Imagine a world where the plants of
the planet are harnessed to help its inhabitants find sustainable
solutions for some of their most pressing needs – clothing,
clean air … clean water. Welcome to planet earth!
Clothing, Food, Housing, Jobs
What is Economic Botany?
Simply put, Economic Botany is the interaction of people with plants. Economic botany is closely related to the field of ethnobotany—that word is based on two Greek roots: ethnos (race: people: cultural
group) and botanikos (of herbs) and can mean the plant lore of
a race or people as well as the study of that lore.
Economic botanists are scientists who study the interactions between
humans and plants. That makes the field of Economic Botany as
far flung and diverse as both the human and plant life on our
planet. Economic botanists study human-plant interactions from
a variety of different angles. These skilled researchers rely
on a variety of disciplines including archeology, sociology, and
ecology in addition to basic botany to help them explain these
interactions and their effects on plants, society and our dynamic
Economic Botany sometimes focuses on the processes as well as the
products involved in plant cultivation. Scientists ask questions
about how knowledge of useful plants is acquired and transmitted
In the South American Andes, potatoes are the staple of many
indigenous diets. Economic botanists are intrigued by the questions
of who first ate this vegetable and why they thought it might
be appetizing and nutritious in spite of the fact that the leaves
and stems of the potato plant are poisonous.
What made these cultures think that there might be something
worthwhile lying beneath the surface? How did they share their
knowledge and with whom?
We can also study how plants are used. In the past this has meant
lists of cultures and their preferred plant sources for food,
clothing, shelter, medicine, ritual or aesthetics. Although there
are roughly 250,000 species of plants divided into 460 families,
we commonly use products from only 300 species in 20 of those
families; just a tiny fraction of what’s available.
Often a single plant will fill more than one function. The coconut palm is
an excellent example of botanical versatility. It is found in cultivation throughout
the tropics where it is known by many names including pokok seribu guna or 'tree
of a thousand uses' in Malay. All parts of the plant are used from the leaves
that are woven into thatch roofs and mats to the delicious fruit and sap right
down to the roots that are processed to treat everything from dysentery to bad
Today, economic botanists continue cataloguing plant uses, but
they also hope to discover new ones by screening for medicines
such as anti-cancer agents or experimenting with ways to improve
current cultivation and make it more sustainable or efficient.
Ecology, Evolution and Systematics
Studies of the evolution of cultivated plants include the processes
of domestication and the relationship between natural and human
selection of specific plant traits. Knowledge of botany is essential
to understanding how domestication may have changed a plant species
over time. In addition, ethnobotanists look for help from such
disciplines as history, archeology and even linguistics to shed
light on this process.
Take maize as an example. Botanically speaking, physical evidence,
including DNA and similar morphology of stems and grains has shown
that maize is related to wild grasses in Central America and Mexico.
This agrees with what history and archeology tell us about how
this crop was first cultivated there as early as 7000 years ago.
The name also gives clues to the crop’s movement across
cultures. Maize is the Spanish version of an Arawak word ma-hiz.
The Spanish first encountered this grain in the Caribbean Islands
and then introduced it to Europe; starting its eventual spread
around the globe.
and Global Trends
The impacts of human activity on the landscape and biological
diversity are also of increasing concern to ethnobotanists. The
effects of human presence can be seen in every ecosystem they
Altering the landscape is not something that only developed agricultural societies
do. Environments that might at first appear untouched and empty may in fact
be carefully managed by their human inhabitants. Prairie and woodland fires
were intentionally set by North American tribes using those areas for hunting
and cultivation. These methods were practiced long before the arrival of European
settlers who started felling trees and tilling fields in areas that seemed,
to them, pristine and unclaimed.
While human activities
are sometimes benign or even beneficial they can also create a
burden on the landscape when key systems are disrupted by resource
consumption or the removal of key species by overharvesting. Examples
of negative cycles where overconsumption of natural resources
has led to even worse depletion and decreasing diversity are unfortunately
common. Truffles, a European fungus highly prized as a seasoning,
are becoming increasingly scarce due to over-harvesting in the
wild. The market value of truffles keeps rises as they get harder
and harder to find which makes the truffle hunters work harder
to find the few available ones. This leaves even fewer fungi to
reproduce and supply the next year’s harvest.
As you can see, the simple definition of Economic Botany barely scratches the
surface of these scientists’ accomplishments. They not only
work among all the people and plant groups on Earth today, they
also look back to past civilizations and forward to future discoveries
and uses for as yet uncultivated or undiscovered species of plants.
Think like an ethnobotanist
Now that you can see what it’s like to be an economic botanist,
try these exercises with other common crop plants. You’ll
be surprised by how much you can easily discover about things
we often take for granted like bread, rubber tires or cotton cloth.
Where was rubber first used?
What was it used for?
When were the first rubber tires invented?
Uses of Plants
What other plants have multiple uses?
Which would you consider the most useful?
Ecology, Evolution and the Environment
Consider the Botany of wheat. How does it differ from other grasses?
What about the history of coffee can help us understand it's importance today.
Consider the name chocolate. What does it tell us about the origins of the plant
Landscapes and Global Trends
How will the pressures of increasing populations and the need
for more and more natural resources affect the landscape?
Can there be a balance between modern humanity’s needs
and available natural resources that will prove sustainable for
Links to other Economic Botany websites
Purdue University Center for New Crops and Plant Products
Society for Economic Botany
Economic Botany at the Field Museum
William L. Brown Center for Plant Genetic Resources
Economic Botany at Kew
US National Arboretum
Economic Botany Education Links
New York Botanical Gardens
CGIAR Research and Impact
Dr. Joseph Armstrong
Rubber tapping - http://www.bio.ilstu.edu/Armstrong/syllabi/rubber/rubber.htm
Rice paper - http://www.bio.ilstu.edu/Armstrong/syllabi/rpaper/paper.htm
Cassava - http://www.bio.ilstu.edu/Armstrong/syllabi/cassava/cassava.htm
Coconut fiber - http://www.bio.ilstu.edu/Armstrong/syllabi/coir/coir.htm
Silk - http://www.bio.ilstu.edu/Armstrong/syllabi/silk/SILK.htm
Chili pepper heat scale - http://www.bio.ilstu.edu/Armstrong/syllabi/chilipepper/heatscale.htm