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Ethnobotany is the study of a region's plants and their practical uses through the traditional knowledge of a local culture and people. An ethnobotanist thus strives to document the local customs involving the practical uses of local flora for many aspects of life, such as plants as medicines, foods, and clothing.Richard Evans Schultes, often referred to as the "father of ethnobotany", explained the discipline in this way:
Ethnobotany simply means [...] investigating plants used by primitive societies in various parts of the world.
Since the time of Schultes, the field of ethnobotany has grown from simply acquiring ethnobotanical knowledge to that of applying it to a modern society, primarily in the form of pharmaceuticals.Intellectual property rights and benefit-sharing arrangements are important issues in ethnobotany.
The idea of ethnobotany was first proposed by the early 20th century botanist John William Harshberger. While Harshberger did perform ethnobotanical research extensively, including in areas such as North Africa, Mexico, Scandinavia, and Pennsylvania, it was not until Richard Evans Schultes began his trips into the Amazon that ethnobotany become a more well known science. However, the practice of ethnobotany is thought to have much earlier origins in the first century AD when a Greek physician by the name of Pedanius Dioscorides wrote an extensive botanical text detailing the medical and cullinary properties of "over 600 mediteranian plants" named De Materia Medica. Historians note that Dioscorides wrote about traveling often throughout the Roman empire, including regions such as "Greece, Crete, Egypt, and Petra", and in doing so obtained substantial knowledge about the local plants and their useful properties. European botanical knowledge drastically expanded once the New World was discovered due to ethnobotany. This expansion in knowledge can be primarily attributed to the substantial influx of new plants from the Americas, including crops such as potatoes, peanuts, avocados, and tomatoes. One French explorer in the 16th century, Jacques Cartier, discovered a cure for scurvy (a tea made from boiling the bark of the Sitka Spruce) from a local Iroquoi tribe.
During the medieval period, ethnobotanical studies were commonly found connected with monasticism. Notable at this time was Hildegard von Bingen. However, most botanical knowledge was kept in gardens such as physic gardens attached to hospitals and religious buildings. It was thought of in practical use terms for culinary and medical purposes and the ethnographic element was not studied as a modern anthropologist might approach ethnobotany today.
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