Yucca Blossom Fritters

Eating Nettles

Soap and Food from Soaproot

Herbal Medicine for Colds / Influenza

MSSF Fungus Fair (gallery of Bay Area mushrooms with ID and habitat tags)

Winter Foraging

Oyster Mushroom Gathering

The Useful California Bay Laurel Tree

Herbal Medicine for Broken Bones

Santa Barbara Sedge Baskets

Amanita muscaria – Fly Agaric is Edible if Parboiled and Drained!


Ethnobotany, the study of people-plant (plus algae, lichens, and fungi) relationships, has been practiced since ancient times, generally in the form of reports of uses of plants from travelers to distant areas (e.g. Herodotus’ Histories). A first modern ethnobotanical work was on California by Stephen Powers (1877), who called the field “aboriginal botany,” just before Harshberger (1896) coined the term ethnobotany (Anderson 2011). In the 1950’s, the new ethnographical approach of using analysis of the plant naming systems to understand the point of view of the natives, who usually name plants very descriptively (Anderson 2011). Ethically, ethnobotanists are expected to gain permission from the local group before beginning research, have the research fully understood by the local group, work in the local language, and express plants in the local language in addition to scientific names (Anderson 2011).

Distinct studies range from basketry, textiles, dyes, medicines, hallucinogens, and food (Anderson 2011). Paleoethnobotany is studied with sieving, flotation, pollen identification, DNA analysis, and other methods to determine plants and their uses by paleoindians at archeological sites (Anderson 2011). Ethnobotany is practiced especially by botanists, anthropologists, archeologists, American Indians, and botanical gardens (Anderson 2011). Ethnobotanists work at universities, with communities, government, international agencies, and non-governmental organizations (Nolan and Turner 2011). The Journal of Economic Botany has historically been a venue for ethnobotanical publications, and now a variety of professional ethnobotanical organizations and journals exist. Related fields include taxonomy, ecology, plant chemistry, medicine, sustainability, and conservation (Nolan and Turner 2011).

Many ethnobotanists want to help traditional cultures preserve their ethnobotanical knowledge, and protect them from the many modern influences shifting ways of living, but the variety of approaches and goals of ethnobotanists is wide (Nolan and Turner 2011). Bioprospecting is the searching for medicinal or useful plants by ethnobotanists to report back to their institution the most profitable species (Nolan and Turner 2011). Depending on the motivation, this may be a good or bad thing, considering examples like the rubber tree exploitation of the Amazon and the discovery of the cancer-curing rosy periwinkle. An important recent synthetic finding of Ethnobotanists is that regions of high biological diversity strongly correlate with regions of highest linguistic and cultural diversity (Carlson and Maffi 2004, Nolan and Turner 2011).

Anderson, E. N. Ethnobiology: overview of a growing field. In Anderson, E. N., D. M. Pearsall, E. S. Hunn, and N. J. Turner (eds.). 2011. Ethnobiology. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, NJ.

Carlson, T. and L. Maffi (eds.). 2004. Ethnobotany and conservation of biocultural diversity. Advances in economic botany Vol. 15. Botanical Garden Press, New York, NY.

Harshberger, J. W. 1896. The purposes of ethno-botany. Botanical Gazette 21(3): 146-154.

Nolan, J. M. and N. J. Turner. Ethnobotany: the study of people-plant relationships. In Anderson, E. N., D. M. Pearsall, E. S. Hunn, and N. J. Turner (eds.). 2011. Ethnobiology. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, NJ.

Powers, S. 1877. Tribes of California. Government Printing Office, Washington.

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