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Fighting the Supermarket Flora

Number 20 - July 2000

B. Locoro & L. Minuto





New generations are technologically advanced; they watch television, they play with computers, and they navigate on the Internet. But in the multimedia age, society is loosing its culture day by day; popular traditions and nature’s culture are no longer a part of modern life. If you ask a child ‘What is a tomato?’ they will probably reply that a tomato is a red sauce that is generally put on fries when having a meal in a fast-food restaurant.

Taking this into consideration, the University Botanic Garden of Genoa has developed an education programme to fight the loss of traditional knowledge and uses of wild herbs for medicinal and cooking purposes. The main task of the data collection work was the conservation of a very old Mediterranean culture. Local experiences, many centuries old, have built up popular belief in using plants for life; herbs were used for everyday meals and also had important medicinal value. During a themed tour of the garden, comparisons are made between old uses of medicinal plants and the new chemical analysis of them, in order to increase participants' understanding of how often they are strongly related. In addition, special practical workshops are organised that focus on the identification of edible plants and participants are shown how to use them in simple but nice recipes.

Italian Culture

Italy is commonly considered to be one of the most cultural countries in the world. Wherever you go in Italy you can find a cultural link, an historical monument, or a sample of art. Our nation is regarded as being one of the most important milestones in the development of world culture.

When evaluating the Italian culture in such a way one might even think of it as one of the most complete in the world. In reality, however, a deeper analysis shows that its main feature has been and still is the humanistic element. Poetry, literature, music, science and art are mainly referred to by using metaphors from the animal kingdom and very few elements are linked to plants and the plant kingdom.

Considering this, it is easy to understand why nowadays, in our modern way of life, people don’t care for wild life in the form of plants. The best examples we can use are feature films on nature; they show animals and threatened species from all over the world, but threats to plants are rarely presented. Examples of conservation slogans include: ‘Save the Panda in China’ and ‘We Protect the Honey from Sardinia’, but rarely do you hear about problems of the Italian flora and vegetation. Conservation groups consider general problems such as pollution, the increasing number of houses on the territory and promotion of nature reserves, some of which are important animal habitats (e.g. for eagles, seals, and ibex’s). These groups are generally unaware of, or not interested in, the presence of rare plants. They don’t know where the rare Saxifraga species occur, or in which location some rare alpine species tries to survive. This kind of information is only known to a handful of specialists and it is therefore difficult to raise awareness of these threatened plants because they don’t have a widespread impact on public opinion. This fact is related to a general lack of awareness about the plant kingdom.

Modern Cultural Reality

New generations are technologically advanced and culturally developed. Two out of three children have a computer to play video-games and one out of five boys has a computer to surf the Internet. Children have the opportunity to travel all over the world sitting comfortably in their chair at home. They receive input from a large number of people and places that raises the question: do they really have a greater culture?

This cultural development has brought a large quantity of innovations; new things and actions exist now that a few years ago were inconceivable. However, what do the children learn? Are they confused? Have children the right vision of reality? The multimedia age society is losing its culture day by day. We believe that a culture is growing up aided by the quantity of information, not by the quality. Nowadays children are bombarded with new terms, images, news, and links everyday, but they don’t appear to have the opportunity to connect all the data they receive. To use a computer seems easier than reading a book and understanding its message. We are giving a fast-culture with immediate results, but all rapid information and learning elements are forgotten in such a short time.

The truth is that after a few days children remember only about 20% of what they saw or heard. This new generation lives in an unreal world where they know how to navigate the Internet but they never find a POP account. They rarely know the origin of the everyday world, nor the origin of each object they touch or use. By increasingly using computers in our modern culture we produce a reality that more and more resembles that of a virtual culture.

Modern life teaches us to run and run: do we always realise what we are doing? On the other hand the old education system is considered out of date and needs to be discarded and forgotten. This idea allows children to forget what the past actually was and it also means that they can’t relate to the troubles humankind has encountered through the centuries - before we arrived where we are today, namely at an age where we use the computer as an instrument to work with. Pupils now believe in a new God, the God of technology. They are no longer interested in knowing popular traditions and nature culture linked to their living area and ancestors.

Children are taught to have everything in abundance. When anyone needs anything, they can buy the finished product – sometimes made through a complex industrial process - without taking into consideration the many and different natural elements involved in the production.

Ask a child what a tomato is, they might answer that 'tomato is a red sauce generally used upon fries when having a meal in a fast-food restaurant'; or a typical answer of a child might be something like: ‘tomato is a fruit usually collected in a supermarket’. A large proportion of children have never seen a tomato plant, a potato plant nor any other edible plant and therefore they are not able to recognise those plants in a kitchen garden.

