Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

The Use of Storytelling in Communicating the Value of Medicinal Plants

Contributed by Ghislaine Walker, Spider's Web Storytellers, UK


The workshop aimed to provide an opportunity to share ideas on the use of traditional storytelling in botanic garden interpretation programmes.


• to focus on stories relating to medicinal plants
• to give delegates an opportunity to share stories
• to discuss how best to use these stories in the delegates own programmes.

Why Use Storytelling as Part of an Interpretation Programme?

For the purposes of this workshop the definition of storytelling used is:

the art or craft of narration of stories in prose and/or verse, as performed or led by one person before a live audience; the stories narrated may be spoken, chanted, or sung, with or without musical, pictorial, and/or other accompaniment, and may be learned from oral, printed or mechanically recorded sources; one of its purposes must be that of entertainment…
(Pellowski 1977, p15)

The stories I prefer to use are traditional myths, legends and fairy tales. The nature of traditional folktales from many cultures lend themselves well to introducing discussion on the value of plants in our everyday lives. This is particularly relevant when communicating the value of medicinal plants.

Stories have always been a part of our lives. Early examples of tales transmitted via an oral tradition show that story has been used to:

  • spread and reinforce belief
  • educate
  • make work move more swiftly
  • entertain
  • satisfy our need to explain the surrounding physical world.

Astonishing continuity of medicinal plant usage is evident throughout the world. Transmission of information on the use of medicinal plants has been an important part of the oral tradition. Shamans, witch doctors and medicine men have been and, in some cultures still are, living repositories of this medical knowledge (Griggs 1997). The nature of this information could be seen as magical, sensitive and secretive. There is huge variety in the ways that this information was/is passed on. Story can certainly be seen as part of this process.

I come from a culture which today places little value on its oral tradition. Where this survives it is mostly in the printed collections of folktales which are still read to children. Even from this culture there is evidence of plant motives in stories which would have originated from this early need to explain our world and pass on this information.

The use of storytelling in botanic gardens is particularly relevant today. As Dr Pushpangadan highlighted in his keynote address during this congress the enforcement of international legal instruments such as Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights places responsibility with botanic gardens to ensure their observance. It is becoming increasingly important that traditional, oral knowledge is documented and inventoried. Recording the oral tradition in this way changes the way in which it is transmitted. I believe that we must be careful not to lose the human context in which this knowledge has survived up to now. Continuing to use this form of oral transmission is the perfect way to inform and entertain.

Mr G. Hariramamurthi pointed out in his congress presentation that 70% of the population of India rely on folk medicine in their daily lives and yet the continuity of even this tradition is being lost with very few people under 40 involved in the process of passing on such important knowledge.

This workshop provided an opportunity to explore this process and see how we can make use of an ancient tradition as we move into the new millennium.

A Story - The Three Snake Leaves

A version of the Three Snake Leaves (after Grimm and Grimm, ed. Luke 1982) was told to illustrate how the plant motive survives within this story from the European tradition. It was proposed that the snake leaves may refer to yarrow. Yarrow (Achillea millefollium) is also known as the adder’s tongue in many parts of Scotland. Its traditional application in the healing of wounds, in the treatment of flu and other fevers and to staunch bleeding is evident from this story. Yarrow has had relatively little research attention given the wide variety of traditional applications (Griggs 1997).

The Use of Storytelling at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - Current Practice, Future Possibilities

The Schools Education Programme routinely use storytelling techniques as part of their teaching practise but for the purposes of this workshop the focus was on how storytelling has been used with family audiences at a series of special events. The aim of these events was mostly to increase visitor numbers and revenue, however an element of Education by Stealth, as recommended by Dr Ian Darwin Edwards in his workshop, was possible at these events.

During the 1999 Orchid Festival, weekend entertainment aimed at families was provided to compliment displays in one of the conservatories. Developing the festival theme Orchids, Plants of Myth and Mystery a series of vampire inspired stories were told in an area which also featured a photographic display of the Dracula genus of Orchids. Very simple links were made through these stories to the herbarium and work of past scientists on this genus. The activities were popular and on many occasions over subscribed.

