Ethnobotanists aim to document, describe and explain complex relationships between cultures and (uses of) plants, focusing primarily on how plants are used, managed and perceived across human societies. This includes use for food, clothing, currency, ritual, medicine, dye, construction, cosmetics and a lot more. Richard Evans Schultes, called the "father of ethnobotany", explained the discipline in this way:
Ethnobotany simply means [...] investigating plants used by primitive societies in various parts of the world.
Roots of ethnobotany
Though the term "ethnobotany" was not coined until 1895 by the US botanist John William Harshberger, the history of the field begins long before that. Pythagoreanism, which originated in 500 BC included a refusal to eat beans, perhaps because of the human relationship of the beans through matter. While possibly related to the condition known as favism, it is more likely because of magical thinking, and a contemporary belief that beans and humans originated from the same matter, or because of the beans shape bearing similarity to detain human organs in shape. Theophrastus the father of botany wrote of plants and people's usage of them in his works. In A.D. 77, the Greek surgeon Pedanius Dioscorides published De Materia Medica, which was a catalog of about 600 plants in the Mediterranean. It also included information on how the plants were used, especially for medicinal purposes. This illustrated herbal publication contained information on how and when each plant was gathered, whether or not it was poisonous, its actual use, and whether or not it was edible (it even provided recipes). Dioscorides stressed the economic potential of plants. For generations, scholars learned from this herbal publication, but did not commonly venture into the field until after the Middle Ages due to the Inquisition.
Medieval and Renaissance ethnobotany
During the medieval period, ethnobotanical studies were commonly found connected with monasticism. Notable at this time was Hildegard von Bingen. However, most botanical knowledge was kept in gardens such as physic gardens attached to hospitals and religious buildings. It was thought of in practical use terms for culinary and medical purposes and the ethnographic element was not studied as a modern anthropologist might approach ethnobotany today.
In 1542, Leonhart Fuchs, a Renaissance botanist and medic, led the way back into field research. His "De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes" cataloged 400 plants native to Germany and Austria and had employed artists to directly illustrate the plants he had collected, rather than using illustrations derived from others' work, as had been common until this time.
The Age of Reason
John Ray (1686–1704) provided the first definition of "species" in his "Historia Plantarum": a species is a set of individuals who give rise through reproduction to new individuals similar to themselves. In 1753 Carl Linnaeus published "Species Plantarum", which included information on about 5,900 plants. Linnaeus is famous for inventing the binomial method of nomenclature, in which all species get a two-part name (genus, species). But he also carried out in 1832 a research expedition in Scandinavia asking the Sami people about their ethnological usage of plants.
The age of enlightenment saw a rise in economic botanical exploration. Alexander von Humboldt collected data from the New World, and James Cook's voyages brought back collections and information on plants from the South Pacific. At this time major botanical gardens were started, for instance the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 1759. The directors of the gardens sent out gardener-botanist explorers to care for and collect plants to add to their collections.
As the 18th century became the 19th ethnobotany saw expeditions undertaken with more colonial aims rather than trade economics such as that of Lewis and Clarke which recorded both plants and the peoples encountered use of them. Edward Palmer collected material culture artifacts and botanical specimens from people in the North American West (Great Basin) and Mexico from the 1860s to the 1890s. Through all of this research, the field of "aboriginal botany" was established — the study of all forms of the vegetable world which aboriginal peoples use for food, medicine, textiles, ornaments and more.
Ethnobotany as a modern science
The first individual to study the emic perspective of the plant world was a German physician working in Sarajevo at the end of 19th century: Leopold Glueck. His published work on traditional medical uses of plants done by rural people in Bosnia (1896) has to be considered the first modern ethnobotanical work. The term "ethnobotany" was first used by a botanist named John W. Harshberger in 1895 while he was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.
Other scholars analyzed uses of plants under an indigenous/local perspective in the 20th century: Matilda Coxe Stevenson, Zuni plants (1915); Frank Cushing, Zuni foods (1920); Keewaydinoquay Peschel, Anishinaabe fungi (1998), and the team approach of Wilfred Robbins, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Freire-Marreco, Tewa pueblo plants (1916).
In the beginning, ethonobotanical specimens and studies were not very reliable and sometimes not helpful. This is because the botanists and the anthropologists did not always collaborate in their work. The botanists focused on identifying species and how the plants were used instead of concentrating upon how plants fit into people's lives. On the other hand, anthropologists were interested in the cultural role of plants and treated other scientific aspects superficially. In the early 20th century, botanists and anthropologists better collaborated and the collection of reliable, detailed cross-disciplinary data began.
Beginning in the 20th century, the field of ethnobotany experienced a shift from the raw compilation of data to a greater methodological and conceptual reorientation. This is also the beginning of academic ethnobotany. The so-called "father" of this discipline is Richard Evans Schultes, even though he did not actually coin the term "ethnobotany". Today the field of ethnobotany requires a variety of skills: botanical training for the identification and preservation of plant specimens; anthropological training to understand the cultural concepts around the perception of plants; linguistic training, at least enough to transcribe local terms and understand native morphology, syntax, and semantics.
Mark Plotkin, who studied at Harvard University, the Yale School of Forestry and Tufts University, has contributed a number of books on ethnobotany. He completed a handbook for the Tirio people of Suriname detailing their medicinal plants; Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice (1994); The Shaman's Apprentice, a children's book with Lynne Cherry (1998); and Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature's Healing Secrets (2000).