We don’t want to condemn the computer as a demon, we need to realise that it is an instrument we use to communicate and explain this to the next generation. At the same time, it is important to remember that the computer is supposed to work for us and that we don’t work for the computer!

The Supermarket Flora

What do we mean by the supermarket flora? According to the results of a quiz with primary school children, we realised that their knowledge about plant nature is linked to a specific idea: their plant kingdom does not contain roots, leaves, flowers and fruits or even trees, shrubs and herbs but mainly tins, bottles, packages, bags, and boxes within the industrial product of some plants (it doesn’t matter which they are!).

On this basis we can define a multicoloured flora of different shapes and materials which usually live in a very special habitat indeed:  the supermarket. These plants love shelves and stands, they need neon light, they grow very strictly next to each other, during some seasons they are discounted, they are collectable everyday during a year, and they need neither a water supply nor pollinator insects. In a way, all of them could be considered to be threatened plants since if they don’t satisfy common taste they are taken off the market!

The tomato, for example, is a plant with different morphological shapes such as metal boxes, square tetra-packs, long or short bottles, with many subspecies if you consider all the different types of sauces you can find: ketchup, bolognese sauce, mushroom sauce, Mediterranean sauce and so on.

We posed questions to different classrooms and to a number of boys that we met on the street. We asked them what they might need in order to prepare a red sauce for spaghetti or a pizza. We found that they knew all the correct ingredients of the recipe (they will be marvellous cooks!), but when we asked where they could find the products, they answered: ‘…at the supermarket!’, and when we asked if there are any other possibilities to get them, they replied that they didn’t know.

The School Curriculum

The teaching of natural science and biology in Italian schools generally happens according to the same framework, and has been taught using the same methods for several years. The ministerial programmes are followed in a pedantic way, without outside excursions and laboratory activities in the majority of classrooms and schools. The reason for this inactivity seems to be mainly due to the teachers and their style and/or willingness to use innovative methods.

The teachers of primary schools do not seem to be sufficiently prepared: their styles are formed from pedagogic and literary points of view, leaving out the importance of science. On the other hand, a teacher of science at high school level might have achieved a degree in biology, but knowledge (at university level) of botany or other disciplines linked to the plant kingdom may be considered of little importance.

In general we have found that teachers focus their lesson preparation on what they studied at university and year after year they repeat the same lessons, sometimes with great monotony. To find any up-to-date courses where teachers can verify their preparation in the Italian school curriculum is a difficult task indeed.

We have also found an issue with the communication techniques of teachers and their lack of understanding of what interpretation is. A type of recycling system exists amongst school educators, meaning they often copy and re-use their own limited experiences over and over again. Very few manage to communicate their subjects to their students transforming their discipline in a loving way. Perhaps this is because they don't actually love their job.

Generally one can assume that teachers have good will and perhaps even good ideas with regard to teaching their subjects, but in some cases they don’t appear to put enough effort into showing their initiative and they often have neither the relevant information, nor sufficient training, and therefore not enough competence in this area.

Looking to the example of Genoa, one can point out the fact that teachers who have the intention to teach about environmental education appear to have to fight against the lack of awareness of their institutions and their pupils’ parents. They therefore have to fight to get funds from their school budget, and for spaces available in the schools, as well as for the amount of time they have to spend with pupils per week (science is a secondary subject in Italian ministerial programmes). They must overcome these obstacles and unfortunately are only able to achieve limited results.

The teachers who are able to offer something a little different are rare. In Italy there is no initiative to teach educators how they can motivate children to learn about science, nature and the environment. The few initiative schemes that do exist have only been around for a short time. The teachers often ask outside education agencies to collaborate and help them with environmental education activities, but these agencies must be paid and not all schools can afford to do this. Few school books have new ideas. They often propose the same ideas and rarely suggest new activities! In the libraries one can find books about new laboratory experiences, but teachers are rarely informed about such books or perhaps they can’t access them due to administrative problems or because of insufficient structures within the schools. These complications regarding scientific and botanic education, give an important and responsible role to botanic gardens in our day and age (and in this case in our town).

The Education Mission of a Botanic Garden

The botanic garden has an enormous potential in science education: it contains a great variety of botanical species and it is a place where people can come to learn about different natural environments. Moreover, it can be seen as a kind of photograph of the plant biodiversity of the world, and it offers the best material for the diffusion of a scientific culture and the promotion of the importance of the plant kingdom in our modern life.

