Plant Cuttings

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!


About the author

Nigel Chaffey

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.