Plotkin was interviewed in 1998 by South American Explorer magazine, just after the release of Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice and the IMAX movie Amazonia. In the book, he stated that he saw wisdom in both traditional and Western forms of medicine:
No medical system has all the answers—no shaman that I've worked with has the equivalent of a polio vaccine and no dermatologist that I've been to could cure a fungal infection as effectively (and inexpensively) as some of my Amazonian mentors. It shouldn't be the doctor versus the witch doctor. It should be the best aspects of all medical systems (ayurvedic, herbalism, homeopathic, and so on) combined in a way which makes health care more effective and more affordable for all.
A great deal of information about the traditional uses of plants is still intact with tribal peoples. But the native healers are often reluctant to accurately share their knowledge to outsiders. Schultes actually apprenticed himself to an Amazonian shaman, which involves a long-term commitment and genuine relationship. In Wind in the Blood: Mayan Healing & Chinese Medicine by Garcia et al. the visiting acupuncturists were able to access levels of Mayan medicine that anthropologists could not because they had something to share in exchange. Cherokee medicine priest David Winston describes how his uncle would invent nonsense to satisfy visiting anthropologists.
Another scholar, James W. Herrick, who studied under ethnologist William N. Fenton, in his work Iroquois Medical Ethnobotany (1995) with Dean R. Snow (editor), professor of Anthropology at Penn State, explain that understanding herbal medicines in traditional Iroquois cultures is rooted in a strong and ancient cosmological belief system. Their work provides perceptions and conceptions of illness and imbalances which can manifest in physical forms from benign maladies to serious diseases. It also includes a large compilation of Herrick’s field work from numerous Iroquois authorities of over 450 names, uses, and preparations of plants for various ailments. Traditional Iroquois practitioners had (and have) a sophisticated perspective on the plant world that contrast strikingly with that of modern medical science.
Many instances of gender bias have occurred in ethnobotany, creating the risk of drawing erroneous conclusions. Other issues include ethical concerns regarding interactions with indigenous populations, and the International Society of Ethnobiology has created a code of ethics to guide researchers.
Scientific journals covering ethnobotany
- Latin American and Caribbean Bulletin of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants
- Journal of Ethnobiology
- Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 
- Journal of Ethnopharmacology
- Economic Botany
- Journal of Ethnobotany Research and Applications
- Latin American and Caribbean Bulletin of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants
Organisations and societies
- Society for Economic Botany
- International Society of Ethnobiology
- Society of Ethnobiology
- Institute for Ethnomedicine
- The Random House Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged Edition, Jess Stein ed. in chief, Random House, New York 1966 p. 489
- Acharya, Deepak and Shrivastava Anshu (2008): Indigenous Herbal Medicines: Tribal Formulations and Traditional Herbal Practices, Aavishkar Publishers Distributor, Jaipur, India. ISBN 978-81-7910-252-7. pp 440.
- New York Times on Richard Evans Schultes (obituary)
- Academy of Achievement - Interview with Richard Evans Schultes (1990)
- Soejarto, D.D.; Fong, H.H.S.; Tan, G.T.; Zhang, H.J.; Ma, C.Y.; Franzblau, S.G.; Gyllenhaal, C.; Riley, M.C.; Kadushin, M.R.; Pezzuto, J.M.; Xuan, L.T.; Hiep, N.T.; Hung, N.V.; Vu, B.M.; Loc, P.K.; Dac, L.X.; Binh, L.T.; Chien, N.Q.; Hai, N.V.; Bich, T.Q.; Cuong, N.M.; Southavong, B.; Sydara, K.; Bouamanivong, S.; Ly, H.M.; Thuy, T.V.; Rose, W.C.; Dietzman, G.R. (2005). "Ethnobotany/ethnopharmacology and mass bioprospecting: Issues on intellectual property and benefit-sharing" (PDF). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 100 (1–2): 15–22. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2005.05.031.
- "The Shaman's Apprentice" (PDF). Retrieved February 16, 2013. South American Explorer, Autumn 1988[dead link]
- Sood, S.K., Nath, R. and Kalia, D.C. 2001. Ethnobotany of Cold Desert Tribes of Lahoul-Spiti (N.W. Himalaya). Deep Publications, New Delhi.
- Wind in the Blood: Mayan Healing and Chinese Medicine, by Hernan Garcia, Antonio Sierra, Hilberto Balam, and Jeff Connant
- Herrick, J. W. (1995). Iroquois Medical Botany. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
- Gender Bias in Ethnobotany: Propositions and Evidence of a Distorted Science and Promises of a Brighter Future. Howard, Patricia. In: Proceedings of the International Society of Ethnobiology 9th International Congress and Society for Economic Botany 45th Annual Meeting: Panel 12. Gender issues in ethnobotanical and ethnobiological research and related development practice, 13th-17th June, 2004, University of Kent, Canterbury. University of Kent, Department of Anthropology
- Howard, P. Gender bias in ethnobotany — a legacy and process. 2013 Annual Meeting of the Society for Economic Botany, held in Plymouth, England
- Jeanine, M. Pfeiffer; Ramona, J. Butz. "Assessing Cultural And Ecological Variation In Ethnobiological Research: The Importance Of Gender" (PDF). Journal of Ethnobiology 25 (2): 240–278. doi:10.2993/0278-0771(2005)25[240:ACAEVI]2.0.CO;2.
- International Society of Ethnobiology Code of Ethics
- "Before Warm Springs Dam: History of Lake Sonoma Area" This California study has information about one of the first ethnobotanical mitigation projects undertaken in the USA.
- Grow Your Own Drugs, a BBC 2 Programme presented by ethnobotanist James Wong.
- Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases
- Ethnobotanical Database of Bangladesh (EDB)
- Native American Ethnobotany
- Websites on ethnobotany and plants
- Howard P. The Major Importance of ‘Minor’ Resources: Women and plant biodiversity. 2003