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Economic botany is the study of the relationship between people (individuals and cultures) and plants. Economic botany intersects many fields including established disciplines such as agronomy, anthropology, archaeology, chemistry, economics, ethnobotany, ethnology, forestry, genetic resources, geography, geology, horticulture, medicine, microbiology, nutrition, pharmacognosy, and pharmacology. This link between botany and anthropology explores the ways humans use plants for food, shelter, medicines, textiles, and more.
In a 1958 essay at the conference that founded the Society for Economic Botany, David J. Rogers wrote, "A current viewpoint is that economic botany should concern itself with basic botanical, phytochemical and ethnological studies of plants known to be useful or those which may have potential uses so far underdeveloped. Economic botany is, then, a composite of those sciences working specifically with plants of importance to [people]." Closely allied with economic botany is ethnobotany, which emphasizes plants in the context of anthropology.
Botany itself came about through medicine and the development of herbal remedies. Thus at its advent, botany was economic as well as systematic. As plants became useful for herbals and curatives, their economic value increased. An early set of instructions drawn up by a cosmographer of Charles the fifth instructed explorers to
"determine what are the items of sustenance of the land and which ones are generally used, whether fruits or seeds, and all manner of spices, drugs, or whatever other scents, and find out the time in which one can reproduce the trees, plants, herbs, and fruits that these parts offer, and if the natives use them for medicines, as we do."
Teosinte and rice are two examples of plants modified so that their economic values would increase.
The teosintes are grasses of the genus Zea. Native Americans bred and selected teosinte for the traits we see in corn today (large ears, multiple rows of kernels). The first ears of maize were very short, with only 8 rows of kernels. Modern corn is the result of several thousand generations of selective breeding. Modern corn is incapable of reproducing without human help; the kernels will stay firmly attached to the cob and rot. This doesn't represent a useful adaptation for the species, but is excellent for harvesting and transporting corn.
Rice was first domesticated approximately 5,000 years ago, in Southeast Asia. Rice and American wild rice are believed to have been domesticated separately. Rice variants have been adapted to the tropics where they provide a grain staple, but rice can be grown almost anywhere. The introduction of dwarf rice variants made several rice-producing countries self-sufficient. Rice is suited to countries with high rainfall.
Economically important food plants
Plants that humans use for food are of high economic importance. Research into food plants generally involves increasing the size of the edible plant organ in question, or increasing the areas where the plant can be grown, and less frequently, finding new crop species. Results of such research are often published in the journal Economic Botany. The New Zealand-based Plant & Food Research publishes its own journal on cultivar development and sustainable production systems for high quality produce, and the design and development of new and novel functional foods.
Citrus has been a major commercial product in Florida since the 19th century. Florida produces over 70% of the U.S. citrus supply. The color of oranges is not related to ripening, but is a serious component for sales. The orange color only develops in areas with cool nighttime temperatures. In tropical climates, growers often expose the fruit to ethylene, to promote the loss of chlorophyll and expose the beta-carotenes (the orange color).
North American apples
Apples are not native to North America, but today the North American continent boasts the greatest diversity of apples in the world. Part of this is due to "Johnny Appleseed," real name John Chapman. Chapman spent 48 years travelling all along the American northwest spreading apple seeds and planting trees. While apples come in literally thousands of varieties, the majority of the apple market is based on three: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith. The Red Delicious is the ideal apple, for marketing purposes, for the apple industry. Its large, intensely red, and instantly recognizable.
Economically valuable medicinal plants
Medical research in the U.S. alone has a budget of $95 billion. A large portion of that money is spent on research into plants and plant extracts. Several key medical discoveries have been made by studying plants and the compounds they produce, to see the effect they have on humans.
The Ephedra plant is the natural source of ephedrine, the plant's principal alkaloid. Ephedrine is actually a very interesting case of economic botany in medicine. Ephedrine imitates epinephrine in its effect on the human body. While it has medicinal uses, ephedrine can be highly toxic. Because of this fact, medical researchers studied the compound and produced pseudoephedrine, which is used in over-the-counter medications and in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine.
One of many herbal remedies out there, Echinacea represents a sizable industry. Many people take echinacea for cold and flu-like symptoms, but studies show that the plant has had mixed success fighting these viruses. However, those same studies show the plant possibly being useful for the treatment of upper respiratory infections. NCCAM is currently studying echinacea for the treatment of upper respiratory infections as well as its effect on the immune system.
Ornamental plants can be found in almost any store, and many people have at least one in their home. However, ornamental plants are not limited to houseplants. Landscaping agencies make heavy use of ornamental plants, usually with an accompanying high cost. Trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses, all of these are planted by professional landscaping agencies regularly, with a large economic effect.
- The Society for Economic Botany
- "Focus: Economic Botany". The Field Museum. Retrieved September 29, 2014.
- Arber, A. 1928. Herbals, Their Origin and Evolution: a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470–1670. 2nd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, England.
- Steele, A. R. 1964. Flowers for the King: the Expidetion of Ruiz and Pavon and the Flora of Peru. Duke Univ. Press, Durham, NC.
- Levetin, Estelle, and McMahon, Karen. 2008. Plants and Society. 5th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Publishing Company. 193-199.
- Prindle, Tara (1994), Native American History of Corn, NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art
- Stevens, Mikel, Jeff Maughan, and Rick Jellen. "Domestication of Corn, Rice, Soybean, and Sugarbeet." Living with Plants. July 08 2003. May 2009. <http://pws.byu.edu/pas100/rcssdom.htm>.
- PLANT & FOOD RESEARCH. 2008. PLANT & FOOD RESEARCH. May 2009 .
- Florida Citrus Facts, retrieved 21 June 2016
- Levetin, Estelle, and McMahon, Karen. 2008. Plants and Society. 5th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Publishing Company. 98-99.
- Levetin, Estelle, and McMahon, Karen. 2008. Plants and Society. 5th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Publishing Company. 96-98.
- Jackson, Deb and Karen Bergeron. "Ephedra." Alternative Nature Online Herbal. 2000. May 2009. <http://www.altnature.com/gallery/ephedra.htm>.
- "Echinacea at a glance." The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. February 17 2009. National Institutes of Health. May 2009. <http://nccam.nih.gov/health/echinacea/ataglance.htm>