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The Resurgence of Ethnobotany in Europe

Volume 1 Number 19 - December 1999

Sue Minter





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.

In addition, it does not fully reflect the situation in Europe where there has been more research undertaken than people initially realise.  Current work is listed in the BGCI Directory of Botanic Gardens Medicinal Plant Collections where 19 out of 25 French botanic gardens and institutes are undertaking ethnobotanical research, 14 German, 11 out of the 12 Italian, 7 out of 8 Dutch, all 11 Spanish and all 18 Swiss institutes, with virtually all institutes in Eastern Europe so listed.  In the past Linnaeus, for example, who is best known as a systematic botanist, started life as an ethnobotanist with a particular interest in Lapland!

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.

Educational Opportunities Using Museums

Justifying plant collections has led to a concern, with the use of plants historically as well as the contemporary use, and has resulted in the creation of museums of products.  One example is the superb ethnobotanical museum halls of the Jardin Botánico de Córdoba in Spain.  In addition, and more recently, the award-winning restoration of the Museum No 1 at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which was originally designed as a Victorian museum of economic botany, is now a successful mix of classic cased collections and themed interactive exhibits.  

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.

 Educational Opportunities with Communities

Urban ethnobotany remains a rich seam to be tapped by educators.  Recently, Chelsea Physic Garden has developed a programme to study the use of plants by Moroccan women in North Kensington, re-affirming their sense of identity and self-respect in conjunction with the Al-Hasaniya Moroccan Women’s Centre.  Similarly, at Chelsea the Garden of World Medicine features usage by the Chinese (Traditional Chinese Medicine use is particularly strong in the UK) and by the Hindu.  It also, quite deliberately, covers the British ethnomedical heritage of the herbalists Gerard, Culpeper and Turner.


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

Educational Opportunities Through Science and Conservation Work

RBG Kew has undertaken to preserve the entire British flora in its Millennium Seed Bank as well as the arid land flora of other countries.  This is a new focus for an institution traditionally concerned with foreign flora.  It also has a very strong economic botany focus under Dr Hew Prendergast within which there is an Authentication Centre for Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine focusing on the use of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Britain today.  Education and interpretation will play a large role in the Millennium Seed Bank.


Educational Opportunities Focusing on Consumers

Agenda 21 has concentrated attention on the sustainable use of plant products which enables educators to address the botanic garden visitor as a consumer.  In urban gardens this can often mean simply reconnecting people with the source of products they consume, for example by the use of product packaging.  Inevitably this leads to discussion about the knowledge of plant use and trade and supply issues.  For example, at Chelsea the guides regularly use pharmaceutical and perfumery packaging in guided tours.  Another example is the European Union which is a net importer of medicinal herbs and relies very heavily on cultivators and wild collectors in the countries of Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation.  This trade is based on the ethnobotanical knowledge of European cultures and botanic gardens are likely to have a market of green consumers open to information about issues of conservation and supply in today's world.

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!

The resurgence of ethnobotany in Europe provides many opportunities for botanic gardens and their educators.  These opportunities range from the establishment of ethnobotanical museums, community partnerships with cultural groups and activities focussing on the sustainable use of plant products addressing recommendations in international agreements.  Educators are encouraged to help visitors make the connection between themselves and plants with the aim of increasing understanding of the daily dependence of all of us on plants and plant derived products.


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.

Grâce à la Convention sur la Biodiversité et l'Agenda 21 le respect de chaque patrimoine biologique national et la connaissance de son emploi se sont améliorés, une meilleure utilisation durable par les consommateurs développée.  Ces enjeux sont des thèmes appropriées à l'enseignement de l'ethnobotanique.

Les éducateurs sont encouragés à recréer les liens entre les populations et l'usage des plantes, via des collections de produits végétaux et de plantes vivantes.  Une méthode complémentaire consiste à rechercher les emplois des plantes de la flore européenne, aussi bien que ceux traditionnels des communautés immigrantes, surtout concentrées dans les zones urbaines.  Ce type d'activités est, à ce titre qualifiée d'ethnobotanique urbaine.


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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