EP31: The importance of ethnobotany – an Interview with Mark Nesbitt

Mark Nesbitt is the Senior Research Leader for Economic Botany and curator of the Economic Botany Collection at Kew. In this interview we discuss the importance of ethnobotany and whether there is a place for citizen scientists in this exciting field.

Ethnobotany is the study of the interrelationship between people and plants, historically and cross-culturally, particularly the role of plants in human culture and practices, how humans have used and modified plants, and how they represent them in their systems of knowledge.

Show Notes


Robin: [00:00:00] Welcome everybody. This is Robin Harford from eatweeds.co.uk. And today I am here with Mark Nesbitt. 

Robin: [00:00:08] Mark, I think it’s best. If you tell us about yourself, I’m very excited to have you on, I know you’re a senior research leader at Kew, but in what department. 

Mark: [00:00:19] I look after the economic botany collection, which is essentially a collection of useful plants, and things made from useful plants from ancient Egypt to current times. My job is both to care for that collection, but, more especially to generate research, into useful plants.

Robin: [00:00:37] Wonderful. So you mentioned economic botany,  ethnobotany. Did one come before the other did one come later. What’s the history, the story of what I understand is ethnobotany, even though there is the Society of Economic Botany. 

Mark: [00:00:55] Ah, these terms and we can all so throw biocultural, into the mix as well.

They do reflect different emphasis through times.  Economic botany which you can trace back to various points, but probably related to the 18th century. That includes perhaps in that first word, but it did mean something slightly different in the 19th century. It meant more practical or useful. but nonetheless  the fork there was very much what can plants do for us? Whereas ethnobotany, I think gives a more equal emphasis to the plants and to the people that absolutely core of ethnobotany and it also symbolizes the fact that we see plants as having a wider role in society than purely economic in modern terms.

One of the reasons they hung on to the term economic botany for the collection at Kew is it was the world’s first museum of economic botany. So it has a kind of historical resonance there, but ethnobotany is probably the more familiar term to most people these days.

Robin: [00:01:59] It’s my understanding that Richard Evans Schultes is considered the father of modern ethnobotany. Is that true? And if so, who was he and why was he important compared to other plant hunters or researchers of past.  

Mark: [00:02:16] I think there is a complicated answer  to that. It’s absolutely true that he was one of the father’s of modern ethnobotany. His fantastic work starting in the 1940s in South America things like world rubber really set very high scientific standards for that work. Collecting herbarium specimens, publishing everything, really well, workspace foundational for the whole work that’s going on now.

For example some aid worker in the Amazon is drawing on Schultes ,  publications, and specimens. At the same time, there is reading of Schultes work today, that I’m less comfortable with, there is the kind of narrative about the loan ethnobotanist in the field, which is absolutely not how we work today.

There’s a narrative, he was obviously fascinated by psychoactive substances and those are really important element of life, especially where he was working in the Amazon. But that’s not the dominant, aspect of ethnobotany today. And it can sometimes guide people perhaps into a quite limited understanding about what ethnobotany is about.

Robin: [00:03:22] I’m totally with you on that one because  it’s my experience. Particularly with certain organizations in America are really focusing on the, kind of the psychoactive uses of various plants. And that’s just one small cultural use within a far greater context. That’s important.

 People I know go, ethnobotany right, Schultes. Oh, that’s about tripping out in the Amazon. It’s like, no, it’s not. and I actually get quite  upset over that. . It belittles a culture to reduce a culture too a psychoactive substance is, is deeply crass actually. 

Mark: [00:04:00] I do feel there’s an element of self-indulgence often amongst some of those researchers and from other researchers, an element of an agenda. Where it isn’t asking open questions but is driven by particular views on drugs. Then of course there’s then the whole controversy around the use of, aya-tourism.  Is that cultural appropriation or is it bringing income into communities? A big unresolved questions.

Robin: [00:04:32] So there’s ethnobotany and someone’s jazzed up. They are really into ethnobotany. Where do they go and get properly trained with all the qualifications and the academic research etc. 

Mark: [00:04:49] I think the thing to say about ethnobotany is like, a lot of these modern and very interdisciplinary fields, it’s very flexible. I would say there is, there’s a core aim at the center of ethnobotany, which is about reconciling people and plants or biodiversity.

But quantitative methodology has evolved in the last 20 or 30 years which a lot of us use. But the framework for that could sit in an ecology department, botany department, anthropology department, I assume in the history department in many cases. So you can take ethnobotany in lots of different directions.

What some of the messages to people interested in getting further into the field? There are relatively few jobs for ethnobotanists there are very large numbers of jobs where ethnobotany as a technical skill is super useful in doing them. So this question often comes up on sort of Facebook groups or somewhere can I study ethnobotany and the MSc at Kent started 20 years ago as a collaboration between two very well known ethnobotanists. Roy Ellen, anthropologist working in Indonesia. And Ghillean Prance then director of Kew works who works in the Amazon gives you that very concentrated one year. Half a training  in context, understanding where ethnobotany sits and things like, environmental anthropology. The methodology, the methodology which is a repeatable methodology, which means different people can do the same kind of study in different communities and compare results.

