Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous plants. Plants provide food, medicine, shelter, dyes, fibers, oils, resins, gums, soaps, waxes, latex, tannins, and contribute to the air we breathe, removing CO2 and emitting O2. Plants are also used in indigenous ceremonial or spiritual rituals.
The term ethnobotany was first used in 1895 by the American botanist Dr. John William Hershberger to describe his research as the study of “plants produced by primitive and indigenous peoples.” Although ethnobotany did not emerge as an academic discipline until the end of the 19th century, its roots reach back to Greek, Roman, Islamic sources and Old Testament times. It is a complex study, not a pure science, involving a multidisciplinary approach of botany, genetics, evolution, history, anthropology and sociology. It is rooted in observation, relationship, needs and traditional ways of knowing. One can travel many paths of ethnobotany. Mine is one of understanding and appreciation - recognizing what plants do for us and the gifts they give us, as well as the interrelations between humans and plants. Maurice Iwu professor of pharmacognosy describes ethnobotany’s central theme as, “the recognition of the reciprocal and dynamic nature of the relationship between humans/indigenous communities and plants.”
Many indigenous people possess a previously undervalued knowledge of native ecology gained through years and generations of close contact with their living environment. I was recently introduced to the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a mother, scientist, professor, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The author graciously explains that what we refer to as natural resources, native people refer to as gifts.
Plants know how to make food from light and water, provide materials and food, and they hold so much knowledge … and they give it away. This understanding is thought of as a gift economy. Kimmerer explains, “When we think of these resources as gifts, we know what to do with a gift - we are grateful for it, take care of it and want to give back.” Natural resources are often taken for granted and taken without consideration of the consequences. The thought of these resources as gifts gives us a new perspective, softens our hearts and fosters a new relationship with and appreciation for nature. The author states, “It invites gratitude, not expectation that I’ll get more and more and more, but gratitude for what I have been given. It generates a kind of self-restraint in return for that gift. When you know it’s a gift, it somehow makes you less greedy and more satisfied and appreciative of what you have. When we’re given a gift, it also opens the door to reciprocity, to say, in return for this gift, I want to give something back and that’s the gift-giving economy.”
Kimmerer also speaks of plant blindness, the inability to notice or recognize plants in one’s environment. “Most people find it easier to discern or recall an image of an animal than of a plant; this deficit diminishes interest in the critical role that plants play in our environment and human affairs.” She suggests that learning the names of plants instantly develops a relationship with them, “an antidote to plant blindness.” If plants are directly tied to human health, but we don’t know them, how can we learn from them and unlock more of their gifts?
Plants led us to modern medicine. According to Joseph I. Okogun, author and chemistry professor, “It has been established that up to 25 percent of the drugs prescribed in conventional medicine are related directly or indirectly to naturally occurring substances mostly of plant origin. This contribution is a credit to ethnobotany in drug discovery. Natural products from plants, microbes and animals contribute to about half of the pharmaceuticals in use today.”
According to culturalsurvival.org, in recent years, the discipline of ethnobotany has become increasingly associated with the search for new medicines and other products from plants. Researchers use ethnobotany to identify plants that may contain compounds that could be used for marketable products. This approach has been called biological prospecting - using indigenous cultures’ plant knowledge as a way to pre-screen plants for medicinal or other properties, which can increase the possibility of finding marketable products.
Some ethnobotanists argue that biological prospecting for plant products to be used by another culture like mainstream society is a form of economic botany rather than ethnobotany. Releasing culturally sensitive information like medicinal plant data can be antithetical to the ethnobotanical objectives of promoting and protecting biological and cultural diversity and spoil the trust of indigenous people. This leads to the “publish or perish” dilemma. However, withholding research data discounts a moral obligation to share potentially beneficial information with society. This is an issue that academic research guidelines, ethical review criteria and professional codes of conduct need to acknowledge.
Stop and consider in your daily life how plants touch you indirectly and directly. We eat plants. Wood from trees is used to build our homes. Cotton and other fibers are woven for clothes, towels and fabrics. Medicines are derived from plants. Wildlife needs plants to survive, and they in turn provide us with a balanced and healthy environment. Kind of blows your mind when you consider the many facets of our lives that plants touch!
There is a huge diversity of potential uses of plants that has not been tapped. Continued bio-prospecting is critical to the discovery of new, previously unknown uses of plants, as foods, medicines and materials - there is so much that has yet to be discovered. Researchers will continue to utilize ethnobotany to enhance their research. The local, traditional knowledge of indigenous people is often rapidly lost once they become integrated into modern, materialistic society. Conserving this knowledge is critical to their culture, heritage and contribution to science.
In Kimmerer’s book, she speaks of braiding sweetgrass and the metaphor it provides. She describes the book as a braid of stories, which are made up of three strands. One is the indigenous knowledge and traditional environmental thinking about plants from the Native perspective. Two is the scientific knowledge about plants. The third strand is the knowledge that the plants themselves hold - not what we can learn about plants, but what we can learn from plants. Her hope is for the reader to use these three ways of knowing plants “to reawaken our relationship with plants and to fully engage with all of our human ways of knowing the gifts that plants hold for us.”
by Tish Gailmard