Plants People

  • Courtesy Deepa Natarajan

Indian American ethnobotanist Deepa Preeti Natarajan explores the connections between people and plants, through her work at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. 

Deepa Preeti Natarajan is fascinated by the myriad ways humans use plants. Lucky for her, she has a job that allows here to indulge that fascination. She is the public program coordinator at one of the major plant collections in the United States, the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley.

Natarajan, whose parents immigrated from Tamil Nadu, was born and raised in Findlay, Ohio. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology from Boston University and was hired in 2006, right out of university, into her job at the botanical garden, which is part of the University of California, Berkeley, campus. Natarajan is responsible for the institution’s lectures, exhibits, workshops and other activities organized for the public. She has presented a wide range of courses and events in traditional medicine, natural dyes and fibers, paper making, soap making, cooking and more. She coordinated the botanical garden’s first ever “green gala,” a sustainable fashion show. Natarajan is the founder of Plantspeople, a platform to share ethnobotanical knowledge to revive local wisdom and culture.

Natarajan now lives in Berkeley with her husband, a Carnatic singer, their toddler Loka, and two large dogs. She is also a performer and teacher of Bharatanatyam.

Excerpts from an interview.

How did you get interested in ethnobotany?
I thought I would study medicine, like many Indian Americans do. But I found [the pre-med courses] too dry. Then, I took a class in medical anthropology in college. It was about all the different ways different cultures use plants. It really resonated with me. That summer, I went to Eritrea [East Africa] to do three months of undergraduate field study in how traditional healers, known as Habeshas, use plants, and whom they pass their knowledge on to.

The following year, 2005, I did a four-month semester in Rajasthan. I was working with an NGO called Jagran Jan Vikas Samiti, which tries to preserve the use of traditional medicinal plants. I collected data from Gunis, or village healers, on plants they used for medicines. My project was to map out where Gunis lived and what ailment they specialized in so that we could make a directory. I helped coordinate a Guni conference where local healers could come together to share best practices under the advisement of botanists and Ayurvedic doctors.

The use of plants is a great foundation of human culture. For me, there is a meditative aspect to harvesting and processing food. It’s spiritual and reconnects people to where we come from.

I’ve spent many summers with relatives in Chennai. In India, there is such a rich tradition of using plants, from thatched roofs to flower garlands to plant-based textiles. Yet, it seems like, very rapidly, fast food and plastic are taking people away from this close contact with the natural world.

What was the path that led you to working at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley?
One of the reasons I was interested in moving here was the natural food movement that is big in the Berkeley-San Francisco area. When I discovered the Berkeley botanical garden and its exhibits on such things as plant fibers and dyes, I got hooked. I applied for the job as public program coordinator and learned that I was one of a hundred people who had applied. But after the first round, they called me to Berkeley for a second interview and I was hired.

What is special about the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley?
It is one of the most diverse plant collections in the United States, containing over 10,000 different species, including many that are rare and endangered. They represent nine world regions like Asia, Australasia and Mediterranean, as well as ethnobotanical collections—herb gardens, crops of the world, etc. The botanical garden, which recently celebrated its 125th anniversary, is located in Strawberry Canyon. It’s only about [1.6 kilometers] from the main campus in downtown Berkeley, but it feels like you’re in the middle of nature. You have a view of the urban sprawl below and beyond it, San Francisco Bay. We call it the “Secret Garden.”

The garden is a resource for researchers from around the world. It is also a resource and outdoor laboratory for University of California, Berkeley, students. For example, biology classes come here to see examples of natural diversity.                                                                                       

What do you do as coordinator of programs for the public?
We organize classes, talks and workshops for the public. The most popular involve ethnobotany: how different cultures use plants for food, medicine, cloth, etc. We’ve also done workshops on such things as making pine needle baskets, paper and jams. And we’ve had series on floral arranging, and liqueurs and digestives from around the world. We are planning a series on the use of different woods for classical musical instruments, and another, “Witness Trees,” about trees that have been present at great historical events.

We organize art exhibitions related to plants, including botanical illustrations, and a summer concert series at the garden. The first one I organized was entitled “Ragas and Redwoods,” in which Indian musicians from the local Berkeley area performed.

What are your plans for the future?
We are looking at a potential expansion of our collections. We are considering starting a collection of plants used in Ayurvedic medicine.

As for me, I am about to go on a leave of absence to do a 12-month master’s program in ethnobotany at the University of Kent in England, in partnership with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.


Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.