Cinchona specimen from the Economic Botany collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The terms ethnobotany, economic botany, and medical botany all have different meanings, but they are all related:

  • Medical botany is definitely the oldest, arising from the Latin term materia medica, the study of substances used in treating human ailments.
  • Economic botany became a popular term in the 19th century as the scientific study of plant’s useful properties became more tied to business interests, whether to improve breeding of agricultural crops or to find new plant products, which could include, of course, medicine.
  • Ethnobotany is a 20th-century term derived from ethnology, the study of particular groups of people and their culture, including their use of plants.  Here again medicinal plants are included.

Recent ethnobotanical research has now moved beyond just searching for medicinal plants. There is now a more holistic approach to indigenous plant knowledge, one closely tied not only to finding useful plants but to saving the biodiversity in an area and its cultural diversity as well. Anthropologists and ethnobotanists working together have discovered a close link between loss of biodiversity and loss of indigenous languages. With the death of language comes an acute loss of knowledge, and research shows that neighboring peoples who have different language traditions are unlikely to share plant knowledge. This makes recording the vernacular names for plants important in field notes and even on herbarium sheets as a way to preserve knowledge.

From early in the history of plant exploration, this information has been unevenly respected. Some botanists were careful to note not only local names but uses for plants, though there were cases where this information was later removed, often when botanists replaced old labels with new ones. Ethnobotanists are now combing herbarium sheets for such records, as leads in seeking out present-day knowledge held by local populations. This knowledge is invaluable and in many cases fading fast since younger generations are often less interested in traditions that might still lead the way forward in environmental conservation. Close observation going on for centuries has resulted in information on plant blooming and fruiting times, plant/animal interactions, and of course, on a host of uses for plant material. Researchers today are helping to document this information with, among other things, herbarium vouchers, to anchor that knowledge to specific information about plants.