Environment

The evolution of ethnobotany

To save the plants, one scientific field highlights the importance of protecting Indigenous knowledge

January 13, 2021
A heather blueberry plant takes up the whole frame. Small, dark blue berries dot a shrub with rounded leaves. Most leaves are bright green, some are orange and red.
Blueberry plants grow wild in Jonathan Ferrier’s homelands and study sites, and have many important medicinal uses. [Credit: Kjerstin_MichaelaPublic Domain Mark 1.0]

As long as humans have been around, we’ve relied on plants for our survival: as food, fuel, shelter, medicine — and to produce the oxygen we breathe. Ethnobotanists are scientists who study and catalog these complex interactions between people and plants. Yet ethnobotany has a complicated history of its own, with roots in European colonial expeditions and in the exploitation of Indigenous communities.

Now, with the biodiversity crisis imperiling plants, ethnobotanists have become unexpected advocates for Indigenous knowledge rights in the quest to conserve useful plants around the world and the cultures that rely on them. Modern ethnobotanists are striving to work in partnership with their study communities to preserve much more than just plants: Languages, livelihoods and a wealth of knowledge are at stake. 

Original music by Michael Radack
Other music and sound effects by Richard Laiepce, mikevpme, and Blear Moon

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About the Author

Lauren Leffer

Lauren is a science and environmental journalist currently based in Brooklyn, New York. She has previously been a vampire bat researcher, STEM educator, park naturalist, laboratory manager, and surrogate opossum parent. She writes mostly about biology, ecology, and people.

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