OGDEN, Utah – When Weber State University botany professor Stephen Clark views the natural surroundings along the Wasatch Front, he sees much more than scenic beauty. He sees plants that allowed humans to live happy and complete lives for centuries before the rise of supermarkets and shopping malls.
At one time, Native Americans who lived in this region used the vegetation for a wide variety of applications that assisted their daily routines. Clark fears the secrets and curative powers of the plants are being lost to human knowledge because most people no longer appreciate or realize their value and benefit.
Clark has spent more than 40 years studying and learning about ethnobotany, especially in the Great Basin region. Ethnobotany is the study of indigenous people’s use of plants for every facet of their lives: food, medicine, tools, weapons, shelter, etc.
Clark’s interest in the topic began when he was five years old, when he met some Wind River Shoshone on his grandmother’s farm in Clearfield. That encounter planted the seed for a life-long interest in botany, especially learning how plants can serve and help people.
“The Shoshone used plants for every imaginable application,” said Clark, who is one-sixteenth Shoshone.
Today, Clark shares his love and knowledge of the subject with students in an ethnobotany course he teaches each semester on the Ogden campus during the day and again at the Weber State University Davis campus in Layton in the evening.
Through the years, Clark’s interest in learning more about plants and their applications has led him to visit remote regions around the globe, where he’s been able to meet with and learn from shaman, witch doctors, healers and medicine men.
“Shamans are the most threatened species on the planet,” Clark said. “As their native habitats are discovered and deforested, their cultures and ways of life are being lost. They have a knowledge of plants that is too great and complicated for it to be relearned by us or replaced.”
Based on his experiences, Clark says learning from healers and medicine men takes time and participatory observation. Shamans don’t respond to direct questions asked by typical western scientists. Instead, one must become immersed in the culture and lifestyle over time to gain the greatest amount of knowledge.
Clark estimates that industrialized society only knows about the uses and applications for one-tenth of one percent of the world’s plants. He points to the role plants have played in recent medical breakthroughs in treating such ailments as breast cancer (taxol), leukemia (rosy periwinkle) and the promise of new treatments for HIV (mamala). Such plant-based medicines may be just the tip of the iceberg, prompting high demand for ethnobotany students among pharmaceutical manufacturers as well as herbal and naturopathic medicine companies.
Closer to home, Clark has three students researching eight plants along the Wasatch Front that Native Americans once used as antiseptics to dress wounds. The students, working in conjunction with microbiology students, will examine the plants, gather extracts and test them for possible antimicrobial activity.
Clark cites the local elderberry as an example of a potentially untapped resource. Researchers in Europe and Israel have found that an extract made from the European elderberry has proven highly effective in combating various strains of influenza.
Above all else, Clark hopes he instills in his students a new appreciation for indigenous societies and their approach toward life and the world around them.
“The single greatest contribution isn’t a cure for a major disease or illness,” Clark said. “It’s learning a sustainable way to interact with the world.”
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