The ethnobotanist is a sub-species of the genus known as botanist and almost as rare among the wider scientific family. A cross between an anthropologist and a botanist, the term is apparently an Americanism and applies to those who seek knowledge of plant lore from those with the knowledge.
The conservation of traditional knowledge is an essential element in ecological restoration and habitat management. Without it our knowledge of useful plants would be lost, because plant lore has always been an oral tradition. In this moment the world needs botanists and ethnobotanists more than it needs bureaucrats and politicians. Useful plants projects have proliferated in recent decades and I would guess you have never heard of them. If you were an eco-warrior during the 1990s you might have known about the Plants For A Future project, a scary scenario that confused several people. Why do we need plants for the future?
Well here we are, we are in the future and we desperately need to know which plants will withstand environmental changes, which plants will survive droughts and floods, which plants will grow in extreme climatic conditions and which plants will provide food and material security.
So we are going to start with the story of a plant that can do all that and much more, the legendary Abyssinian banana known to biologists, botanists and ethnobotanists as the enset – the tree against hunger! A native of eastern and southern Africa, the enset was domesticated around 5,000 years ago in Ethiopia where it is now grown in the home gardens of the highland villagers of the south-central regions, sustaining 20 million people, a fifth of the population. Described as a ‘multi-purpose root crop’ used for its ‘food, forage, fibre and medicinal uses,’ enset farming is arguably the closest humanity will ever get to genuine sustainable agriculture.
A tall plant with long broad leaves and a large root system, it takes four to five years to mature, necessitating regular planting and is best grown in companion with other crops to thwart disease. It is climate tolerant, can withstand long periods of drought and provide a sink for constant rainfall. Each plant will give about 40 kilos of food. The corm of the plant is boiled to make a mash called amicho while juice is extracted from the edible parts to make bulla and most of the plant is fermented to make a flatbread called kocho. Enset is also fed to animals and is used as materials for fences, house-building, mattresses, packaging, paper, plates, seats, textiles and umbrellas.
Some years ago a project to promote ‘traditional collection and use of wild plants to reduce social and economic disparities in Central Europe’ identified 12 varieties – bilberry, black elder, caraway, centaury, juniper, marshmallow, nettle, peppermint, rosehip, silver birch, walnut and wild garlic. Organised by FairWild, Traffic and WWF Hungary in collaboration with organisations from Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia it sought to highlight a problem.
‘Since the middle of the 20th century, traditional knowledge about the properties of these plants and their collection traditions are repeatedly reported as being under threat through increasing urbanisation, changes in land ownership that affects access to collection sites, and in lifestyles,’ it stated and announced that its purpose was to ‘to ensure the continued use and long-term survival of wild species and populations in their habitats, while respecting the traditions and cultures, and supporting the livelihoods of all stakeholders, in particular collectors and workers’.
Crucially it made an exigent point, we must ‘prevent the disappearance of this historical knowledge’. This brings us full-circle back to the work of ethnobotanists, whose task in this moment has never been more significant.
Botanists have definitions for the standard usage of plants. These are animal food (forage and fodder for vertebrates), environmental (agroforestry, companion plants, ornamentals, barrier edges, shade plants, firebreaks, soil improvers, plants for revegetation, erosion control, pollution control, and indicators of the presence of metals, pollution, and underground water), invertebrate food (plants used as pollen or nectar sources for honey production, food for invertebrates useful to humans such as silk worms or edible grubs), food (including beverage and food additives for humans), fuels (wood, charcoal, petroleum substitutes, fuel, alcohols, tinder, and non-woody fuel, gene sources (wild relatives of crop plants that may contain useful traits of value, for example drought tolerance or disease resistance, in breeding programmes), materials (wood, fibres, cork, cane, tannins, dyestuffs, latex, rubber, resins, gums, waxes, lipids, and their derived products), medicine (to treat human and veterinary medical disorders) and poisons (plants which are both accidental and useful poisons for vertebrate and non-vertebrate animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi, e.g. for hunting and fishing, molluscicides, herbicides, insecticides).
By destroying the biodiversity of the planet we destroy these resources. To describe plants as useful is somewhat Monty-Pythonesque but if that is what it takes to wake up the world to the reality of this hilarious epoch we should not shame the botanists for their usage of language. Instead we should make everyone who has local knowledge into a local hero and learn quickly from them.