Two BHSU professors Dr. Ben VanEe and Dr. Dan Asunskis worked throughout the summer developing a native plant ethnobotanical garden on campus.

The garden located at the southwest corner of Black Hills State University’s Life Sciences Laboratory is different from others in the area.  BHSU professors Dr. Ben VanEe and Dr. Dan Asunskis hope that will change.

The two science professors worked throughout the summer developing a native plant ethnobotanical garden on campus. Native plant landscaping, including Buffalo grass, is a part of the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) for the University’s new Life Sciences Laboratory which opened in February. The David B. Miller Yellow Jacket Student Union is also a LEED certified building. Both buildings are part of BHSU’s commitment to sustainability.

The ethnobotanical garden will be a great example of sustainability for students, faculty, staff and the community, VanEe said.

The shape of the garden, which is in the form of a Lakota Medicine Wheel, was suggested by students from the BHSU Chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

VanEe, an assistant professor in the biology program, and Asunskis, an assistant professor in the chemistry program, became involved in the project this summer after noticing the drought-tolerant Buffalo grass turf in front of the building needed some extra care. The two, who worked closely with BHSU Facilities Services, spent several weeks manually pulling weeds out so the Buffalo grass could establish itself.  That laid the foundation for a bigger plan.

“We wanted to cultivate even more native plants, particularly those used in teaching and research on campus, such as those being investigated on campus for their medicinal properties,” Asunskis said.

The garden will serve as a wonderful resource across a variety of disciplines, Asunskis said.

Both said they are excited about the possibilities of the garden.  “It’s going to be amazing to see this garden develop,” Asunskis said.

The garden is currently home to 25 species of plants that grow in the plains and forest areas of South Dakota, with a goal of 100 species, VanEe said. Each native plant has past and present uses such as medicinal, ceremonial or for consumption.  “One-hundred percent of native species have some ethnobotanical use,” VanEe said. “We really envision this as an innovative educational activity, out-of-the classroom learning.”

Both said they hope the garden is not only a place for BHSU students, faculty and staff, but a place for local school groups, organizations and community members to enjoy and learn from as well. “This is the vision we have for it. It’s meant to be a place where people can come and learn about the native plants and leave with a bundle of sage,” VanEe said.


Since availability of native plants is limited, BHSU had to look to outside sources for help. The plants cannot just be purchased at a local greenhouse or online, VanEe said. Some plants came from faculty members who had native plants growing on their property. The remaining plants came from U.S. Forest Service land that was being cleared for logging.

BHSU’s efforts towards developing the ethnobotanical garden follows the strategic framework set out by the U.S. Forest Service, VanEe said. According to its native plant materials policy, the agency’s goal is to promote the use of native plant materials for the revegetation, restoration, and rehabilitation of native plant communities to provide for the conservation of ecosystem diversity and maintain healthy ecosystem functions. The U.S. Forest Service’s new policy, which came out in September, states that native plant materials will be given primary consideration when selecting plant materials for use in land management projects.

VanEe hopes to have enough native plants growing at the BHSU garden that people can take some home and use it for landscaping, or maybe eventually have a local greenhouse with native plants.

Both said they believe the garden will be something students will continue to visit after they graduate from BHSU. The project has been possible through many donations, Asunskis said, including Neiman Products, who donated the sawdust mulch for the garden.

The space is also intended to serve as a resource and demonstration of native plant landscaping and will include interpretive signs and informational brochures. The ongoing development and maintenance of the garden will be done through volunteer labor from students, faculty and staff, Asunskis said.