What does ethnobotany mean to you?

Image: Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621–1674), from Drawings of the Rembrandt School, vol. 3, Werner Sumowski.

Image: Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621–1674), from Drawings of the Rembrandt School, vol. 3, Werner Sumowski.

I’m prob­ably not alone in asso­ci­at­ing eth­no­bot­any with tales of derring-do, usu­ally involving ardu­ous treks through unbear­ably hot, mosquito-infested, disease-ridden, swamps or jungles in far-flung corners of the trop­ics in search of ‘goodness-knows-what-but-we’ll-recognise-it-when-we-find-it’. Well, eth­no­bot­any – which attempts to ‘doc­u­ment, describe and explain com­plex rela­tion­ships between cul­tures and (uses of) plants, focus­ing primar­ily on how plants are used, man­aged and per­ceived across human soci­et­ies’ – is not restric­ted to the more inac­cess­ible parts of the world. It can be found right on your door­step, as Łukasz Łuczaj and Monika Kujawska demon­strate in their study of wild food plants remembered by Polish bot­an­ists dur­ing child­hood. Their remem­brances were com­pared to eth­no­botan­ical stud­ies from the 21st and mid-20th Centuries. Two of the eth­no­botan­ical stud­ies sup­plied richer mater­ial on past fam­ine plants, whereas the bot­an­ists men­tioned many alien plants and plants from urban hab­it­ats not included in the eth­no­graph­ical study. Unfortunately(!), the study con­cluded that, although bot­an­ists are pos­sibly the best source of inform­a­tion for stud­ies of con­tem­por­ary or new uses of plants, they were inad­equate for uses that are dying out. As we face a future of uncer­tain food secur­ity, it will be increas­ingly import­ant to identify ‘for­got­ten’ food plants, whether at home or abroad, and to inter­view those who have that local know­ledge. Although oft-derided, these so-called ‘local know­ledge sys­tems’ (LKSs), which ‘con­sist of the know­ledge, beliefs, tra­di­tions, prac­tices, insti­tu­tions, and world­views developed and sus­tained by indi­gen­ous and local com­munit­ies’, deserve (demand?) to be exploited for their ‘poten­tial and estab­lished value of eth­n­o­bi­o­lo­gical know­ledge and its asso­ci­ated plant and animal resources for local com­munit­ies and soci­ety at large’. So, much as I like bot­an­ists, if it’s a choice between the ‘wise woman’ and the bot­an­ist, I’ll pick the wise woman every time!


Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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