Math and Science In Your Life

Science, Math and Technology Resources at Empire State College


Featured Course – Ethnobotany

image - heirloom tomatoesWhat do chocolate, bamboo, rubber and Echinacea have in common? They are all plant-derived products that we encounter and use in non-plant forms. The immense diversity of plants has provided human beings with food, fiber, building materials, medicines, and many other products since ancient and students In this course students learn how indigenous peoples’ beliefs about, and knowledge of, plants influenced cultures and societies both then and now.

In times past knowledge of plants and their uses was vital for survival and plants played a key role in religion and mythology. In this course, students learn basic plant biology and the role that plants play in societies around the world. Ethnobotanical field methods are introduced and students engage in field and practical activities. The topics of conservation, sustainable development, bioprospecting, and intellectual property rights are also explored and discussed in collaborative settings.

Featured Activity:

Preparing a Herbarium Specimen

In this activity you will create a herbarium specimen of a common plant, in order to practice the techniques of specimen preparation. Ideally, you should use a plant from your garden. If you collect a plant from the wild make sure it is a common species. Plant collection in the wild is subject to variety of regulations and you should research those regulations before collecting anything in the wild (New York State, Plant Rarity and the Law). Choose a plant that is used by people. It could be a plant that is used as a herb, a medicine, or for decorative purposes, for example. Additional information on ethnobotanical methods follows the activity.

Instructions:image - specimen prep

  • Collect a common plant from the garden. The specimen consists of the vegetative parts of the plant (leaves and stem) and reproductive parts (flowers and/or fruits).
  • Press the sample using a plant press (if you have one) or, if you do not have a plant press, place the sample between layers of newspaper and weigh it down using several heavy books.
  • Place the “press” in a warm, dry area and the sample should be ready in approximately a week.
  • The sample should then be mounted (using glue) on a piece of stiff paper.
  • Label the mounted specimen (see below).

The label (on the lower right hand corner of the page) should include the following information:

  • Name of collector
  • Date collected
  • Location where collected
  • Latitude and Longitude
  • Altitude
  • Description of habitat
  • Common Name
  • Scientific name (Genus, species)
  • Brief description of characteristics that can be used for identification
  • Plant uses or other interesting points

The University of Florida herbarium has a detailed description of preparation of plant specimens ( that you may consult for more detailed directions.


Data Collection: Herbarium Specimens

Herbarium specimens are pressed plant specimens that serve as permanent records of botanical information. They are an important link between the information gathered in the field through ethnobotanical interviews and plant biology. Common names of plants vary from place to place and culture to culture, so it’s important that the plant be identified and the scientific name established. The specimen consists of the vegetative parts of the plant (leaves and stem, and sometimes roots) and reproductive parts (flowers and/or fruits) and should document the overall features of the plant, in different developmental stages. Out in the field, specimens are usually placed in collecting bags (though for fragile specimens field presses are often used). Once they have been brought in from the field, specimens are pressed (in standard sized newspaper), and then mounted on sheets of high quality paper (typically on paper measuring approximately 28.5×42 cm). The specimen is then carefully labeled in the lower right hand corner. The label typically contains information on: Name of collector, Date collected, Location where collected, Latitude and Longitude, Altitude, Description of habitat, Common Name, Scientific name (Genus, species), Brief description of characteristics that can be used for identification, Plant uses or other interesting points.

Specimens that are prepared properly may last hundreds of years and serve as a permanent record of plants from a particular place or community.

Field Notebook

Keeping a record of fieldwork is important. At the end of a day in the field, details tend to become blurred and it becomes hard to reconstruct the precise details of what was observed. One way to overcome this problem is to record observations in a field notebook or field journal. Keeping a notebook/journal also encourages more careful observations and reflection on those observations.

Choose a journal that is sturdy and will hold up to being exposed to the elements. Cotton paper tends to be more waterproof. A journal with a hard cover and flexible binding is preferable. A good size is about 21 x 14 cm (approximately half the size of a letter sheet). For the written portions, use black, waterproof, fade proof pigment ink, and write on just one side of the paper. Use a pencil for sketching.

Take a field guides (or guides) out in the field to help with identification.

Some basic information you would want to include would be:

site name/location
time of day
weather conditions

The standard field journal contains up to 3 parts:

Journal (the recording of the information listed above, plus your observations, and species lists)
Species Accounts (notes on your observations of particular species)
Catalog (information about things you may be collecting)