Ethnobotany 101: An Introduction for Plant Lovers

Ethnobotany Lets You Explore Useful Plants, History, and Culture All at Once

by | May 12, 2018

As children, we’re all interested in ethnobotany. We point at vegetables and ask where they came from, we put flowers into our mouths and make play of poultice making. For many, that curiosity fades later in life. Field botany textbooks can be cumbersome, and learning about the uses of plants can be tricky. Our urban environment isn’t always rich with new plant species to explore.

The good news is, there are more and more technological solutions for learning more about ethnobotany. Whether you’d like to attend lectures on ethnobotany at your local university or library, or just pair PlantSnap with an ethnobotany database, you can learn more about plants and their traditional uses.


What is ethnobotany?


Ethnobotany is a multi-disciplinary study that encompasses the history and culture of a group of people as well as the field biology of their surroundings. Like many scientific words, it’s a mixture of two:

The prefix ethno-, which translates to ethnic “ethnic” and includes the study of culture, beliefs, language, and more.

The suffix -botany, which is simply the study of plants.

The term was coined in 1895 by J.M. Harshberger from University of Pennsylvania.

Ethnobotany is far more than just a curiosity of plants and their uses, though. True ethnobotany mixes cultural anthropology with biology, helping scientists learn more about the religious, culinary, and practical uses of plants in an area of a group of people. It takes field botany to another level by introducing the human condition to raw plant biology.

Even if you don’t say that you’re interested in ethnobotany (it’s a pretty obscure field of study), it’s a part of why many people love learning about plants. While gardening and flower identification is fun, it’s even cooler to know what a plant can be used for.



Casual Plant-Lovers Dig Ethnobotany


Growing up in rural Wisconsin, I spent each ricing season learning about how the Anishinaabe people used rice as a staple in both their cuisine and their culture. We watched tribal elders pole a canoe into the bays and beat the rice, then we got to help flip it and dry it, then blow fans over the drying seeds to blow away the husks. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

When you’re not a hardcore field biologist, it’s the ethnobotany that’s often most interesting. Those of us who don’t make a living identifying plants will find the useful and culturally significant plants most interesting.

I moved through adulthood as a casual ethnobotanist, learning tidbits about how plants can be used for practical everyday purposes. Ethnobotany lets you explore local culture and history while gathering practical knowledge of the surrounding landscape.

Through casual ethnobotany, I learned that:

    • Yucca fibers make great rope. You can also mash yucca into a shampoo or porridge.
    • A species of moss removes arsenic from water in Sweden.
    • Chokecherries suck the liquid out of your mouth when you eat them.
    • You can make salads from dandelions, thistles, and stinging nettles with proper preparation.
    • You can use the fine dust found on aspen bark as a mild sunscreen. Don’t skip sunscreen on purpose if you’re hiking through an aspen grove, but it’s helpful in a pinch.
    • Willow bark can help relieve a headache – but it tastes pretty terrible.
    • Ginger and papaya can soothe an upset stomach.

Depending on where you grew up and where you live now, your experience of casual ethnobotany may be different. Interacting with plants is part of our life, whether it’s simply buying a bag of frozen veggies at Trader Joe’s or carefully brewing a tea to help with a headache.



Learn More About Ethnobotany


If you are interested in learning more about ethnobotany, there are a variety of tools available to you. 

You can go the traditional route and spend years studying cultural anthropology, history, 

language, and field botany. You may be able to attend local presentations and outings, or you might be lucky enough to have a class at your local college.

For many casual ethnobotanists, though, there’s an even easier option. You can use PlantSnap to easily identify plants, then type the scientific name of the plant into this ethnobotany database. A simple search for “yucca” yielded 548 results that ranged from a porridge to a snake bite remedy.

While there’s no substitute for getting out there to speak to the people who actually use their ethnobotany knowledge every day, it’s easy now to start learning about plant identification and plant usage with these two tools. Be sure to double check with experts before making salads, though – there are many plant lookalikes out there!

What useful plant have you identified using PlantSnap? We want to hear – comment below or find us on Social Media to tell us about your learning experiences with casual ethnobotany.


  1. Sidne

    Yay, a useful app!

  2. Sajida botanist

    It’s a good step


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