A homeschooling botany program (fun for curious adults too)

I have set aside a few books for studying botany with Elise (which I may or may not include in the upcoming academic year). As much as I love specimen gardening, this should be a mutually enjoyable unit for us.

As spines, I expect to use Botany in 8 Lessons and the Botany Coloring Book.

But this afternoon, I found myself strangely immersed in Carolyn Fry’s book, The Plant Hunters: The Adventures of the World’s Greatest Botanical Explorers. I am definitely going to work this history book into our botany unit.

We take it for granted now that our nurseries and garden centers have plants from all over the world available to buy. In our Florida garden, I have tropical plants from Indonesia, India, Africa, South America, you name it.

This book describes all of the historical expeditions that led to plants being brought back from all of these regions, often at tremendous personal risk. These would be plants used in medicine, spices, and just interesting and beautiful specimens desired for extravagant gardens and scientific study. The book also includes portfolio inserts that are reproductions of historical texts and drawings of plants from each period.

I feel like the fact that we have many of these plants in these stories growing in our gardens at home should make the historical information a lot more interesting to a child. Although these folks were all serious adventurers, so the content is not exactly dry.

Topics include:

  • Queen Hatshepsut funding explorations to recover incense trees and other plants (although not mentioned in the book, some of these plants were used to manufacture the chemicals used in mummification, another fun topic for kids)
  • Ancient Egyptian pharmacists
  • The origins of agriculture
  • How pepper, nutmeg, mace, sandalwood, cinnamon, and clove drove exploration
  • The development of physic gardens in England for cultivating herbs used in medicine (Nicolas Culpeper)
  • Carolus Clusius and Tulipmania (also a great lesson for discussing financial bubbles, not unlike stock market or real estate crashes)
  • The elder and younger John Tradescants, the first professional plant hunters
  • The gardening craze in 18th-century Europe, which led to the construction of massive formal and specimen gardens among royals and aristocrats (also pretty cool on this topic – Monty Don’s BBC documentaries on famous gardens in Italy and France)
  • Carl Linnaeus
  • Sir Joseph Banks and how the search for breadfruit as cheap nutrition for slaves led to the mutiny on the Bounty; Banks’ Florilegium
  • Alexander von Humboldt
  • Expeditions into the Amazon
  • Carl Per Thunberg
  • Lewis and Clark’s specimen-collecting
  • David Douglas
  • Joseph Hooker in the Himalaya
  • E. H. Wilson’s expeditions in the Orient, which brought us azaleas and clematis
  • The cultivation of sugar cane in the Caribbean and the slave trade there
  • The East India Company and the opium wars
  • How the cultivation of plants in certain regions contributed to colonialism
  • Robert Fortune and the cultivation of tea
  • The search for plants to use for rubber (could also talk about Thomas Edison’s home gardens – in addition to beauty, he was personally trying to cultivate plants that could be used for rubber and testing their attributes)
  • Orchid hunters
  • The illustration of new plant species as an art form (Codex Vindobonensis, Highgrove Florilegium)
  • Invaders of the plant world and the historical origins of conservation efforts
  • Modern plant hunters

Another fun and loosely related topic would be floriography, or the language of flowers. I am looking for a good children’s book (or very accessible adult non-fiction) on the history of floriography. I started thinking about including this after some Love Lies Bleeding (amaranth) seeds I had ordered arrived in the mail. This plant, a grain, is native to Central and South America and was used as a regular food source for Aztecs. (It was also used in religious rites, particularly one where the Aztecs would fashion little dough figurines of their gods and then eat them. The Spanish Conquistadors banned the practice, as it seemed like a twisted version of the Eucharist.) Anyway, amaranth has beautiful red-pink plumes and came to symbolize hopeless love for Victorians. I fell into a floriography rabbit hole trying to find out how it got such a gory common name and thought, man, I need to incorporate this into some random homeschooling unit sometime. If not botany, there’s always Shakespeare.

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