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Society for Economic Botany Celebrates 50th Year
In 1959, staff members of The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) and other plant utilization enthusiasts established the Society for Economic Botany (SEB), an organization dedicated to fostering and promoting scientific research and education into the uses of plants and the nature of plant-people relationships.1 Now in its 50th year, the Society has evolved into a stronger and more stable organization, while maintaining its original mission.

“It’s a wonderful time to be involved in the Society,” said James Miller, PhD, dean and vice president for science at NYBG and current president of SEB (oral communication, August 5, 2008). Dr. Miller explained that SEB has recently undergone several important transitions and developments that have enhanced the continuity and professional image of the organization. “We’ve also been planning a spectacular 50th year meeting,” he added. That annual meeting will be held in Charleston, South Carolina from May 31 to June 4, 2009.

SEB has over 1000 international members and serves as a leading society for individuals concerned with botanical, phytochemical, and ethnological studies of plants with known or potential uses.1 Although there are several professional societies that focus on one aspect of plants that are beneficial to humans, SEB is the only professional society that encompasses the entire spectrum of human-plant interactions. SEB’s annual meetings are a highlight for the organization’s members, with researchers presenting a broad array of results from their latest work through both paper and poster presentations and symposia on topics of current interest. The organization also honors important contributors to the field of economic botany research and teaching. The society’s most prestigious honor is the Distinguished Economic Botanist Award, bestowed annually to researchers who have made significant contributions to the field of economic botany. Among the recipients are Brent and Elois Ann Berlin (2008), Ghillean Prance (2002), James Duke (2000), Varro E. Tyler (1995), Norman R. Farnsworth (1983), and R. E. Schultes (1979). Further, SEB publishes, in collaboration with NYBG, the quarterly journal Economic Botany, containing original research, historical studies, and other content relevant to the field. Twice a year, the Society publishes a newsletter entitled “Plants & People.”

According to Charles Heiser Jr., PhD, distinguished professor emeritus in the department of botany at Indiana University, SEB is particularly important as an organization because of its educational activities (e-mail, August 6, 2008). “It serves a lot of people—mostly botanists, many anthropologists, archaeologists, people in industry—a very diverse audience,” he said. “I think we have a very readable journal. I usually read half the articles and the book reviews on the day the journal arrives.” Dr. Heiser has been a member of SEB since its founding.

SEB further promotes education by gearing many of its activities and meetings toward students, and some SEB Awards are designed to honor the achievements of students. Dr. Miller noted that SEB also serves as a forum for scientists with shared interests to discuss not only the latest research but also the ethics that govern their professional field.

“The SEB has played a strong and leading role in development of ethical codes of behavior for research in our area of study,” said Will McClatchey, PhD, professor of botany at the University of Hawaii and past president of SEB (e-mail, August 2, 2008). “SEB was the first of the ethnobiological societies to develop a code of ethics, with Dr. Brian Boom leading the committee. Since then that code has served to stimulate much stronger developments in our sister societies that have culminated in the recently adopted code of ethics of the International Society of Ethnobiology. This code is used by SEB members and includes contributions from SEB members as part of the large international consensus that developed it.”

The founding of SEB was actually preceded by the launch of the journal Economic Botany, which was initiated in 1947 by Edmund H. Fulling at NYBG. The authors and supporters of this journal helped to form SEB.

In recent years, both Economic Botany and SEB have undergone some structural improvements. Economic Botany has experienced a redesign and is produced through a new publisher, in addition to other modifications. SEB, meanwhile, recently established its first permanent business office, located in St. Louis at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Dr. Miller explained that SEB has historically been run by elected volunteers and without a base of operations. The Society set up a temporary business office in Hawaii in 2005 before moving into its St. Louis office in 2007. According to Dr. Miller, SEB’s new office and staff have given the organization greater service abilities and continuity of representation.

In addition to these new developments, SEB has witnessed some changes in membership and focus throughout its 50-year history. “In the past SEB was a big ‘history of agriculture’ society, and it had a lot of [US Department of Agriculture] members,” said Dr. McClatchey. “The USDA has moved their research in other directions and there are not very many of their numbers among us now. Probably half of the SEB members call themselves ethnobotanists of some kind or another and most of those are doing research in areas of conservation biology, ecology, resource management, social networks, etc. The other half is quite eclectic with many kinds of anthropologists, geographers, historians, agricultural scientists, botanists, and others interested in the intersection of people and plants. You never quite know who you will meet at one of our meetings but are guaranteed an interesting conversation that will stimulate your thinking.”

Dr. McClatchey continued that most meeting presentations and journal articles now typically cover traditional healthcare, usually medicinal plants. He stressed that the emphasis is typically not on deriving natural products from these plants but on better understanding the roles they play within the lives of people who use plant medicine. He added that many SEB members are particularly sensitive to issues of biopiracy and bioprospecting.

“The emphasis on how people interact with plants in the past, present and future (looking across the spectrum of time) has not changed since the origin of the organization,” said Dr. McClatchey. “What the researchers are doing, who the researchers are, where researchers are from (a growing segment of the Society is from outside of North America), the methods being used, the sophistication of tools, etc, has changed a lot.”

The SEB’s upcoming 50th annual meeting will include a symposium on African ethnobotany in the Americas, and the meeting will coincide with Charleston’s Spoleto Festival. More information about the meeting and about SEB is available at the organization’s Web site: www.econbot. org.

—Courtney Cavaliere