Ethnobotany


Image map: The Celebrating Wildflowers Ethnobotany poster displaying various plants and their products.
What plants and products can you find above? Mouse over the plants and products above to find out. Art and design by Steve Buchanan 2006. Download PDF Version, 2.6 MB.

Bee Butterfly Hummingbird Dyes Basketry Fibers Soaps Dyes Medicines Waxes and resins Ornamentals Soapberry Yucca Western red cedar Dyer's coreopsis Beargrass Goldenrod Great blue lobelia Wax myrtle Devil's club Bergamot Echinacea

What is Ethnobotany?

Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous (native) plants. Since their earliest origins, humans have depended on plants for their primary needs and existence. Plants provide food, medicine, shelter, dyes, fibers, oils, resins, gums, soaps, waxes, latex, tannins, and even contribute to the air we breathe. Many native peoples also used plants in ceremonial or spiritual rituals. Examining human life on earth requires understanding the role of plants in historical and current day cultures.

Plants and People

Throughout time, countless peoples have tested and recorded the usefulness of plants. Those plants with beneficial uses were kept and utilized. Our cultures evolved by passing from generation to generation ever more sophisticated knowledge of plants and their usefulness. Even today, we depend upon plants and their important pollinators for our existence and survival.

Related Sites

  • Great Lakes Anishinaabe Ethnobotany
    The Great Lakes Anishinaabe Ethnobotany site website is a collaboration between the Cedar Tree Institute and the Northern Michigan University Center for Native American Studies both located in Marquette, Michigan, and the USDA Forest Service. The website features video interviews, a collection of personal stories and cultural teachings related to various plants and trees of the upper Great Lakes region.
  • Medicinal Plants of the Southwest (MPSW)
    The Medicinal Plants of the Southwest (MPSW) program, is funded by the National Institute of Health as part of the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) Program at NMSU.
  • Native American Ethnobotany
    A database of foods, drugs, dyes, and fibers of Native American peoples, derived from plants, hosted on the University of Michigan, Dearborn website.
  • Wings and Seeds: The Zaagkii Project, A Native Plants and Pollinator Protection Initiative
    The Zaagkii Project (Anishinaabe for “The love that comes from the Earth”) is a collaborative effort between the Cedar Tree Institute, the United States Forest Service, and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
  • Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine
    A USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station Sustaining Forests web page introducing the cultural and ecological landscape of northern Maine and its Canadian neighbors through the non-timber forest products that grow there and the people who gather and depend on them.

Using Cactus as a Bioremediation Tool

ARS plant/soil scientist Gary  BaƱuelos and grower John Diener survey prickly pear cactus growing in poor-quality soil.
ARS plant/soil scientist Gary Bañuelos (right) and grower John Diener survey prickly pear cactus growing in poor-quality soil.

The west side of the San Joaquin Valley in California presents several challenges to growers. The soils there include marine sediments, shale formations, and deposits of selenium and other minerals, results of ancient seas and runoff. Anything grown there needs to be irrigated, but the resulting runoff, when it contains high levels of selenium, can be toxic to fish, migratory birds, and other wildlife that drink from waterways and drainage ditches. Periodic droughts and population growth are also squeezing supplies of the fresh water available for irrigation.

Gary Bañuelos, an Agricultural Research Service plant/soil scientist with the Water Management Research Unit at the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center in Parlier, California, believes that he has found a promising alternative to address land productivity and environmental concerns stemming from soils with these mineral deposits, growing prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficusindica).

Read more about Using Cactus as a Bioremediation Tool (PDF, 523 KB)…