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Traditions and Medicinal Plants: A Valuable Field of Knowledge and a Great Challenge for Science

Contributed by Edelmira Linares, Jardín Botánico del Instituto de Biología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (IB-UNAM) Apartado Postal 70-614, 04510 México, D.F.


In a country like Mexico, city-life is markedly different than country-life. The accelerated urban tempo has influenced the loss of oral traditions; children prefer to watch television rather than listen to their grandparents’ stories. In contrast, life in the country promotes family gatherings and traditions as well as intimate contact with nature from which one constantly learns. Today, in many rural areas, the children still join their parents on trips to the field and assist in the cultivation practices. While they accompany and help their elders, they exchange knowledge and ideas about the plants and animals that surround them.

Mexico is a pluricultural country and, in general, its traditional relationship with nature includes the respect and wise use of the natural resources. The deities associated with natural resoures mark strict cultural patterns equivalent to laws in other social environments. One example are the prayers that proceed the gathering of medicinal plants in Santa Catarina del Monte (a state of Mexico), as well as the ritual incantations that are sung upon cutting the maguey plant as part of making pulque, a fermented beverage based upon the plants’ sweet juices. In general, these rituals request permission from Mother Nature to use the resource and promise to only take what is necessary and appropriate (Figure.1).

The Present Day Situation

To complement the medicinal plant research project (International Cooperative Biodiversity Group), we had the opportunity to develop a workshop on the conservation of dry tropical forests in a rural school in Batopilas, Chihuahua, México. The objective was to motivate the children to care for nature and we designed a series of games, including a memory game of characteristic plants and animals, as part of the workshop. A prototype was developed at the IB-UNAM’s Chamela Biological Station in Jalisco where similar vegetation occurred. Afterwards, the participating students were asked to draw the important plants and animals of their community. Among the findings were:

  • Children from the third through to sixth grade (9 to12 years of age) who accompanied their parents into the forest knew the wild plants and animals whereas the younger children did not.
  • In contrast, the children from first and second grade (7 to 8 years of age) knew the domestic plants and animals that were normally present in the corrals and home gardens.
  • In general, the children paid more attention to the animals than to the plants.
  • Of the plants mentioned, the edible species were more frequently mentioned and were followed by medicinal plants.

Based upon the experience in Batopilas, medicinal plants were found to be one of the elements of traditional knowledge that is maintained. Perhaps the daily use of herbal remedies has reinforced the importance of these plants in many areas of Mexico where permanent medical attention is not available or where their use complements institutional medicine. Nonetheless, our studies carried out in different parts of Mexico indicated that the knowledge of grandparents’ was being lost and many of the younger generation were not interested in carrying on the traditions because they regarded them as old-fashioned.

Based upon these considerations, various Mexican botanical gardens have developed programmes to recover ethnobotanical knowledge including aspects of edible plants, plants used in construction, vegetable dyes and, above all, medicinal plants. This type of research has enriched educational programmes within the botanical gardens at the local level as well on a national scale. These experiences have supported other programmes that have gone beyond the limits of the botanical gardens and even have been applied to communities where the original investigation was initiated. Countries which have ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity must assure that such studies are approved by the community and share with them the benefits derived from such knowledge including publications and commercial products.

Actions Carried out at the Botanic Garden IB-UNAM

Over the last 20 years staff from the botanical garden have been documenting the use of medicinal plants in Mexico, especially in markets (Bye and Linares 1983, 1987, 1990; Linares and Bye 1987). These investigations have enriched our living plant collections as well as our educational program inside and outside the botanical garden.

The medicinal plant section within the botanical garden exhibits plants obtained from the field and also thise donated by collaborators. The plants are labelled with ceramic plaques that summarise botanical and ethnobotanical information. Selected medicinal herbs from central Mexico are included on a CD-ROM with the text in Spanish and English, photographs and videos clips. Based upon this electronic medium, a bilingual book was produced in order to accompany the disk as well as make the information available to wider audience (Linares, Bye and Flores 1999). This book has been well received by the public, including traditional healers as well as pharmaceutical researchers looking for active principles. By having the text in English, we hope that appreciation of our traditional knowledge will transcend political boundaries.

For the botanic gardens staff, the area of medicinal plants represents a multidimensional educational field which can support such disciplines ranging from history and geography to biology and civics.

Normally, medicinal plant workshops attract a wide range of people from housewives and teachers to professionals in the medical fields. A recent course targeted spouses of ambassadors from around the world who currently reside in Mexico. The Botanical Garden in collaboration with the Mexican Secretary of Exterior Affairs developed the program not only using the university facilities but also the major medicinal plant market. This course was a new experience for us in that each participant representing a distinct culture not only learned more about Mexican culture but also placed the plants and their uses in the context of each person’s cultural background as well as his/her accumulated worldly experience. Such interaction demonstrated the potential power of plants as a universal medium of communication. For educators in botanical gardens, medicinal plants represent a powerful tool for providing precise, clear and attractive information that promotes the message of the importance of plants in our daily lives.

