Ethnobotany: An Introduction

Ethnobotany is an interdisciplinary study of a region’s plants and their practical uses through the traditional knowledge of a culture of peoples. In short, the relationship between plants and communities (Okogun 2002).

Traditionally the subject focused on cataloguing the ways people use plants but over the last few decades ethnobotany has grown to become an interdisciplinary subject, encompassing chemistry, pharmacology, biology, and anthropology. Contemporary studies focus on the traditional knowledge and use of plants by indigenous communities, such as their use in food, medicine or shelter (Balick & Cox 1996; Iwu 2002; Prance 1991). Often these studies are used as a basis for implementing ecologically-friendly and sustainable methods for interacting with the environment which have been use by indigenous communities for centuries. However, ethnobotany can also be used for its role in identifying the medicinal use of plants.

An estimated 25% of drugs prescribed in modern medicine are related – both directly and indirectly – to naturally occurring substances of plant origin (Okogun 2002). Ethnomedicine, a subdiscipline of ethnobotany, is dedicated to exploring the uses and histories of traditional medicines. A popular example of this can be seen in the most commonly used drug in the world – aspirin.

The active agent within Willow bark, salicin, has a similar chemical makeup to aspirin and has been used for centuries for pain relief (Desborough & Keeling 2017). The first record of Willow bark being used as an analgesic can be found in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, which dates to c. 1930 BC and contains over 160 herbal and vegetable remedies (Bryan 1931). Later, Hippocrates suggested its use to relieve pain in childbirth while Pliny the Elder also referenced its use as an analgesic (Jeffreys 2004). Much later, in 1763, a Clergyman from Oxford was inspired by these ancient texts to research how Willow bark could be used to treat his patients, later prescribing it fried and ground to relieve pain. However, the active ingredient of Willow bark would not be discovered until 1828 while the safer version of Aspirin would not be formulated until 1897 as a response to the severe stomach pains caused by taking salicin (Jeffreys 2004). Following the First World War and the H1N1 pandemic of 1918 (more popularly known as the Spanish flu) the popularity of aspirin increased exponentially. Later research discovering its impact on reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease cemented its status as the most commonly used drug in the world (Desborough & Keeling 2017).

The discipline of Ethnobotany covers a wide field of research. In future posts I’ll be investigating more examples of traditional medicine being utilised in modern healthcare, other aspects of ethnobotany, and its importance in the practice of witchcraft through the ages.

Open Access:

Bryan, C.P. (1931) The Papyrus Ebers. Appleton, New York, NY.

Desborough, M. J. R. and Keeling, D. M. (2017) ‘The Aspirin Story – From Willow to Wonder Drug’ in British Journal of Haematology. Vol 177, Issue 5.

Closed Access:

Balick, M. J. and Cox, P. A. (1996) Plants, People and Culture: Science of Ethnobotany. Garland Science, New York City.

Iwu, M. M. (2002) ‘Introduction: Therapeutic Agents from Ethnomedicine’ in (eds.) Iwu, M. M. and Wootton, J. C. Ethnomedicine and Drug Discovery Vol 1. Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Jeffreys, D. (2004) Aspirin – The Story of a Wonder Drug. Bloomsbury, London.

Okogun, J. I. (2002) ‘Drug Discovery through Ethnobotany in Nigeria: Some Results’ in (eds.) Iwu, M. M. and Wootton, J. C. Ethnomedicine and Drug Discovery Vol 1. Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Prance, G. T. (1991) ‘What is Ethnobotany Today?’ in Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Vol 32.

Further Reading:

Etkin, N. L. (2008) Edible Medicines: An Ethnopharmacology of Food. University of Arizona Press, Arizona.

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants. Penguin Books, London.

Lewington, A. (2003) Plants for People. Eden Project Books, Cornwall.

Fun fact: 10 days after they first formulated aspirin, the same pharmacology division produced Heroin for the first time. Pretty busy month for them.