Quijos-Quichua Banisteriopsis caapi vine ('Ayahuasca')

Ethnobotany & Economic Botany – A Primer

Given that the majority of the plant species which we sell fall under the field of ethnobotany – while the remainder can be considered to be relevant to economic botany simply by virtue of being sold on this site – we thought it might be a good idea to prepare this short overview of what exactly each of these terms mean in plain English…

What is economic botany?

noun: economic botany; “Economic plants are defined as being useful either directly, as in food, or indirectly, as products we use or that enhance the environment.”

Essentially, the term ‘economic botany’ refers to the study of the relationships between humans (individually and culturally) and plants (for example with regard to our use of plants as commercial goods, food and medicine).

White, brown, red & wild rice are food plants of economic botanical importance
Rice is an economically important plant

In common with its close relative, ethnobotany (more on which below), economic botany is an anthropological and botanical synthesis, which further intersects with a dizzying array of disciplines, including archaeology, chemistry, economics, ethnology, forestry, geography, geology, horticulture, microbiology, nutrition, pharmacognosy and pharmacology.

Illustrating this rich continuum, at the founding conference of the Society for Economic Botany, in 1958, David J. Rogers stated; “…economic botany should concern itself with basic botanical, phytochemical and ethnological studies of plants known to be useful or those which may have potential uses so far underdeveloped. Economic botany is, then, a composite of those sciences working specifically with plants of importance to [humans]”.

What is ethnobotany?

noun: ethnobotany; “the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious and other uses.”

Economic & ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes in the Amazon, 1940s
Pioneer of economic & ethnobotany, Richard Evans Schultes in the Amazon, 1940s

Ethnobotany is a discipline involving the investigation of a region’s plants and their practical uses, as seen through the lens of the cultures who use them.

Despite modern appropriation by some entheogenic vendors to denote plant products containing psychoactive alkaloids, ethnobotanical plants ‘proper’ may be defined as those proving useful as clothing, food, medicine, shelter and in many other ways.

By attempting to approach native peoples on equal terms – and consequently establishing genuine relationships with them – ethnobotanists hope to draw out information about traditional plant practices, before they’re lost to us forever.

Ethnobotany requires a truly disciplinary approach: anthropological training (to understand the cultural concepts around the plants), botanical training (to identify and preserve plant specimens) and linguistic training (to transcribe local terminology and comprehend native symbolism and language structure).

While the concept of ethnobotany was first proposed in the early part of the twentieth century, by botanist John William Harshberger, it was a while later that noted Harvard professor Richard Evans Schultes’s remarkable sojourns to the Amazon brought the discipline into the academic spotlight. Later work by Schultes students (such as Timothy Plowman and Wade Davis, discoverer of the “zombie” toxin) and their academic descendants continues to bring us new and useful chemicals, foodstuffs, medicines and more.