What is Ethnobotany?
Ethnobotany (word invented in 1895 - LOC.gov) is the study of how indigeneous peoples used (and are still using) native plants for edible purposes, medicinally, for utilitarian purposes, and for a plethora of other activities. This study is not just historical, because many of the natural remedies used by natives for thousands of years are still just as applicable today (to a much broader population), despite often being refuted or ignored by the professional medical community. One such example is jewelweed, used by North American natives and now popular as a poison ivy remedy.
Just about every region of the world has some form of ethnobotany, and, although not every old custom is applicable today, many still are and could provide alternative solutions to widespread problems. Truly, there is a worldwide pharmacological treasure waiting to be uncovered (or rather, recovered). Do to the vast amount of knowledge available from around the world, a broad overview will be provided here for brevity's sake.
Native American (North American) Ethnobotany
The tribes that once dominated what is now the United States and Canada had an amazing range of botanical knowledge which passed down from generation to generation, even to the present day. There is practically no plant, weed or crop, tree or shrub, that does not have a use in Native American ethnobotany. It is a miracle that such uses and cures have survived thousands of years of change, and it is to our advantage to learn about them. Below are listed just a few of the most recognizable plants used extensively by Native American tribes.
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida L.)
Tribes that used it: Cherokee, Delaware, Houma, Iroquois, Rappahannock.
Medicinal uses: The bark of the dogwood tree was prepared in a variety of ways to treat headaches, measles, worms, backaches, and ulcers. The root bark too was used to treat fevers, prevent infection, treat diarrhea, and as an astringent. An infusion of dogwood flowers was used to treat the flu and colic. The roots and bark were also used by the Houma tribe to treat malaria.
Edible uses: N/A
Utilitarian uses: Cherokees used wood from flowering dogwood to carve on and to fashion loom shuttles.
(Source: University of Michigan - Dearborn)
Eastern Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens L.)
A.K.A.: wintergreen, checkerberry
Tribes that used it: Algonquin, Cherokee, Chippewa, Delaware, Iroquois, Menominee, Mohegan, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Shinnecock, Abnaki,
Medicinal uses: Native Americans used poultices or infusions of this beautiful evergreen shrub to treat colds, stomachache, and / or grippe. The minty leaves were also chewed for dysentery and to treat sore gums. It was also used as a blood purifier, for kidney problems, for rheumatism, for worms, fevers, and arthritis.
Edible uses: Several tribes used teaberry leaves to make tea and ate their delicious red berries (they are as good as they look). Some tribes even made cakes out of the berries.
Utilitarian uses: The Cherokee used the leaves as a replacement for chewing tobacco.
(Source: University of Michigan - Dearborn)
Sweet Birch (Betula lenta L.)
Tribes that used it: Algonquin, Cherokee, Chippewa, Iroquois, Mohegan, Ojibwa.
Medicinal uses: Cherokees chewed on the leaves of sweet birch to help relieve dysentery, and the bark was used to treat diarrhea, pneumonia, urine problems, and stomach problems. Additionally, the Mohegan tribe used the phloem (inner bark) in a tonic.
Edible uses: The Iroquois tribe used sweet birch twigs as part of a beverage.
Utilitarian uses: The Ojibwa tribe used sweet birch's bark in a variety of creative manners, including use in shelters / homes; in coffins; in canoes; and all sorts of containers, baskets, and dishes.
(Source: University of Michigan - Dearborn)
Three other significant edible plants grown by Native Plants include corn, beans, and squash (a.k.a. the "three sisters"). Two other important medicinal plants are jewelweed (Impatiens capensis, I. pallida) and witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).
Central and South American Ethnobotany
Many of the modern foods and medicines that we take for granted today originated in South and Central American ethnobotany (such as potatoes and tomatoes). Similar botanical treasures still lie virtually undiscovered (by modern society) in this part of the world.
Cushaw (Cucurbita argyrosperma Huber)
Image Source: Missouri State University
A versatile vegetable used by the peoples of Southern Mexico for as long as 7,000 years. Some of its relatives include types of pumpkin and squash ( Cucurbita pepo L., Cucurbita moschata).
Edible uses: The stems, flowers, and fruit are eaten, and the ripened fruit are also fed to animals. The most popular food source from cushaw, however, is actually its grain, due to its superior amounts of oil and protein (44%).
Medicinal uses: The peoples of the Yucatan used the fleshy parts of cushaw fruit to treat dermatological problems, including burns. A combination of seeds and water also served as an anesthesia.
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa)
A very nutritious grain used by tribes in the Andes Mountains for millennia before the arrival of Columbus.
Edible uses: The quinoa plant has a variety of edible uses; its seeds (grain), leaves, and young ears are all edible. They can be made into flour, soap, sauces, salad, and more. Yet this isn't just your ordinary vegetable; quinoa has a number of nutritional benefits as well.
Nutritional value: Quinoa contains large amounts of proteins, which consists of several essential amino acids, most notably lysine. According to a study by the University of Chile, "It has remarkable nutritional properties; not only from its protein content (15%) but also from its great amino acid balance."
In fact, it's so nutritionally balanced that NASA considered using it in their Controlled Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) for extend space missions.
