Ethnobotany at Drake

Nanci Ross’ research takes her from windswept mountaintops to ancient Mayan forest gardens.

As an ethnobotanist, Ross seeks evidence as to how plants in the natural world are impacted by human culture. She’s climbed above tree line to study the impact of climate change on indigenous people in the Himalayas, and has explored abandoned urban centers in Belize and Guatemala, gathering information about long-gone societies. As assistant professor of biology at Drake, Ross works to connect her expertise with opportunities on campus.

“Humans have lived as integral members of their ecosystems since our species arose and many cultures still hold that knowledge,” Ross says. “I find it helps to give students a more personalized perspective on this concept. I am not talking about some abstract culture so far away that it is almost unreal. I can show them pictures of me there, interacting with other cultures, students and scientists. It helps my students at Drake realize that this kind of work is within their reach.”

Since her arrival on campus last fall, Ross has made it her mission to reinvigorate the Pioneer Hi-bred International Greenhouse — filling the space with student projects that explore everything from heirloom tomato growth to the effect of dried, shredded cornstalk compost on squash. (Turns out you might want to consider the material as a fertilizing groundcover in your own garden.)

This fall, Ross brings her global experiences to the table in more ways than one. She is teaching a course that investigates diverse environments around the world to see how the adaptations of native plant species have been recognized and exploited by human cultures to produce unique and fascinating foodways. Students will cook shared meals based on cuisine from the regions they’re studying, such as spices from India, then MesoAmerican chocolates and chiles.

In addition to its more delicious coursework, the class also serves up practical lessons in the importance of land stewardship in contemporary culture.

“With so many forces — the increasing human population, climate change, biodiversity losses — threatening to overcome the resiliency of ecosystems to repair themselves, people often feel overwhelmed,” Ross says. “It’s important to realize how much we are actually a part of our environments and how much our culture and everyday lives are interwoven with the plant world.”

Visit to see what Ross and her students are growing in Drake’s on-campus greenhouse.

Brianne Sanchez

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