Ethnobotany for the Holidays
Topic: culture
Time to Complete: 1-2 hours
Grade Level: 3-5
Location(s): Indoor
Season: Winter, Fall
Lesson Plan
How do you combine history, social studies, geography, and science, and wrap in a bit of holiday fun? By exploring ethnobotany!


  • recipes from home
  • paper and pencil or chalkboard and chalk
  • reference books or Internet access

Background Information

Ethnobotany is the scientific study of the relationships that exist between people and plants. Ethnobotany explorations can expose students to cultural diversity issues and ethnic traditions surrounding plants, helping them to appreciate our differences and celebrate our similarities as we observe special occasions.

Plants play a number of roles in our celebrations — they serve as decorations, gifts and most predominantly as FOOD! Most holidays include traditional meals shared by family and friends. Investigating the plant ingredients needed for special dishes is a great way to begin your ethnobotanical journey.  To get you started, we’ve included brief cultural, historical, economic, and botanical synopses of some common plant ingredients.

Ingredient: Pumpkin

Pumpkin pie makes its way onto American tables at several holidays. Here are some pumpkin plant facts:

Pumpkins (Cucurbita sp.) are native to North America but are cultivated in many parts of the world. The largest commercial producers are the U.S., Mexico, India, and China. The gourd-like fruits grow on annual vines and range in size from less than a pound to more than 1,000 pounds. Pumpkin flesh, seeds, and flowers are edible. The early colonists made pumpkin “pie” by removing the top of a pumpkin; scooping out the seeds; filling it with milk, spices, and honey; and then baking it in the fire. Pumpkin is a good source of potassium and Vitamin A.

Ingredient: Potato

Potatoes are features of holiday dishes around the globe. Here are some potato facts:

Potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) are annual vines native to Peru. They were first cultivated by the Incas in 200 B.C., and were carried to Europe in the 1500s. They quickly became fundamental to European diets because they were easy to grow, were filling, and nutritious. They were such a staple that when a fungus damaged the potato crop in Ireland, it led to a countrywide famine (Great Famine of 1845-1852). There are many different types, sizes, and colors of potatoes: baking, wax, fingerling; red, yellow, blue, and purple to name a few. An important dietary starch, potatoes also contain 45 percent of the daily Vitamin C requirement. Europe produces the most potatoes, followed by China and India. Not only are potatoes important here on Earth, in 1995 they became the first vegetable grown in space!

Ingredient: Cranberries

One of North America’s three commercially grown native fruits (the others are blueberries and concord grapes), cranberries add a unique tart flavor to holiday cuisine. Here are some facts about cranberries:

Cranberries (Vaccinum macrocarpon) grow on dwarf shrubs or trailing vines in bogs predominantly in North America, but also in Chile, the Baltic States, and Eastern Europe. Particular about their growing conditions, cranberries require acidic soil, sand, lots of fresh water, a winter chilling period, and a growing season from April to November, limiting their production to select areas. Native Americans used cranberries as a food, to dye fabric, and as a healing agent. Early settlers quickly incorporated cranberries into their diet and, because the fruits are high in Vitamin C, cranberries were stowed on ships and eaten by sailors to prevent scurvy. The name “cranberry” derives from craneberry, the name given to the fruit by colonists who thought the flowers resembled the head and bill of a sandhill crane.

As you see, plants provide a wonderful framework for exploring cultures, traditions, and holidays with young gardeners.

Laying the Groundwork

Ask students to bring in a recipe for their favorite holiday dish. As a class, identify and list all the plant ingredients in each recipe. Ask, Do some recipes share the same key ingredient? 


In groups or as a class, have students research the holiday plant ingredients. For each plant, ask:

  • In what part of the world did the plant originate? Does it grow in other places now? If so, how did it travel there? On a map, identify the plant’s origin and places where it is found today.
  • How did people use the plant in the past? How is it used today? How is it used in holiday celebrations?
  • What growing conditions does this plant need? Could it grow at your school?
  • What is the nutritional value of the plant? Find recipes that include it.

Making Connections

Ask students to interview relatives, neighbors, or friends about their favorite holiday foods and make lists of the plants featured in these recipes. As a class, compare the lists. What plant-derived ingredients do these dishes share? What ingredients are unique to different cultures?

Branching Out

Create a Holiday - Plants serve as food ingredients, decorations, and gifts in celebrations around the world. Ask students to list plants they associate with holiday traditions. Ask, How are the plants used? Why are they important to the holiday? What is your favorite holiday plant?

Next ask students to invent a new holiday that incorporates a special plant (or plants) as part of the celebration. Depending on their age, children can describe the holiday in writing or in pictures. Ask them to address these aspects of the occasion they invented:

  • In what season will your holiday occur? Why? How long does it last?
  • What does your holiday celebrate?
  • What plants are special to your holiday? Why did you choose those particular plants? How do people use them during this holiday? Do they eat them?  Are they decorations? Are they gifts?
  • Describe other special traditions of your new holiday such as foods, presents, songs, games, or family gatherings.

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