Ethnobotany and the Secret Life of Plants: Episode 1

Many times over the course of my work, I have been asked about my interest in gardening and botany in general. Depending on the situation, I generally provide one of two answers.

The common answer is casual. “I liked gardening and wanted to learn more.”

But the second answer, the real answer, is the one that I save for clients that I have worked with often. I became interested in plants because, as an anthropology major, I was interested in the way people of various cultures around the world use plants. Through the course of my studies I came to find that plants are a fundamental element of human society, and each culture has its own manner by which it interacts with the botanical world. And so, my academic focus shifted from anthropology to ethnobotany (via Mesoamerica, more on this later).

Ethnobotany is basically the scientific study of how people around the world use plants: plants as tools, as construction materials, and fibers, plants as color dyes for works of art and textiles, plants as food, and plants as medicine. The Harvard botanist Dr. Richard Evans Schultes is considered by many to be the founder of modern ethnobotany. Now, every science has it’s intellectual hero. Physics has Newton, Einstein, Planck. Chemistry has Robert Boyle. Music has Mozart. Ethnobotany has Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, and it was he that lifted the curtain on the secret life of plants. Unfortunately, only a few were paying attention.

Richard Evans Schultes is among the greatest academic geniuses of the natural world that only a few know about. Too bad too. His work is fantastic. He was the most perfect blend of a gardener and Indiana Jones there ever could be. He was charting ethnographic work before ethnographers knew what they were doing. He roamed the jungles of South America looking for isolated tribal people so that he might understand the plants they use. He took really good notes, and helped shaped the scientific classification of many previously unknown but important plants. Greater than all of that, he helped influence the way chemistry and pharmacology utilize plant metabolites for medical production. And did I mention that he was the most perfect blend of a gardener and Indiana Jones there ever could be?

After studying the work of R.E. Schultes, I became a fan. The anthropologist in me had dreams of traveling to remote parts of the Amazon to enter an indigenous culture and study their gardening methods. But, the blessed life that I live has not yet allowed this flight of intellectual fancy. So, the pragmatist in me has settled for gardening at home, and learning from the garden in the manner of a native living in the Amazon. The problem is, I live in Texas, and the soil and climate are much different. (In fact, they are almost opposites).

I have tried to grow many different plants. Many have died, but many more seem to live. I have learned that each plant has a specific window of requirements that it needs to live well. For some it’s more water, for others, it’s a lower soil pH. Every plant wants to grow in its own ideal climate, so the trick in gardening is changing the gardening environment to match the plants ideal growing conditions. And if one pays attention, the plant will show signs that tell the gardener what it needs. (more on this later).

One of the rewards of the garden is that it is a learning environment that can open up new possibilities for enhancing life. Gardens can provide food, and they can add spice to food. They can provide medicines, and can inspire new medical treatments. They can provide new color dyes to add to a painting, and create new forms of fuel. They can provide a habitat for wildlife, and they can create a peaceful place to relax and enjoy life.

This is why I garden. This is why I work, and why I learn, and desire to help others do the same. This is the long answer to the question of, “how did you get into gardening?” Sometimes, it’s just easier to say, “because I like gardening.” This is most certainly true, but please understand that plants have more to offer us than we can completely understand. For everything we currently know about plants as a collective culture, there remains much more that we do not know, simply because we haven’t acquired the proper knowledge. In other words, gardening and learning about plants offer a broad potential for expanding the way we use them, and enjoy our environment.

And, as the work of Dr. Richard Evans Schultes illustrates, plants have secrets. Guarded secrets, but important ones none-the-less (more on this later).

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2 thoughts on “Ethnobotany and the Secret Life of Plants: Episode 1

  1. Hi there Plantfix,I too am an Ethnobotany entusiast from Australia.
    I have quite a seedbank here in case the world does go mad LOL,but on a serious note I’m into the Traditional Shamnistic use of these wonderful,beautiful plants and the intelligence that lays within them.Just being around the humble San Pedro and it’s numerous cousins is such a joy.
    Right now in Aus the Attorney General put forth(on the 11th March) a consultation on implementation of model drug schedules for Commonwealth serious drug offences of these plants to possibly ban most of our very own native species amongst other non indigenous plants,also a plethora of pre-cursors.You may have read or heard about that?
    It is unfortunate that this proposal caused such an uproar as it was a “blanket ban” on even owning cacti,Wattle’s(our National Emblem)….although we eat the other 2 LOL.

    We are still up in the air about this,this is a strange thing to do as you can tell most wouldn’t know about most of them,nor are they abused,but now they are in the mainstream media who knows what’s going to happen?

    Hopefully we can keep in contact and I’ll ad more as we go

    Be well my plant loving friend

    sanpedro

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