Weaving Together Plant Humanities and Ethnobotany in the Future

From The Ethnobotanical Assembly, Issue 8

This series of posts is about the future of plant studies in the broadest sense.  In the first and third posts, I looked at Mason Heberling’s work on the future of herbaria, particularly in relation to plant trait research.  Between them, I wrote a post on an issue of The Ethnobotanical Assembly or T.E.A. on the plant humanities.  Several of its articles deal directly or indirectly with plant collections.  In their essay, the issue’s editors, Felix Driver and  Caroline Cornish of the University of London, include a diagram with Plant Humanities at the center of a wheel (see above) with spokes that include health, creative arts, culture, landscapes, stories, plant matter, which includes biocultural (economic botany) collections, and plant thinking, the idea that plants are sentient beings that should not be dismissed as “lower” forms of life but rather as different and equally interesting forms as animals, including humans. 

Herbaria and biocultural or economic botany collections are where many of these themes can be explored.  Author of The Plant Hunter (2021) Cassandra Quave is herbarium director and associate professor at Emory University.  She has been intrigued by the medicinal uses of plants since her college days and writes of one example of why she finds working with indigenous practitioners so important.  In another T.E.A. article called “The Herbarium as a Workshop,” Luciana Martins, a cultural historian, and Lindsay Sekulowicz, an artist, describe their collaboration on an exhibit at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew entitled Plantae Amazonicae.  They worked in both the Kew herbarium and its economic botany department on collections from the Amazon region made by the 19th-century British botanist Richard Spruce.  They uncovered many interesting items used in the display, and Sekulowicz also created several artworks that commented on the collection.  These included a drawing done in ink made from pigments in the arils of seeds from the achiote shrub Bixa orellana, native to Amazonia.  Their collaboration is a beautiful example of how botanical history, indigenous culture, and art can be interwoven under the plant humanities umbrella. 

Another example of several themes tightly interwoven are found in Steeve Buckridge’s article on Jamaican lacebark from the tree Lagetta lagetto.  The species is native to the Caribbean and its inner bark has a net-like structure that made is useful as cloth.  It was employed by enslaved people who had little access to woven cloth for apparel.  It was also made into lacey decorative items that were popular among the upper classes and ultimately with tourists.  Many herbaria with biocultural collections have examples of collars, fans, and other items made from the lacebark.  But Buckridge digs deeper into the story and finds that there were multiple uses for the inner bark including twisting it into rope or weaving it to make baskets and hammocks.  The enslaved were sometimes flogged with whips made from strips of bark, so there was a dark side to its products as well.  Finally the bark had medicinal properties such as easing joint pain and healing damaged skin. 

Buckridge’s insights make a collection of objects come alive, enriched by the stories adhering to them.  His article is a good example of what can be revealed about items that are sometimes considered little more than oddities in a botanical collection.  Linking them to stories and the spokes of Cornish and Driver’s plant humanities wheel emphasize their cultural value.  This is also the theme of Mark Nesbitt’s article “Repurposing Economic Botany for the Twenty-First Century.”   Nesbitt is curator of the Economic Botany Collection at Kew and has written extensively on it and on the significance of what he terms biocultural collections in general (Nesbitt, 2014).  He reviews the history of Kew’s collection that dates back to the time of Joseph Banks and by 1910 was spread over four museum buildings, including two housing wood specimens and products.  However, as interest in the field dwindled along with Britain’s colonial empire on which it was built, the public displays became smaller and smaller.  Today, they are reduced to a few display cases in a café housed in one of the former museum buildings. 

However, the collection itself is alive and well, stored in a facility built at Kew in the 1980s, and the number of items has actually grown by a quarter under Nesbitt’s curatorship.  It is now being used in many ways, as evidenced by several articles in this T.E.A. issue.  Almost all this work involves crossing disciplinary boundaries, and Nesbitt makes the point that there are various levels to these connections.  He quotes work by the curator Henriette Pleiger who distinguishes among the concepts of multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinarity.  Multidisciplinary work is the most superficial and informal, perhaps one or more meetings among those with different expertise.  Interdisciplinary research is more interactive, long-term, and organized; it is usually more fruitful.  Nesbitt sees much of the work of the Economic Botany program at Kew as in this vein.  Finally, transdisciplinary work describes projects that seek disciplinary synthesis.  He considers this a possibility that might arise out of work Kew is doing with indigenous people in Amazonia to acquaint them with the items Richard Spruce collected in Brazil and to learn from them how these objects relate to their lived experience and history.  This seems a hopeful idea that can arise from digging deeply into biocultural collections with peoples to wh they are tied. 


Nesbitt, M. (2014). Use of Herbarium Specimens in Ethnobotany. In J. Salick, K. Konchar, & M. Nesbitt (Eds.), Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (pp. 313–328). Richmond, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Quave, C. L. (2021). Plant Hunter. New York: Penguin.

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