What is Ethnobotany? A definition and a short introduction to Ethnobotany

by Peter Giovannini

The term Ethnobotany comes from the greek word Ethnos, which means 'people', and Botane which means 'herb', so literally it would be translated as 'the study of people and herbs', which usually is generalized as 'the study of people and plants' . it was coined in 1895 by American taxonomic botanist John W. Harshberger as 'the study of the utilitarian relationship between human beings and vegetation in their environment, including medicinal uses' (Harshberger, 1896).

A sister disciplines of Ethnobotany is Economic Botany. While the definition of the two disciplines is often the same, the main difference is that ethnobotany is more concerned in understanding and taking in account local viewpoint and perceptions rather then only the scientific viewpoint. What is often referred in academic literature as the distinction between the emic and the etic viewpoint.

While the study of how plants are used dates back to centuries -for example - the many medical herbal compiled in human history can be considered ethnobotanical work, the founding father of Ethnobotany as an academic discipline is considered Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001) . Schultes, an Harvard trained botanist, spent years documenting the indigenous use of plants in the Americas especially in the Amazon and was the mentor of many other scholars who have since contributed to the discipline.

Until the first half of the 20th century, Ethnobotany was a merely descriptive endeavour and ethnobotanists were compiling long list of plant species and descriptions of their uses. However, in the last fifty years the discipline has become more analytical and ethnobotanists are now contributing to answer theoretical questions. For example, there are studies that look at how human people across cultures classify plants as a method to study human cognitive processes such as categorization and classification (Berlin et al., 1973).

Along with an increasing acknowledgement that there is a link between cultural and biological diversity on the planet, what is now referred as biocultural diversity , Ethnobotany has also become increasingly important in applied conservation projects that take in account both social and environmental aspects, i.e. both biodiversity and people (Terralingua, 2010).

Ethnobotanists can have different trainings and using a wide array of qualitative and quantitative methods from several discipline according to which particular area of research they focus. Indeed, a feature of the discipline is that it is very inter-disciplinary borrowing theory and methods from - among others- : Anthropology, Linguistics, Botany, Ecology, Nutrition Studies, and Phytochemistry.

A common methodology is the preparation and identification of herbarium plant specimens which allows the scientist to link unambiguously the vernacular name of the plants with the correct scientific Latin name. Another trademark of the discipline is that data is commonly collected during fieldwork, traditionally carried out in rural areas. However, recently ethnobotanical research focus has extended to urban areas. For example, some ethnobotanists have carried out research on how Dominican migrants use medicinal plants in New York (Balick et al., 2000).


Berlin B. et al. 1973. General principles of classification and nomenclature in folk biology. American Anthropologist. 75:214-242.

Balick M. et al. 2000. Medicinal plants used by latino healers for women's health conditions in New York City . Economic Botany 54(3):344-357.

Harshberger, J.W., 1896. The purpose of ethnobotany. Bot. Gaz., 21: 146-158.

Terralingua, 2010. Terralingua website: http://www.terralingua.org/html/home.html