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A Beginner’s Guide To Ethnobotanicals

Since long before the dawn of civilization, human beings have relied upon plants. As omnivores, the most obvious use thereof was nutrition. As our species grew ever more cognitively complex, however, we gradually discovered an array of beneficial purposes far beyond mere sustenance, including spices, tools, research, spirituality, and more. Over time, we as a species continued to identify, categorize, and utilize (or avoid) the vast array of plants we encountered.

It’s obvious, however, that certain plants have been prioritized in terms of study and use over others, due to effects (both good and bad) on one’s mind, body, mood, motivation, and so forth.

In short, we know way more about Basil and Oregano than we do about, say, Cannabis Sativa and Psilocybin (“Magic”) Mushrooms. Crazy, right? Who would have guessed?

Despite native populations’ use of and emphasis on herbal remedies, some plants continue to elude proper understanding, leading to the relatively modern field of study known as “ethnobotany.”

This is by no means a comprehensive education on ethnobotany as a whole. Rather, this is some of the information I wish I had when I first entered the ethnobotanical realm.

What is Ethnobotany?

According to the USDA, ethnobotany is “the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous (native) plants. [These] plants provide food, medicine, shelter, dyes, fibers, oils, resins, gums, soaps, waxes, latex, tannins, and even contribute to the air we breathe.”

Simply put, ethnobotany is the study of the use of native plants by native peoples. These days, “ethnobotanicals,” typically refers to the herbs and plants used traditionally for their impacts on energy levels, pain relief, emotional regulation, and physical strength. Many are now grown by independent individuals and interested groups/companies themselves, for profit and personal use alike.

As a result, there are more and more resources available online for pursuing and processing ethnobotanicals (most commonly cannabis). These include products like pre-assembled cannabis extractors and digital guides to wet vs. dry bladeless cannabis trimming.

Examples of Ethnobotanicals

Given that the types of plants encompassed by the term ethnobotanicals stem from all over the world (pun intended), it’s useful to consider the different continents of origin and some of their unique herbal remedies.

From Asia

  • Kratom — native to the Southeast Asian rainforest, kratom is from the same family as the coffee bean. The leaves were traditionally chewed to alleviate fatigue and pain, but today the leaves are made into a powder that offers a host of benefits.

From South America

  • Kava (aka, “kava kava” or “kava root”) — growing most abundantly in the South Pacific, kava is associated with relaxing and euphoric effects, making it more suitable for relaxing and soothing experiences.

From Africa

  • Kanna — the kanna plant is one of the most popular ethnobotanicals native to South Africa. It is a succulent with small white flowers, that is traditionally chewed to alleviate feelings of stress, depression, pain, and hunger.

Why Do Ethnobotanicals Matter?

Well, for one thing… *gestures widely at everything going on in the world.*

Truth be told, a big reason is a realization/reawakening paired with a sense of damage control. After all, large corporate and pharmaceutical interests did a real bang-up job over the last few decades/centuries discrediting traditional medicines and slandering old-world cures. They steered many people–myself included–away from the natural and towards the synthetics they peddled.

Now, however, we’re seeing a shift back towards the time-honored wisdom and tried-and-tested practices of native/ancient cultures. Some of the recipes and remedies of the past work better than the synthetic options available today, with fewer negative side-effects and a significantly lower price tag. Others are simply beneficial supplements you can add to pre-existing wellness routines.

To answer the question, ethnobotanicals matter because they’re on the rise once more. Rather than be misled or misinformed, it’s worth doing your own research, to stay informed and experience for yourself what’s out there. Some of the alternatives (for everything from headaches to heartbreaks) may surprise you.

For instance, did you know proper breathing helps reduce stress? Learning new things already. 

Where To Learn More About Ethnobotanicals?

The U.S. Forest Service Index is a good place to head next. It breaks the field down into categories and subcategories for easier exploration. Or if you’d like to delve even further down the rabbit hole, check out the book “Ethnobotany For Beginners” by U. Albuquerque, M. Ramos, W. Junior, and P. Medeiros.

If you just can’t get enough, ScienceDirect is another great resource for all things education.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash



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