Ethnobotany - A Relationship Between People and Plants

Posted by Sarah Jane Humphrey on

As children, we’re all interested in ethnobotany. We point at vegetables and ask where they came from, we put flowers into our hair and make play of poultice making. For many, that curiosity fades later in life. According to a review of the book Botany for Everyone, "Plants are the most important, least understood, most taken for granted of all living things" (Wilkins, 1988). 

Currently, public interest in ethnobotany is on the rise due to conservation concerns and increasing appeal in the potential benefits of natural foods and medicines.

Botanical recipes

What is Ethnobotany

Ethnobotany is a branch of ethnobiology, human science that studies recognition of the reciprocal and dynamic nature of the relationship between humans and plants. The term was first employed by John Harschberger in 1895. It focuses on plants that are known, named and used by Human beings, and includes the traditional use of plants in different fields like medicine and agriculture. 

Different cultures of the past and the present have discovered a variety of uses for their indigenous plants; for food, medicine, shelter, clothing, cosmetics, and in religious rituals, among many other uses. 

Our earliest human ancestors found plants to heal wounds, cure diseases, and ease troubled minds, and people on all continents have long used hundreds, if not thousands, of indigenous plants, for the treatment of various ailments dating back to prehistory. 

People have always depended on plants for their primary needs, and thus naturally have learned their uses. During days of nomadic roaming, this knowledge was exchanged with neighbouring tribes and was gradually expanded upon. Thus, plant knowledge has been passed around the world since the beginning of time - and frequently the actual plants themselves have spread along with it.

Ethno (as in ‘ethnic’) refers to people, culture, a culture’s collective body of beliefs, aesthetic, language, knowledge, and practice. Botany is the study of plants which includes all the wild plants and the domesticated species. Domesticates are species that we humans have selected over time from the wild plant species, then tamed and trained to optimally produce for us: food, fibers, medicine, materials, and more. 

Ethnobotanical knowledge encompasses both wild and domesticated species, and is rooted in observation, relationship, needs, and traditional ways of knowing.

Amazon rainforest

How long have we been using medicinal plants?

Plant species have long played important roles for humanity. Since time immemorial, plants served as the first source of medicine to treat ailments, and with developments in modern science, a number of drugs owe their discovery and development to ethnobotany. Some examples are aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) originally derived from the willow tree, quinine which relieves malaria and is extracted from the bark of the South American cinchona tree, and licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) which has been an ingredient in cough drops for more than 3,500 years.

Prior to the advances in synthetic chemistry and the discovery of antimicrobials in the late 19th early 20th centuries, plants provided the major source of medicines. Evidence exists that plants were used for medicinal purposes some 60,000 years ago. A burial site of a Neanderthal man was uncovered in 1960 with eight species of plants buried with him, some of which are still used for medicinal purposes today.

Where is medicine extracted from plants?

It is interesting to discover that there are many different parts of plants where medicine can be extracted including leaves, roots, bark, fruit, seeds, and flowers. Different parts of one plant can contain various active ingredients, meaning that one part of the plant could be toxic, while another portion of the same plant could be harmless

Ethnobotanists and creating modern medicines

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), about 80% of the world's population, especially the rural people of developing countries, still primarily rely on traditional medicines.

Typically working outdoors, ethnobotanists observe how certain cultures make use of their plants. Field ethnobotanists commonly travel to isolated, exotic locations, such as tropical forests, to learn how and why certain plants are used. Before embarking on field expeditions, scientists often engage in extensive research of what is already known about the native plants and people of a region. Once on location, ethnobotanists commonly spend several months or even years with a group of native people, gaining knowledge about the practical and spiritual aspects of hundreds of different plant species. They make detailed reports of their findings, meticulously collect plant samples for analysis, and when possible conduct personal interviews with natives.

Laboratory ethnobotanists analyze the chemical and physical properties of a variety of plants to determine if they can be of practical use to humans. Experts combine their knowledge of ethnobotany and laboratory science to conduct exacting experiments on plant tissues, seeds, and pollen. Ethnobotanical research can lead to the direct development of new pharmaceuticals and dietary supplements. Additionally, the principles of ethnobotany are frequently employed by researchers at biotechnology companies, cosmetics factories, and food science institutions.

Herbal Medicine 

Another area of interest in the West is herbal medicine, which has proved extremely popular in some continental European countries. Many products have been licensed as medicines and are now growing in significance in the UK and the US as herbal remedies, nutraceuticals or functional foods. The application of herbal medicine goes back centuries in Traditional Chinese, Ayuverdic, Unani and other cultures in the developing world. 

Thousands of plants are used as a basis for these traditional practices of medicine and while many are sceptical of any therapeutic value, more and more beneficial effects are being demonstrated. A significant example of this is the development of a Chinese herbal mixture for the treatment of eczema by Phytopharm Plc, based on the observation that a patient receiving treatment from a TCM practitioner in London was showing unexpected signs of significant improvement.

Ethnobotany - Plants as food

Plant products are the most important source of food for people. We eat plants directly, in the form of raw or cooked vegetables and fruits, and processed foods such as bread. We also eat plants indirectly, as when we consume the meat of pigs or eggs of chickens that have themselves fed on plant foods.

The world's most important crops are cereals such as barley, maize, rice, sorghum, and wheat. Tuber crops are also important such as cassava, potato, sweet potato, and turnip. Remarkably however, only a few plants are commonly cultivated, amounting to only a few hundred species. Moreover, only 20 species account for 90% of global food production, and just three (wheat, maize, and rice) for more than half.

There is an enormously larger number of plants that are potentially edible (about 30,000 species). Many of these minor crops could be cultivated more widely, and thereby provide a great benefit to a much greater number of people.

A few examples of highly nutritious foods used by local cultures, which could potentially be cultivated to feed much larger numbers of people, include arrachacha, amaranths, buffalo gourd, maca, spirulina, wax gourd and Asian melon. These and many other local, traditional foods have been "discovered" by ethnobotanists, and could well prove to be important foods for many people in the future.

Plant-based food

Plants used as materials 

Plants are also an important source of natural building material and are used in making house-pillar, fences, roofs, doors, windows and furniture. Over the years, interest in ancient construction has grown globally. More have been using natural building materials in response to increasing awareness of sustainable building methods. These materials are safe alternatives to toxic substances. 

Bamboo is among the most sustainable natural building materials, as it is easy to plant, grows very quickly, and has better tensile strength than most other building materials, including timber and steel. It has many possible applications on both indoor and outdoor architectural elements, such as trusses, facades, and even plumbing.

There is a growing interest in using fibre-producing plants such as hemp as building products. Hemp, in particular, can be used to make roofing tiles, wallboard, and fibreboard. Some use hemp to insulate their homes, with its high resistance to heat flow and ability to absorb moisture.

Initially a popular material mainly for low-rise projects, timber is now a prospective material for skyscrapers, with the birth of new types of engineered timber such as CLT. It is substantially stronger and more stable than regular wood, yet lighter than steel and concrete.

Bamboo plants as building materials

The future of plants

In the past several decades, the science of ethnobotany has evolved from a discipline primarily concerned with making lists of useful plants in particular geographical regions, to a multidisciplinary endeavour focused on understanding the relationship between plants and people. Contemporary and ongoing ethnobotanical understanding and awareness have value not only for the research questions they address but as a way of catalyzing awareness of the value of biological diversity and support for its conservation among a broad range of people.

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