What is ethnobotany?

What is ethnobotany and why does it matter?

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—from the tiniest fern or blade of grass to the tallest or oldest tree. Botany 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. The domesticated species are both the subject and object of agriculture.

Ethnobotanical knowledge encompasses both wild and domesticated species, and is rooted in observation, relationship, needs, and traditional ways of knowing. Such knowledge evolves over time, and is therefore always changing and adding new discoveries, ingenuity and methods.

The impacts of modern human societies on traditional cultures and natural habitats have caused huge losses of individual species, and profoundly disrupted communities of species (plant, animal and fungal). Displaced or dispersed peoples—who may have passed along hundreds of generations of observations and customs via oral tradition—lose their languages, the names of things, and their place in the web of relationships. Sometimes new relationships develop as people migrate, and this generates new or modified ethnobotanical knowledge.

What is ethnobotanical lore?

At Botanical Dimensions, we particularly treasure those threads of the fabric of knowledge that carry an awareness of how humans are woven into nature. This knowledge is apparent in the worldview of a people, which arises as beliefs, stories, myths, instructions, songs, art forms, rituals, recipes, and practices. The lore has for millennia informed the young people of these cultures in how to be human in a natural world. Lore comes from the same root word as learn. It includes both knowledge and know-how, passed down from ancestors.

Which tools do ethnobotanists use?

Ethnobotany is an integrative, multi-disciplinary field of learning. So the tools of ethnobotanical investigations are many: botany, mycology (the study of fungi), taxonomy (ways of categorizing), anthropology, ethnography, archaeology, comparative folklore, religious studies, medicine, chemistry, pharmacology (uses and effects of chemicals in plants), and more. Some of the psychoactive species and their lore carry us deep into realms of ritual, mythology and cosmology. Sometimes, in ethnobotanical inquiry, we call upon ancient history, or colonial socio-economic histories, or even examine the roots of our modern social movements.

Field ethnobotany is the observation of the human-plant relationship in places where it is visible and may be either experienced and/or documented, in stories and images.

These are a few of the many branches of investigation that draw on cultural knowledge, and that begin with the prefix ethno:

Ethnobiology is the study of the relationships between people, the lifeforms surrounding them, and the environment in which they live, in the past or present. Ethnobotany is included within the greater category of ethnobiology.

Ethnomycology is the study of folk knowledge of mushrooms and other fungi. Ethnomycology is often subsumed under ethnobotany, as mushrooms were long believed to be plants, which they are not.

Ethnoscience is the study of the various ways the world is perceived and categorized in different cultures. Ethnoscience regards the operational concepts in an indigenous knowledge system, and is sometimes called folk science. Folk classification and naming systems are also called folk taxonomy.

Ethnomedicine is the study of traditional medicines, whether written (as in Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine), or remembered and transmitted via oral tradition (such as in much Native American, Latin American or African folk medicine, or in Euro-American herbal medicine). Medical anthropology studies contemporary ethnomedicine, which includes concepts of what illness is and how healing occurs.

Ethnopharmacology is the study of the uses, effects and modes of actions of naturally-occurring drug compounds. This is a key field that often explains the effectiveness of herbal medicine, stimulants, analgesics, inebriants or psychoactive species. Both ethnomedicine and ethnopharmacology overlap significantly with ethnobotany.

Ethnomusicology is the study of the music of different cultures, and musical instruments they make and use, which are often made of plant materials. Ethnomusicology may include the study of dance.

Ethnoecology refers to a paradigm that is gaining ground in the early 21st century: Understanding and documenting how peoples perceive and manage the ecosystems they inhabit.