Visit the new American Indian tule hut in our Biome

March 10, 2013
Author: Hannah

We’ve just unveiled a brand spanking new exhibit in our California garden in the Med Biome. Amidst the chaparral and wildflowers you’ll find a sweet little round hut, thatched with bulrushes.

It’s our interpretation of the traditional American Indian tule huts made by native American Indians across California.

Just like theirs, our hut is made of a spherical wooden frame – a bit like a bender – and covered in bulrushes (‘tule’ in Spanish). But while the native tribes used willow and sycamore to erect a framed hemisphere, we’ve sourced wood from trees a bit closer to home, substituting the sycamore with poplar and hazel.

Our rushes (the English freshwater bulrush, Schoeneplectus lacustris) were harvested by hand from the River Great Ouse in Bedfordshire – from punts! We sourced them from Rush Matters, where Felicity Irons and her team dry them in the wind and sun, in a British tradition which goes back centuries.

American Indian tule huts
Tule was central to the life of American Indian tribes, particularly the Chumash tribe, who once numbered 15,000 – 30,000 people.

In Chumash villages across California whole families would live in tule huts measuring between four and twelve metres across. Because they were easy to repair – using readily available materials – the structures would last a lifetime.

Rushes were used to make a whole range of things, such as mats and clothing, nappies and menstrual padding, and even large, round, flat shoes for walking on mud. Of course the Chumash ate tule as well, grinding seeds into flour, cooking roots, and eating raw shoots in the spring.

By regularly cutting and burning the rushes – which cleared out old, dying stems and stimulated new growth – the Chumash helped keep the marshes productive, offering a great habitat for wildlife too.

Medicine wheels and vernal pools
You’ll spot a circle of stones outside our tule hut. We’ve echoed the Native American Indian medicine wheel here, featuring Mother Earth, Father Sky, Spirit Tree and the points of the compass. Tribes would use sacred spaces like these to communicate with the spiritual and natural world – knowing that, as hunter-gatherers, they were very dependent on nature.

Next year we’re also creating a vernal pool, one of the natural rainwater basins that were once typical of the Californian landscape. Around it you’ll see a whole variety of Californian plants growing up around the hut. The seeds are on their way over from Santa Barbara Botanic Garden as we write…

Come and visit the hut when you’re next at Eden!

With thanks to Rush Matters for their great photos.

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