We don't need to emphasise the didactic importance of a botanic garden, but educators all over the world should consider its importance and remember that in a botanic garden there is the opportunity to look, observe, explore, and even play with plants.

In some nations, mainly in places with a Latin culture, there is the potential for botanic gardens to focus schools in what is lacking in teaching of subjects such as botany and environmental and biodiversity conservation.

In Italy the education system needs to increase awareness of the role of the plant kingdom in our daily lives. Italians are not yet informed enough to understand this strong link, and education is the first and necessary step before one can address the subject of conservation. However, at present this model is not adhered to, neither by schools, not the media nor is it in line with popular opinion. The result is that a lot of well meaning words are spoken in favour of nature conservation but the real issue is not understood: namely that we all are involved in this mission and it’s important to incorporate this kind of thinking into each and every action in order to raise the awareness of the dangers that exist with regard to nature conservation. This idea could also be called ‘sustainability education’.

Sustainable education in a developed country means to help everybody to develop a new form of sensitivity on sustainable development, ethical and environmental problems. The environmental education must incorporate responsibility and care for our environment. The paper of principles says that the renewal of education structures and formative systems is a very important part of the project. This is important for administrations, common people, workers and companies, schools and education agencies.

Environmental education is not easy to deliver. It is not sufficient to declare the ideas in which we believe, they also need to be presented in a particular way. In any case we need innovative modifications with regard to teaching and learning of traditional systems. The educational intention might be inoperative if it is not supported by a realistic demonstration of what we want to teach.

In summary, the Italian botanic gardens could change opinions using their living collections and help to develop a new generation that love plants.

What Does Genoa Botanic Garden Do?

Taking this into consideration, the University Botanic Garden of Genoa developed an education programme to fight the ‘supermarket flora’.

The Botanic Garden has an Education Unit that is composed of members belonging to the University and to a private education agency operating in the garden. Last year the University defined the education and cultural strategies for its botanic garden and it issued a complete plan of action. The Education Unit transformed the plan into an annual education programme for pupils of any age.

The two main areas of focus are teacher training and developing a relationship with public education organisations. The overall aims of the programme are to:

  • Provide an understanding of the plant kingdom to the general public.
  • Raise awareness of issues related to plant conservation and biodiversity management.

Fighting the Store Flora

How is possible to fight the supermarket flora in reality? The botanic garden is elaborating on this new issue and all new activities and games will be developed with this aim in mind. As it is neither possible, nor possibly desirable, to change modern society and life in a developed country like Italy, we can only try to increase the awareness of how the plant kingdom effects and takes part in our everyday life. Increasing knowledge and awareness is the goal we would like to achieve. This is part of a new way of thinking and in order to pass it on we have come up with some new games and activities. Here are few examples:

The Courier of Alimentary Products

Children presumably associate supermarket products with natural alimentary products.

Objective: children will realise that everything they eat derives from plants directly or indirectly. They then can observe the strict linkage between the products desired in daily life and plants these products derive from.

Instructions: There are some fruits/vegetables (tomatoes, pineapples, potatoes, oranges, coffee beans, olives), and some alimentary products (ketchup, spaghetti, chips, flour, jam, pizza, coffee, oil, pineapple tin). The products are kept in random order in the glasshouse. Children are asked to form two squads, each with a different coloured flower, and they begin by associating products with fruits. Every couple gain one point and the winner is the group that has the most points. Then the children must find another partner and we ask them to observe supermarket stands and try to associate the ready made product with its natural ingredients.

Teacher Training

During the year we will organise several courses for teachers and we have also prepared a working week called ‘At school in the Botanic Garden’ to show teachers a new way of looking at, teaching of and playing with science.

Objective: teachers revise their knowledge and learn new didactics of science lessons that are more pleasant and stimulating.

The subjects are: plants and their earth environments, flower leaf and fruit, plants used in every day life - in particular spices.

Artistic Techniques

Children colour and compose artistic drawings.

Objective: children gain confidence with the plant environment.

Instructions: children associate different colours, play with different materials, observe different forms, use plant pieces in a creative way. They express their creativity, fantasy and their communicative capacity with plants without limits.

Save a Flower

Very young children help a flower in a difficult moment of its life: they help the flower to survive, to pollinate and to carry fruits.

Objective: to raise awareness of the life, importance and purpose of a flower and other natural elements; to observe an entire cycle of a flower life.

