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Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany


Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany. 2nd ed. By Michael J. Balick and Paul Alan Cox. New York, NY: Garland Science; 2021. Hardcover, 228 pages. ISBN: 9780367501839. $130.00.

I consider Plants, People, and Culture, 2nd ed., one of the best botanical books published in recent years and would certainly nominate it for the annual American Botanical Council (ABC) James A. Duke Excellence in Botanical Literature Award if it were eligible. I know if Jim were alive, he would too. However, we have a rule at ABC that no ABC employee or Board of Trustees member can receive one of our botanical excellence awards. So, because co-author Michael Balick, PhD, has been on the ABC Board of Trustees for more than 20 years, this book is not on the table for consideration. Otherwise, it would be. This is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive and engaging introductions to the study of ethnobotany ever published, as was its first edition, which was published by W.H. Freeman and Company in the Scientific American Library Series in 1996.

Ethnobotany deals with one of the most basic and fundamental aspects of human experience: the evolution of the relationships between people and plants, both those that grow around them and those that are traded and originate in more distant areas, and how people use these plants for food, fiber, shelter, rituals, medicine, fuel, dye, water/air purification, flood control, living fences, and more.

Balick and co-author Paul Alan Cox, PhD, are experts in this area. They each have conducted extensive ethnobotanical field work and written many books and scientific papers on the subject. Balick received his doctorate in biology from the renowned “Father of Ethnobotany” Professor Richard Evans Schultes, PhD (1915–2001), at Harvard University, and Cox was heavily influenced by Schultes as well during his doctoral research at Harvard. Schultes’ life and accomplishments are discussed in this book. The authors’ current roles in the world of ethnobotany command the highest levels of global respect among their peers.

Balick, who served on the ABC Advisory Board before joining the Board of Trustees, is director and philecology curator of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden. He has conducted ethnobotanical research in Amazonia, Belize, the Middle East, and Asia. For the past 15 years or so, he has conducted extensive research in the Pacific island nations of the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau (and has written books documenting the flora of these areas), and, most recently, Vanuatu, which is considered an origin site of kava (Piper methysticum, Piperaceae). Among his many professional awards, Balick received the Distinguished Economic Botanist award from the Society for Economic Botany in 2009.

Cox, a member of the ABC Advisory Board since 1996, has focused the bulk of his research on plant uses in the South Pacific island nation of Samoa and surrounding areas. His work on island ecology led him to establish the nonprofit Seacology Foundation, which has been active in plant and cultural conservation efforts in 64 countries, mostly island areas, around the globe. He has been recognized by Time magazine as a “Hero of Medicine” for his search for new pharmaceutical drugs using the ethnobotanical approach, and in 1997 he was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for his and Seacology’s many conservation efforts with Indigenous peoples and their lands and cultures.

The first edition’s print run unfortunately was cut prematurely short. The printer astonishingly destroyed its plates for the four-color book, making it impossible to produce subsequent color printings. Due to the utility and demand for the book, the authors paid for black-and-white reprints of the book, which they then consigned to ABC for distribution to herb enthusiasts, the public, and university professors, who frequently used it as a primary or secondary textbook.

If I were to teach an ethnobotany course at the college, or perhaps even high school, level, this would most likely be the only book I would need. To learn about ethnobotany, do students need to have a background or prerequisite in botany? I think not. Although it would be preferable to understand basic botany, plant anatomy, phytochemistry, etc., ethnobotany deals with the human-plant interaction, and for that to be understood, students do not require a deep knowledge of botany.

The many examples of human-plant interactions covered in this book reflect the field work that the two authors have conducted throughout their illustrious careers, as well as the work of many other ethnobotanists. Richly illustrated with a wide range of photographs, the book contains images of ethnobotanists, pharmacognosists, and traditional healers. Other compelling images run the gamut of culture and history, from a closeup of a native Nahuatl healer in Diego Rivera’s classic mural from the Hospital de la Raza in Mexico City to photos of native healers preparing a host of edible and medicinal plants in various cultures and geographical settings.

Each of the seven chapters ends with discussion questions (ranging from about eight to 23). This makes the book ideal as a primary or supplemental textbook for university-level courses. In my view, the book should also be part of the teaching resources for every course in herbal medicine. It is optimal, even essential, for adequately trained herbalists to gain a deep understanding of the compelling cultural and ethnobotanical basis for the use of medicinal plants as part of the evolution of human culture. This book provides that foundation.

The chapters cover a wide range of what might be termed “classical ethnobotany:” plants for use as food, fiber, fragrance, poison, rituals, medicine, and more (i.e., “plants as the basis for human culture”). Chapter titles are: “People and Plants,” “Plants that Heal,” “Plants that Harm” (a new chapter that is not found in the first edition and is partly based on the third edition of Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants [New York Botanical Garden and Springer, 2020], which Balick co-authored), “From Hunting and Gathering to Haute Cuisine,” “Plants as the Basis for Material Culture,” “Entering the Other World” (which explores psychoactive plants in traditional societies and the modern scientific and clinical research on these plants, an increasingly popular topic), and “Biological Conservation and Ethnobotany.”

The book includes some classic examples of plants as medicines and the development of modern pharmaceutical drugs from plants. For example, it discusses William Withering and his “discovery” of the cardiovascular effects of foxglove (Digitalis purpurea, Plantaginaceae). However, in fact, Withering learned of this herbal dropsy (edema) cure from an elderly woman in Shropshire, England. Other examples include the antimalarial compound quinine from cinchona (Cinchona spp., Rubiaceae) bark; d-tubocurarine, which is used as an arrow poison and is derived from the Amazonian curare vine (Chondrodendron tomentosum, Menispermaceae); and more.

The spectrum of topics, the authoritative information from accomplished experts, and the compelling graphics and photos make this book a valuable addition to anyone’s library. I recommend it to conventional health care practitioners, integrative and naturopathic physicians, pharmacists, dietitians, herbalists of all sorts, scientific researchers, and even consumers. This book is a must. It is highly engaging (I read through it like a good novel, and it was a challenge for me to put down) and easily understood, which is especially valuable in an age in which scientific literacy is understood as being an essential skill for survival.

Mark Blumenthal is the founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council.