Medicinal uses: The upper parts of the quinoa plant have been used for their pain-killing (specifically for toothache) and anti-inflammatory properties.
Practical uses: Quinoa is used to scare away insects.
Cinchona Tree (Cinchona officinalis)
A malaria-cure discovered in the Andes Mountains of South America.
Medicinal uses: Indigenous peoples used an infusion of t
e bark to treat fevers. As Jesuit missionaries and many Europeans soon discovered, it also effectively treated malaria (first shipped to Europe around 1631 to 1632). How? Cinchona trees' bark contains the chemical quinine, an effective malaria-fighting substance.
Ever since it was discovered by explorers, it became increasingly popular throughout Europe and Asia, nearly disappearing from its South American home because of over-demand. Today it is being considered again as an alternative to synthetic malaria antidotes.
Guinea arrowroot (Calathea allouia)
Image Source: Purdue University
Guinea arrowroot is an indigenous vegetable used in a variety of ways for a thousand years, although it has become less popular in recent decades.
Edible uses: Guinea arrowroot's roots are fixed with water to make a crisp, cooked vegetable. Guinea arrowroot is also an ingredient in other recipes.
Medicinal uses: The leaves can be prepared and taken to to improve urine flow and to help with urinary bladder inflammation.
Utilitarian uses: The tough leaves are used to make clothes for infants.
Other widely known and eaten plants that originated from Central and South America include the potato (Solanum tuberosum), tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum), chili pepper (Capsicum annuum), cacao (later known as chocolate) (Theobroma cacao), vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), pineapple (Ananas comosus), and peanuts (Arachis spp.), to name just a handful. These now famous plants were once obscure ethnobotanical specimens, stumbled upon by explorers from the Old World. Likewise, many ethnobotanical treasures only known by a handful of specialists today could be the new centerpiece of world agriculture tomorrow.
Many tribes in Africa showed a superior knowledge in plant pharmacology, and these traditions were brought along with the slave trade into America as well (Source: University of California, Los Angeles). Following are just a few of the many native African species which were traditionally used for a variety of ailments and have many potentials today.
Ghaap / Hoodia (Hoodia spp.)
Image source: Library of Congress
Hoodia is a natural digestive aide growing in the Kalahari Desert.
Medicinal uses: Hoodia is used to suppress hunger and thirst, and it is thus used in certain diets to control and even reduce weight / obesity. It has similarly been used to treat diabetes and high blood pressure.
Edible uses: Stripped of its spines, the moisture-rich stems are eaten like a vegetable (cucumber-like).
(Source: Purdue University)
Ghana Quinine (Cryptolepis sanguinolenta)
Image source: CIA.gov
This miracle plant of West Africa may help in the treatment of malaria, cancer, and much more.
Medicinal uses: Traditionally, ghana quinine has been used to lower blood pressure, to stop a fever, and to aide stomach and intestinal problems. Today, it is being researched for antimalarial (malaria-fighting) and anticarcinogenic (anti-cancer) properties, and so far the tests are positive. Its root extract is also good for fighting harmful pathogens such as E. coli.
(Source: Purdue University)
Rooibos Tea (Aspalathus linearis)
Image Source: American University: The Mandala Projects
AKA: red bush, mountain tea, African red tea.
A mineral-rich, relaxing, and caffeine-free South African shrub that has already turned a few heads.
Medicinal uses: In addition to tasting great without any sugar or flavor-enhancing supplements, rooibos tea has antioxidant properties, can protect the liver, and is anticarcinogenic (helps prevent cancer). Rooibos has also been used to treat sleeping disorders, headaches, and colic (intestinal / bowel discomfort) in babies. It sooths the central nervous system, and it contains a variety of nutritious minerals such as manganese, sodium, zinc, and potassium.
Edible uses: Rooibos makes a dark red tea with a one-of-a-kind flavor that needs no sweeteners or enhancements. Plus, you don't need to worry about caffeine keeping you up all night; in fact, this tea should help you to sleep better.
Utilitarian uses: The rooibos plant is sometimes used in cosmetics and dietary products.
(Source: Purdue University)
Some of the more famous spices and plants of Asia include nutmeg, cinnamon, peppercorn, and clove. However, there are many other native plants across Asia that hold fascinating properties and traditional uses.
Sago Palm (Metroxylon sagu)
House (for growing mushrooms) made from sago palm. Image Source: Michigan State University
A traditional source of fiber native to Southeast Asia.
Edible uses: The inside of the Sago Palm stem (pith) is carved out and made into a variety of starchy foods, including but not limited to pudding, flour, and pancakes.
Utilitarian uses: Used sometimes as a building / architectural medium, such as in this thatched house used for growing mushrooms (see above picture). It was also used in basket-weaving.
Snow Lotus (Saussurea laniceps, Sasssurea medusa)
Image source: NASA
A traditional Chinese and Tibetan herb.
Medicinal uses: Traditionally, Tibetans used snow lotus to treat blood problems (including hypertension) and pregnancy problems. For maximum medicinal power, the plant was harvested while the flowers were in bloom.
Mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana L.)
