Gereon Janzing, geobotánico y etnobotánico
Gereon Janzing, geobotánico y etnobotánico

What is Ethnobotany?


el mateix en català – lo mismo en castellano – dasselbe auf Deutsch – lo mateix amb eivissenc – la sama en Esperanto – le même en français – lo stesso in italiano – o mesmo em português – il medem sin romontsch – dës glych uf Schwyzertüütsch – IDEM LATINE

This is a question I am frequently asked because I am an ethnobotanist. A simplified definition is that ethnobotany is all that belongs to (social/cultural) anthropology as well as to botany. Its subject are the relations between plants and humans. Fungi though not forming part of the plants according to modern systematics, are a traditional subject of botany which includes mycology, and therefore ethnomycology is also included in ethnobotany.

The most extensive subject is of course that of plant uses. The plants are not only food plants but also those plants that supply fibres, wood for construction, dyes, arrow and fishing poisons, fodder for economic animals, means of intoxication, sedatives and stimulants, medicine, primary substances for energy or upholstering material. Not only do cultivated plants belong to ethnobotany but also wild plants.

In ethnobotany we work on cultivation, harvest and possible and actual uses of plants, the cults having to do with those actions and the meaning of the plants in the view of the world and in language. Moreover the relations of humans to those plants not used economically as for example ornamental plants and so-called weeds in the fields are a working-field of ethnobotany.

Quite often you may find ethnobotany reduced to plants and their (frequently only medicinal and/or psychoactive) using potential. As a matter of fact, this is only one of many aspects of our discipline.

Sometimes you may find the term "ethnobotanical plants". What the hell that can mean, is beyond my knowledge. The attribute "botanical" suits any plant anyway. This term is certainly a mere slogan of people who have got no idea of what ethnobotany is.

For further clarification some examples for subjects follow.
– The use of marine algae (seaweeds) in different parts of the Hawaiian islanders' population.
– Plants as deities (for example Dema deities) in the belief of tuber growers.
– Annual cycle and division of labour of the harvest of wild rice at the Great Lakes in North America.
Hallucinogenic plants of the ecstatic healers (sometimes called shamans) at the eastern slope of the Andes. +
– The Japanese garden art.
– Cultivation and use of the plum sort zibarte in South West Germany. +
– The terminology of cassava sorts in the South American Lowlands.
– The presentation of edelweiss in the art of the Alpine peoples.
– The use of driftwood by the Inuit.
– Archeological traces of economic plants in Viking settlements.
– Myths about garlic and its defensive magic. +
– The Sahara nomads' marches related to the presence of certain fodder plants.
– The Pygmies' knowledge of medicinal plants.
– The divinatory use of the henbane by the ancient Greeks. +
– The importance of cotton for US-American history.
– The Opium Wars between England and China. +
– Preparation, use and social function of chicha (maize beer). +
– The extension of the potato in Europe.
– Production and use of maple syrup in North America. +
– The coffee growing projects controlled by governmental organisations and NGOs of the consumer countries.
– The growing of maize and beans in mixed culture (companion planting).
– The role of the lime-tree in German popular songs.
– The ingredients and forms of preparation of the arrow poison curare.
– The trees as carriers of human souls in the belief of the Aché in Paraguay.
– Influences of sheep and goat pasture on the Mediterranean vegetation.
– The Hopis' irrigation methods.
– The collecting of herbs in industrial societies and the prejudices against it.
– The travels of nomadic beekeepers in Australia as a consequence of the honey sources. +
– The use of the neem tree as an insect repellent in India and Nicaragua.
– The Mother Earth cult in the central Andes.
– The different interpretations of the Mexican fungus-stones. +
– Myths about the discovering of cheese mould fungi.
– The techniques of producing hemp fibre.
– The potential of lupins for human consumption.
– The plant names in the creole languages.
– The mistle in the ancient Celtic culture.

So now you have gained some insight into the diversity of ethnobotanical subjects.

The subjects marked by a cross + are treated in my book published in 2000 (in German, not yet translated into English).

Some plants and other objects are named in my multilingual drug dictionary with their names in German, English (British and American), Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, and Esperanto, including etymologies.