Instructions: a story is narrated about a forest that experiences a drought: many animals and plants experience difficulties, but the mowha flower (referred to in the Kipling story), in particular, is the most important because its death would mean that the water supplies would cease to exist. So this plant would appear to the children and ask them for help. They will then (hopefully) understand that they must look for water and they would be taught that the plant needs an insect for pollination. They might then look for a bee and for another flower in the glasshouse. They succeed, with our help, to obtain some fruits and sow the seeds.

Pollination Game

Young children are dressed up as flowers with pistils and stamens, and they learn how an insect can pollinate them.

Objective: learning through enjoyment about the ways in which pollination occurs and to consider different problems that can and might occur in nature.

Materials: different leaves, woods, fruits, paper, colours, fingers and fantasy. We also give them cards of insects and animals.

We play with nature. Children create flowers.

Objective: to learn about flower structures and all their parts.

Materials: coloured paper (origami), wrinkle paper, straws, elastics and flowers pictures.

The Preboggion School

In this activity people learn to identify and cook a mixture of wild edible herbs (Preboggion) that grow in Liguria. Since the Crusaders’ period the Preboggion had been one of the most important elements in the regional alimentation.

The main task of collecting the data was to conserve a very old Mediterranean culture. Local experiences, many centuries old, built up popular beliefs in using plants for life. Poor herbs were used for every day meals but sometimes they also played the role of the doctor in healing situations.

Objective: nowadays is very important to show the general public, especially the younger generation, which plant could be named ‘good doctor’ or how to prepare a nice soup with herbs otherwise considered as weeds.

Instructions: for medicinal plants the comparison between old uses and new chemical analysis of these plants is shown during a tour of the garden, in order for participants to understand how often they are still strongly related.

Special practical workshops are organised for the identification of edible plants with demonstrations on how to use them in simple but tasty recipes.

Combattre la Flore du Supermarché


Les nouvelles générations sont technologiquement avancées. Elles regardent la télévision, jouent avec les ordinateurs et naviguent sur internet. Mais à l’ère du multimédia, la société perd sa culture jour après jour. Les traditions populaires et la culture de la nature ne font pas partie de la vie moderne. Si vous demandez à des enfants ‘qu’est-ce qu’une tomate?’ ils vous répondront probablement que c’est une sauce rouge que l’on met généralement sur les frites quand on va au restaurant fast food.

Partant de ce constat, le jardin botanique de l’Université de Gênes a développé un programme éducatif pour combattre la perte des savoirs traditionnels en se servant des plantes sauvages pour illustrer l’aspect médicinal et culinaire de la flore. La principale tâche assignée aux informations tirées de la collection est la conservation d’une culture méditerranéenne très ancienne. Des expériences locales, vieilles de plusieurs siècles, ont établi une confiance populaire dans l’usage des plantes. Les plantes étaient utilisées dans la nourriture de tous les jours et leur importance médicinale était reconnue. Au cours d’une visite thématique du jardin, on fait des comparaisons entre les usages anciens des plantes médicinales et leurs composés chimiques analysés pour aider les visiteurs à comprendre combien les deux sont liés. Des ateliers pratiques spéciaux sont organisés. Ils ont pour thème l’identification des plantes comestibles et les participants peuvent voir comment il est possible de les utiliser grâce à des recettes simples et agréables.

Batallando Contra la Flora del Supermercardo


Las nuevas generaciones están avanzadas tecnologicamente; miran la televisión, juegan con los ordenadores, navegan por el Internet. Pero en la edad del Multimedia, la sociedad pierde su cultura dia a dia; las tradiciones populares y la cultura de la naturaleza ya no son parte de la vida moderna. Si le preguntas a un nino, - Que es el tomate ? – probablemente conteste que el tomate es una salsa roja que se le pone a las patatas fritas cuando se come en un restaurante de ‘fast-food’.

Partiendo de este punto de vista, el Jardín Botánico de la Universidad de Genoa ha desarrollado un programa educativo para contrarrestar la pérdida del tradicional conocimiento y usos de las plantas silvestres de valor medicinal y culinario. El mayor objetivo del trabajo de recolección de datos era la conservación de una cultura Mediterranea muy antigua. La experiencia local, a veces a traves de muchos siglos, ha reforzado las tradiciones populares del uso de las plantas en la vida cotidiana; las hierbas se usaban en la alimentación diaria y también tenían un importante valor medicinal. Durante una visita temática al jardín, se comparan los antiguos usos medicinales de las plantas con análises químicos recientes para que los participantes comprendan mejor como muy frecuentemente estas características están aun relacionadas. Se organizan talleres especiales sobre la identificación de plantas comestibles y se le demuestra a los participantes como se pueden usar en recetas simples pero apetitosas.