Over the first May bank holiday in 1999 a new event called Bluebells and Broomsticks was extremely popular. This celebration of woodland crafts in an area which was resplendent with bluebells in flower created the perfect environment for family entertainment and storytelling. This time the simple themes woven into the stories were the value of rural crafts and the importance of plant conservation. At times the aircraft traffic reduced sufficiently to allow us to hold these sessions outdoors meaning that we reached high numbers of visitors.

On a similar theme the format to the annual Woodland Skills Day at Wakehurst Place (a satellite garden of the RBGKew) was changed slightly in 1999. We were able to include two storytellers who themed stories to the crafts displayed by visiting exhibitors and linked these to plants to be found at Wakehurst Place. Again the outside setting allowed for quite large audiences.

In addition to this, there have been some collaborative projects with the Friends of RBG Kew. In this instance storytelling has been used to provide an additional benefit to members who participate in summer children’s activities. The educational emphasis was very understated in this case as the aim of these activities was to have fun.

Future possibilities for the use of storytelling as part of events and the interpretive programme looks promising as RBG Kew starts to develop a series of seasonally themed events. These will have the main aim of increasing visitor numbers but the themes will be strongly linked to the scientific work and collections of the organisation. Particularly exciting is the possibility of a Planthunters event.

How do/could Educators use Storytelling in their Programmes?

The final part of the workshop enabled delegates to discuss how they use story in their own programmes. The following ideas for future activities were put forward:

  • a collection of anecdotes from the local community of how they use medicinal plants;
  • participatory exercises such as personification i.e. speaking for the trees;
  • stories which relate to selected plants;
  • reviving rituals, customs and festivals which relate to plants;
  • a storyteller situated in a strategic position telling tales to anyone who was passing;
  • creating new/contemporary stories which relate to plants using traditional frame stories; and
  • presentations of epic tales.

There was a great deal of story sharing and some of the favourite tales which came out were:

  • Popeye and his love for spinach
  • Queen Hatshepshut’s plant collecting expedition
  • Zeus’ tears
  • Amaranth – the food of the gods
  • Fly agaric and its use by the Vikings
  • Frankincense and myrrh
  • Vishnu’s two wives
  • Hanuman and the mountain.


Storytelling is a very appropriate technique to include in the interpretive programmes of botanic gardens. By keeping oral traditions alive and providing information in an entertaining and human context we make plants and their science more accessible to our visitors.

As always when faced with a room of storytellers links were made and tales woven, if we strayed from our emphasis on medicinal plants it was only to become wrapped up in the pleasure of talking about plants in general. If those who are delivering programmes are able to get absorbed in the material and gain pleasure from it themselves the experience for our visitors is likely to be more effective.


Griggs, B. (1997) New Green Pharmacy. Vermillion, Random House, London.
Pellowski, A. (1977) The World of Storytelling. R.D. Bowker Company, New York and London.

Storytelling Resouces


The Healing Heart Project is an American initiative with advice for novice storytellers, some tales (though none are currently plant focussed) and an opportunity to contribute to the project.

Chevallier, Andrew (1996) The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. Dorling and Kindersley, London. ISBN 0 7513 0314 3
Evert Hopman, Ellen (1992) Tree Medicine, Tree Magic. Phoenix Publishing Inc., Washington, USA. ISBN 0 919345 55 7
Griggs, Barbara (1997) New Green Pharmacy. Vermillion, Random House, London. ISBN 0 0918 1461 8
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, trans. David Luke (1982 edition) Selected Tales. Penguin Classics, London. ISBN 0 14 044401 7
Howkins, Chris (1995) Daisy Chains – Plants of Childhood. Chris Howkins, Addlestone, England. ISBN 0 9519348 8 0
Jarvie, Gordon (1997) (ed) Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales. Penguin Popular Classics, London. ISBN 014 062206 3
Mabey, Richard (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair Stevenson, London. ISBN 1 85619 377 2
Pellowski, Anne (1977) The World of Storytelling. R. D. Bowker Company, New York & London. ISBN 0 8352 1024 3
Vickery, Roy (1995) A Dictionary of Plant Lore. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0 19 866183 5

Useful Organisations in the UK

The Society for Storytelling
PO Box 2344, Reading, RG6 7FG, U.K.

The Folklore Society
The Warburg Institute
Woburn Square
London WC1H 0AB

Emerson College
Forest Row, E. Sussex, RH18 5JX, U.K.