect and animal life.

You can learn more about the garden and take a tour by meeting outside the Payne Center on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, at 1 p.m. The gardens are also accessible for everyone at any time.