In Mexico, medicinal plant markets are a laboratory that allows us to know more about the Mexican flora. The Sonora Market in Mexico City sells over 400 species daily. It is one of the most important commercial centres of vegetal remedies that promotes the exchange of knowledge between sellers and buyers. Our research in such a dynamic environment generated ethnobotanical information that enriched our botanical garden’s educational programmes.

Programmes Oriented Towards Teachers

An important aspect of our programmes is oriented towards the formation of botanical information multiplicators such as school teachers. Our botanical garden has developed a special training program for high school teachers. This program focuses on the relationships between plants and people based upon historical references, field work, contemporary literature and recent scientific discoveries. In addition, class exercises with plants in the botanical garden are carried out in order to motivate the teachers to return and incorporate the living collections as part of a living laboratory. In this manner, the teachers are prepared to supervise their own class activities with familiar material and to awaken the interest for plants in their students who are invited to return to the botanical garden (Table 1). As a requirement for completing this course, each teacher designs a class exercise on one of the course’s theme of his/her choice so that it can be implemented when his class visits the garden.


The knowledge of traditional plant use is a valuable tool for developing the different public sectors’ awareness of the importance of plants in their lives as well as the impact that plants have made in human history. The first step to appreciate plants is the development of knowledge and subsequent sustainable use of vegetal resources. In this manner, we can promote the conservation of the natural resources, especially medicinal plants. If we can motivate people in this way, their increasing knowledge will activate positive attitudes, customs and changes in our lives in a permanent and lasting fashion. In order that our efforts yield products at a larger scale, it is fundamental to stimulate individuals who can act as multiplicators of the importance of plants in our lives.


I would like to thank R. Bye for the opportunity to collaborate in the research projects under his responsibility which has given me the opportunity to visit and work in various rural communities. Also, I thank my colleagues of the Area of Dissemination and Education of the Botanical Garden (Tedolinda Balcázar, Elia Herrera, Carmen Cecilia Hernández and Luz María Rangel) for their collaboration over the years in the design of programmes and the organisation of workshops and courses mentioned above. Financial support, in part, for the programmes discussed has been provided by Instituto de Biología and Dirección General de Asuntos del Personal Académico (DGAPA) of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group: Bioactive Agents from Dryland Plants of Latin America (Grant UO1 TW 00316 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).


Bye, R. and Linares, E. (1983) The Role of Plants Found in the Mexican Markets and their Importance in Ethnobotanical Studies. Journal of Ethnobiology 3(1) pp1-13.
Linares, E. and Bye, R. (1987) A Study of Four Medicinal Plant Complexes of Northern México and Adjacent United States. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 19 pp153-183.
Bye, R. and Linares, E. (1987) Usos Pasados y Presentes de Cuatro Plantas Medicinales. América Indígena 47(2) pp199-230.
Bye, R. and Linares, E. (1990) Mexican Market Plants of the 16th century. I. Plants recorded in Historia Natural de Nueva España. Journal of Ethnobiology 10(2) pp151-168.
Linares, E., Bye, R., and Flores, B. (1999) Medicinal Plants of Mexico: Traditional Uses and Remedies. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Sistemas de Información Geográfica. México p155.

Table 1: Know and Use the Botanical Garden as a Teaching Resource - A course carried out at the IB-UNAM Botanical Garden*

Themes included:

  • Century-plants and their use
  • Trees of the botanical garden
  • Cacti and their propagation
  • Orchids and their maintenance
  • Useful plants and domestication
  • Titles of some class exercises developed by the teachers:
  • The importance of the study of biological diversity in the plant kingdom
  • Visit to the Botanical Garden
  • Describe and observe the cycads in the greenhouse
  • Guess who I am, where I live, and what I am good for
  • The botanical garden in support of the study of medicinal plants
  • Cultivate and propagate cactus seeds
  • Know the trees of the botanical garden
  • Adaptations of plants in arid zones
  • Shall I introduce you to some beauties?... the orchids
  • Developing a dichotomous identification key
  • Diversity and ecology in the botanical garden
  • Ecological walkway in the botanical garden
  • Rally in the botanical garden

*this course was coordinated in collaboration with Carmen Cecilia Hernández

Figure 1. Sebastiana Clavijo (from Santa Catarina del Monte, State of México, México) has dedicated the maguey plant in preparation for the extraction of its sap, which is fermented and drunk as a traditional berberage called pulque. Before she sacrifices the Agave she asked permission to the spirits of the forest to utilize this necessary plant.