Image Source: USDA, Passmore
A source of black dye and much more.
Medicinal uses: The rind from the mangosteen fruit, made into a powder or infusion, is used to overcome digestive problems, including dysentery and diarrhea. It can also be used as a febrifuge (fever-cure), or, made into an ointment, used to treat several dermatological issues.
Edible: Mangosteen fruits are eaten fresh.
Utilitarian uses: The rind from the mangosteen fruit can be used to tan leather, and it also produces a black dye used in a number of different applications.
The Old World, in spite of thousands of years of political upheaval and soon hundreds of years of industrialization, still holds a buried treasure of ethnobotanical knowledge, some of which, no doubt, was brought over with immigrants into the Americas.
Common Gold Thistle (Scolymus hispanicus L.)
Image source: Library of Congress
An edible and medicinal perennial Spanish herb used for ages.
Medicinal uses: Gold thistle can be used medicinally to increase urine flow and bile output of the liver.
Edible uses: Parts of their basal leaves are boiled and prepared in a variety of ways. Its roots can also be prepared as a substitute for coffee.
(Source: Journal of Ethnobotany and Ethnomedicine)
Purselane (Portulaca oleracea L.)
Image source: USDA, Dale Ritchey
An important food source and medicinal herb in Italy since ancient times, even being included in the writings of Pliny and Dioscorides. It is a weed in the U.S. and little appreciated for its wealth of nutrition.
Medicinal uses: Purselane was often used in earlier times to sooth a variety of illnesses and pains, some of which include eye pain, toothaches, headaches, fevers, scurvy, and intestinal worms. Modern research has confirmed many of these traditional uses. Purselane can be used to relax the muscles, stop convulsions, and relieve pains and inflammation. Purselane has also been used as a veterinary medicine.
Edible uses: All parts of the purselane plant are edible. It has been eaten since at least the 1st century A.D. as a vegetable. Cooked in oil with garlic, it is said to even taste like pork. It is a very nutritious and was very popular for many centuries, being used by ancient Italians (Romans), monks, and sailors (for scurvy) alike.
Nutritional value: Purselane is a rich source of proteins; minerals; and vitamins A, B6, C (which is why is was popular for preventing scurvy, and E), among other beneficial substance. Also, out of all the leafy greens grown in gardens, purselane contains the greatest amount of omega-3s, making it a good dietary vegetable.
Myrtle (Myrtus communis L.)
This Mediterranean / Turkish species was both a culturally and medicinally significant plant in ancient times, being included in some of the oldest stories and mythologies, including the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Medicinal uses: Egyptians used myrtle for treating pains, stiffness, and urinary problems, and the Coptic peoples used myrtle essential oil for dermatological problems. The great Roman physician Galen recommended myrtle combined with other herbs to treat dysentery, and in Greece Dioscorides recommended myrtle berries for poisonous arachnid bites, bowel problems, and breathing problems.
Red Poverty Bush (Eremophila duttonii)
Generic image. Image source: FreeAussieStock.com.
This hardy plant, which often grows in unfriendly and dry regions of Australian, holds a great deal of medicinal value. It is truly a "diamond in the rough."
Medicinal uses: An infusion or decoction made from the red poverty bush was used to treat the flu or colds. Its cleansing properties also gained it use as an antiseptic.
Acacia / Wattle (Acacia spp.)
This legume was a source of food for the indigenous peoples of Australia, and in the case of Acacia pycnantha, the national flower of Australia.
Edible uses: The seeds of certain species were consumed by Aboriginal peoples, although some are considered toxic. Because of its nutritional value (high in protein, fiber, and carbohydrates) and distinct flavor, acacia has been considered as a commercial crop in Australia.
Utilitarian uses: Acacia was fashioned into a variety of useful tools such as weapons, instruments for music, and shelter.
Australian Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon ambiguus)
A central Australian headache remedy.
Medicinal uses: Aboriginal peoples made infusions and decoctions from Australian lemon grass to help cure a headache, muscular aching, and chest problems. A recent study by Griffith University found this property to be quite accurate and applicable.
Clearly, there is much to be learned from the past which can in turn be applied to the future; this is a great part of what ethnobotany is all about. These old remedies, fused with modern technologies and inventions, present potentially a great revolution in the pharmacological sciences as well as food sciences. Plants and humans have been living symbiotically for millennia, and plants have influenced our world and society in more ways than one. It is therefore our responsibility to continue this tradition by looking into the ancient tradition of ethnomedicinal and edible knowledge and passing it down to future generations. These benefits which can be derived from plants should not just be a note in a history book; they are real and applicable assets, which, now released on a global scale, could become true panaceas. God has provided us with age old solutions to both very old and new problems facing our societies, and we should use them.
This is but a sampling of the ethnobotanical knowledge from around the world, meant to "wet your appetite." If you are interested in the field of ethnobotany, do some research on your own. The following links can be good places to start.
NOTE: The text of this article is for informational purposes only and should not be used as a medicinal or edible guide for self-treatment or experimentation. Please consult a medical professional or herbal specialist before trying the remedies and prescriptions described here.
An even broader subject related to this is ethnobiology, which is worth looking into if you find this field interesting.