As we learned at the beginning of this module, plants are essential to human life (as well as the lives of several other organisms): they act as food and release oxygen into the atmosphere. We’ve also learned that plants play a key role in the ecosystem by stabilizing soils, cycling carbon, and moderating the climate. With all these roles, it becomes clear that we must preserve plants and their diversity—or else we put ourselves and the biosphere at large at risk. As we continue on, we’ll learn about how plants function and reproduce. As you learn, think about ways you can take this new knowledge and work to preserve your local plant diversity.
If plants and their interactions with humans interest you, you may want to look into the field of ethnobotany.
The relatively new field of ethnobotany studies the interaction between a particular culture and the plants native to the region. Seed plants have a large influence on day-to-day human life. Not only are plants the major source of food and medicine, they also influence many other aspects of society, from clothing to industry. The medicinal properties of plants were recognized early on in human cultures. From the mid-1900s, synthetic chemicals began to supplant plant-based remedies.
Pharmacognosy is the branch of pharmacology that focuses on medicines derived from natural sources. With massive globalization and industrialization, there is a concern that much human knowledge of plants and their medicinal purposes will disappear with the cultures that fostered them. This is where ethnobotanists come in. To learn about and understand the use of plants in a particular culture, an ethnobotanist must bring in knowledge of plant life and an understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures and traditions. The Amazon forest is home to an incredible diversity of vegetation and is considered an untapped resource of medicinal plants; yet, both the ecosystem and its indigenous cultures are threatened with extinction.
To become an ethnobotanist, a person must acquire a broad knowledge of plant biology, ecology and sociology. Not only are the plant specimens studied and collected, but also the stories, recipes, and traditions that are linked to them. For ethnobotanists, plants are not viewed solely as biological organisms to be studied in a laboratory, but as an integral part of human culture. The convergence of molecular biology, anthropology, and ecology make the field of ethnobotany a truly multidisciplinary science.