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Ethnobotany Project

Ethnobotany Project

Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous plants. The Science Museum of Minnesota is working in partnership with the American Indian community to germinate, grow, and harvest seeds from the museum's permanent collections.

Ethnobotany Collection

Mandan Red Corn from Hiller Collection
Mandan Red Corn from Hiller Collection

The Hiller Ethnobotany Collection is part of the Science Museum's permanent collection. The priorities of the Ethnobotany project are stabilizing, revitalizing, and curating the museum's permanent collection of seeds, mainly procured from a donation in 1977 from the Wesley Hiller estate.

Hiller was a dentist in Minneapolis, but was also an avid amateur anthropologist. He spent years persistently building his seed collection, starting in 1938, and focusing on ancient indigenous species. The collection consists of various species of corn, beans, squash, rice, pumpkin, watermelon, tomatoes, cotton, tobacco and sunflowers, mainly from the Upper Midwest, Plains, and Southwestern regions of the United States. These seeds are exclusively indigenously cultivated, and are genetically clean specimens.

Three Sisters Garden

Since 2004, museum staff has successfully germinated seeds from the Hiller collection planting them yearly in the Big Back Yard. A symbiotic planting of beans to fix nitrogen in the soil, corn which acts as a trellis for the beans, and squash, a natural shade plant, is known as the Three Sisters Garden. Working with a group of urban youth, known as the Native Youth Garden Team, the museum is teaching culturally relevant planting and harvesting techniques.
View the Garden Cam


Turtle Effigy Garden

In 2004, Paul Red Elk (Lakota) and Yako Tahnahgah (Mohawk / Anishinaabe) designed and planted the Turtle Effigy Garden in the Big Back Yard. This garden is in the shape of a turtle, with its head and tail planted with sage, legs in sweetgrass, and four quadrants of the shell in indigenous plants. The herbal plants are those used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes.
Download the Plant Guide (PDF | 747 KB)


Changing Gardens through Time

The Science Museum of Minnesota and the National Park Service worked together to create a garden about the Mississippi River. Step back through time and see how American Indian gardens along the Upper Mississippi River changed over the past 2,000 years. By 1,000 years ago, vast stores of food produced through active gardening were required to support towns like Cahokia, near St Louis, where nearly 20,000 people lived. Each of the large villages near Red Wing, Minnesota, may have supported and fed hundreds of people at this time.
View the Garden Cam | Download the Plant Guide (PDF | 275 KB)