Word of the Week: Ethnobotany

ethnobotany [eth-noh-bott-n-ee ] noun: the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of different human societies concerning plants and their medical, religious, economic, and other use

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Some universities have departments of ethnobotany, where the uses of plants by various ethnic and indigenous cultures are studied, including how the wood of particular trees is used and whether a plant or a kind of wood or the oil derived from a plant, is regarded as sacred or as having healing properties. Both Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia have departments that study and document the traditional uses of the plants and fungi that grow in the Commonwealth, including their medicinal uses. Traditional crafts and trades also used plant parts, such as the Egyptians using papyrus to make paper and Native Americans using birch bark to make canoes. The practical uses of plant products often have economic value, such as the production of honey, maple syrup, edible mushrooms from fungi, and of course wood.

Gardeners reading about native plants will sometimes find mention of the ethnobotanical uses of a plant in descriptions of its attributes. These may refer to parts of the plant that are edible, or that an insect, such as a honey bee, converts to a food such as honey. Sometimes the ethnobotany refers to traditional medical uses such as the brewing of teas, tisanes, or infusions or making poultices from the leaves, roots, or fruits of a plant. Some modern medications also have their origins in plant materials, though the drugs currently in use may be made synthetically.

A good example of the latter case is the common drug aspirin, whose active ingredient is salicylic acid, a compound found in many plants and trees, including the willow. Ancient Egyptians made infusions from willow bark to relieve aches and pains. Hippocrates, the Greek physician who lived from about 460 to 377 B.C., wrote that willow leaves and bark relieved pain and fevers. Salicylic acid is also present in the shrubby Spiraea genus – hence the name aspirin. Of course it took a few thousand years for medical science to discover that salicylic acid was the key ingredient that lowered fevers and dulled pain.

Taxol, found in the bark of Taxus brevifolia (Pacific yew), is a promising anti-cancer drug. Photo courtesy National Institutes of Health

Today, scientists have isolated the active chemicals from some plants that traditional medical practitioners used. Drug companies manufacture synthetic replicas, which helps prevent plant extinction. Several drugs used in cancer treatment have their origins in plants, including the taxanes, a widely used family of drugs coming from the bark of Pacific yew trees (Taxus brevifolia) which blocks cell division. Another class of chemotherapy drugs is a group of alkaloids derived from Vinca plants. Unfortunately, in the natural health products market, the popularity of traditional herbal medicines, like echinacea and gingseng, as dietary supplements have resulted in the over harvesting and decimation of some wild plant populations.

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