The Resurgence of Ethnobotany in Europe
Volume 1 Number 19 - December 1999
Ethnobotany is not about the use of plants by indigenous people in the tropics alone, it is also about the daily dependence on plants by all of us. The Convention on Biological Diversity and Agenda 21 have brought a new pride in national biological heritage and the knowledge of both its use and sustainable use by consumers are all issues relevant to ethnobotanical teaching. Educators are encouraged to reconnect people to plant use via collections of products, product packaging, living plants and by exploring the use of Europe's own flora, as well as the rich heritage of plant use by immigrant communities which is often concentrated in urban areas - so called 'urban ethnobotany'.
It is tempting to see ethnobotany as the study of the use of plants by anybody other than ourselves. Historically, the strength of this subject has emerged from the study of the uses of plants by tribal and indigenous people, particularly in the tropics. Academically it has been spearheaded by the Americans with a large number of universities running undergraduate courses as well as botanic gardens becoming involved in postgraduate research. This 'otherness' of ethnobotany, and indeed of anthropology in Europe, does a disservice to our understanding of the dependence of all of us daily on plants and plant-derived products.
A Changing Attitude to Ethnobotany
The recent change in attitudes to ethnobotany unfolds huge opportunities for botanic garden educators. I think there have been four main reasons for this change.
1. Through Evolving Roles of Botanic Gardens
Firstly the re-think of the role of botanic gardens, due to funding pressures, has forced the institutions to justify why they need plant collections and why people need plants. There has also been a spurt of restoring gardens of use, such as Italy's Giardini dei Semplici at Assisi, and recently commercial funding has become available to restore the old Apothecaries Garden in Moscow.
2. Through Publications
Some influential publications have refocused attention on our own heritage and ethnobotany. Richard Mabey's publication and subsequent shortened extracts ‘Flora Britannica’ (1996) and Roy Vickery's ‘Dictionary of Plant-Lore’ (1995) were really the first comprehensive ethnobotanical studies of the British flora. Their release has spawned organisations such as Ethnomedica, a group that looks at British medical herb usage.
3. Through Immigration
Many European countries have become multi-ethnic from waves of immigration. This has produced complex societies where plant use has migrated with people and remains preserved, sometimes within urban enclaves.
4. Through International Agreements
The fourth influence on the resurgence of ethnobotany has been the effect of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and Agenda 21. The CBD has increased peoples understanding that knowledge of the use of plants is itself part of biodiversity. It has also produced a ‘new nationalism’ over plant collections which has forced countries to focus on preserving their own flora. Agenda 21 has concentrated attention on the sustainable use of plant products
Direction for Botanic Garden Educators
It may be helpful for educators to portray plant use as multi-layered, with successions of human influence and acculturation. For example, it is remarkable how knowledge of medicinal herbs was lost during England's early industrialisation. It was then re-imported very successfully from North American herbalists (the ‘physiomedicalists’) who recommended many American Indian plants such as Indian tobacco, goldenseal and slippery elm. Modern British herbalists now use many American Indian plants completely unknown and unused in other parts of Europe. It lends a great significance to our bed of North American Indian plants in the Garden of World Medicine at Chelsea Physic!
L'ethnobotanique ne concerne pas seulement l'utilisation des plantes sous les tropiques par les peuples indigènes. C'est une discipline qui traite aussi de notre dépendance quotidienne des plantes.
La etnobotánica no trata sólo del uso que los indígenas de los trópicos daban a las plantas, sino también de nuestra dependencia, hoy por hoy, de las plantas. La Convención sobre la Diversidad Biológica y la Agenda 21 han traído un nuevo orgullo al patrimonio biológico nacional, y el conocimiento y la viabilidad de sus usos por los consumidores son temas relevantes en la enseñanza de la etnobotánica. Se anima a los educadores a que reconecten a la gente con las plantas a través de las colecciones de productos, su presentación y las propias plantas vivas, y mediante la exploración del uso de la propia flora europea, además del rico patrimonio de uso de las plantas que han traído las comunidades de inmigrantes, que a menudo se concentra en las áreas urbanas, con lo que se le conoce como Etnobotánica urbana.
About the Author
Sue Minter is the Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, 66 Royal Hospital Road, London SW34HS UK. Tel: (44) 20 7352 5646 Fax: (44) 20 7376 3910.
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