Engaging students in ethnobotanical concepts can be a challenge if you present the topic as a straight lecture. I used the art of brewing tea, accompanied by numerous herbals (books), to impress upon my students how people have learned what plants are helpful or harmful to humanity
Getting students excited about plants is not always an easy task. However, one trick I found for ethnobotany, a topic where students have a little more interest because of the human health/drug connection, was very simple. I went to the local food co-op and purchased as many loose dried botanical herbs, spices, and teas as they had available. I purchased plants the students may have heard of before, like lavender and lemongrass, but I also picked up some that may not come to mind at first, like basil and black stick. A warning to teachers using this idea: please make sure you are familiar with the plants that you choose. Research the possible effects of the plants you are planning to have students use to make a tea and, of course, avoid hazardous or poisonous plants.
I went to the laboratory armed with all my botanical purchases, several tea pots, tea balls/spoons to brew the botanicals, cups for hot liquids, and as many different herbal guides as I could scrounge and borrow. I must admit I felt like a teacher out of Harry Potter, but I placed the books and botanicals in the middle of a table and told the students that they each needed to brew (and try) at least four teas. As I boiled the water in preparation, the students were instructed to research the botanical options available to them in the mini-library provided. A few students had personal laptops and asked to use the Internet for discovering plant uses. I allowed them to go to the Internet only after acquiring some information out of the books. Making notes about what the plant’s scientific name was, where it grew worldwide, and what it was used for medicinally or socially began to engage them. I warned them that one herbal may give one set of uses while another gives a very different list. The tone of the entire laboratory was mellow and friendly. Students talked to each other about what plants were the most interesting to them and why. Of course, some students were interested in teas that would help them relax; others were interested in the stimulants. For example, a few were surprised to learn that catnip was not a stimulant to humans and began asking why there were different reactions in two mammals. Student bias and cultural influences also showed themselves. One Asian student talked about how basil was used in his ancestry as a steeped medicine, and other students commented that they thought it was strictly an Italian herb, but both listened intensely at other perspectives! Natural conversations developed easily and, depending on the class dynamics and cultural diversity available, other stimulating mini-lessons could present themselves. However, I was most impressed with such a simple exercise making such an impact on my students. The stereotyped "jock" was interested in this exercise only after he tried some lavender tea and liked it. His original comment was that tea was for old ladies, not men. He left with a handful of botanical teas for later in the week. During our last personal tea together on campus, this same student informed me that he was considering further education in England because of the tea culture in that country. This lesson will stay in my repertoire for many years.