It’s really an exciting development in ethnobotany. So you get all that packed into one year together with six months field work to actually put it into practice, what you’ve learned. But those technical skills have of course been published. There are really great handbooks on ethnobotany by people like Gary Martin, Tony Cunningham.

If you’re in the right department, the right supervisor joining in the right networks, go into the right meetings. You can, of course. learn the skills of ethnobotany in quite a few different settings. 

Robin: [00:06:58] I had someone literally just yesterday, she said she was looking for a mentor either in foraging, botany, or ethnobotany, she’s already done, an MSC in environmental science and something else I can’t remember.

And she didn’t want to do the Kent route. Is there any other routes not to become qualified officially, but  are there courses, what would be your advice for people who want to become competent and proficient in ethnobotany without necessarily going the full academic route? Or is that even possible? 

Mark: [00:07:38] Learning through doing is a really good route. I think a broader piece of advice, which I’ve often ended up giving to people on the Kent masters course as well is about having a specific area of focus. It’s quite hard to develop yourself if you have a very broad fuzzy interest in plants and people. It’s hard to give advice on where to go. What kind of work you might do? What kind of reading you should be doing? If your interest is in conservation of Chinese medicinal plants being imported from the Himalayas, then it’s much more straight forward to think about what  your next step will be to develop that interest? 

I think the question of short courses is an interesting one. We’re just doing a review at the moment at Kew of our education provision and while the Masters has always been very important for us  we’re also thinking about widening the scope of short courses.

Now there is an opportunity to get those basic tools, introductions to the context etc. in a shorter period of time. We do that for things like tropical plant identification. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be doing that for ethnobotany too.

Robin: [00:08:48] It was actually one of the reasons for me getting you on the call because it seems certainly in my network.

So there’s a number of people, not everybody, but certainly a number of people who are fascinated by the whole, Science of ethnobotany and they kind of were kind of floundering because it’s like, well, where do we go? You know, if you don’t come to the MSC, then short introductory courses into the methodology.

Like you say, personally, I think would be. Be pretty, pretty important, which then fed into the question that I asked you, specifically with kind of the growth of citizen scientists, which, some people can’t stand, other people really embrace. And where would, is there, is there a place for such a thing as citizen ethnobotanists.

Mark: [00:09:44] Well, absolutely. I mean, what I love about the term citizen science it’s a bit of a buzzword is great for, projects and so on. Put in some citizen science will cause if you go to a natural history and folklore and most countries,  as one example, citizen science has been absolutely at the heart of that local natural history society has been the backbone of biodiversity research in the UK.

what 200 years, also, and if. For example, Roy Vickery is a wonderful books on folklore and British plants.  Where does the raw material come from? It comes to the letters that people write to him. It comes, from, the stories collected by folklorists /citizen scientists   () , back in the 19th century. So I think there absolutely is a role, but there are perhaps some lessons to learn from that earlier work. Those citizen scientists in natural history didn’t do it by themselves, they didn’t do it in isolation. They formed the groups together. They formed this wonderful natural history societies  that still exists everywhere. And so I think the question is where is that community going to form.  And of course, part of that community has been forming on areas like Facebook and social media.  

Robin: [00:11:01] So someone is fascinated with plants, particularly the ethnobotanical uses, which from my understanding covers all the uses that plant has served within human culture and the relationship around those uses. So someone goes abroad. They find someone in a forest and they want to learn about the forest medicine and they go out for a few days or couple of weeks with that person who happens to be a local from a village. They’re not a scientist. They just know the plants because they are part of their life. And they note down all the uses that the person’s telling them, One of the things that I’ve been discussing with ethnobiologist friends in America, is the importance of honoring the local peoples and where the knowledge comes from.

So we’re covering things like intellectual property rights and potentially cultural appropriation. So where are we at with all that at the moment? What would you, what would be your advice to someone who goes, because I’ve got loads of notebooks in my times, abroad and people who’ve said to me continually, well, why don’t you published any of that information?

I go, well, it’s actually not ethically cool to be doing it because one, to actually go back and give full credit to the people that I learned from, would require other journeys and also trying to find them again. So what would be your advice? 

Mark: [00:12:48] Yeah, so you’re absolutely right. And there’s, I guess a fine line between us individual chatting to people about plants, which is a good thing and warmly being encouraged and doing what we might call research. It’s perhaps the core of the services idea of dissemination, and sharing certain results. Obviously the, the legal intellectual property position is this complicated. At Kew we hire, full time people to work purely on those aspects.

But the principles are very clear and I think, the principles are set out now around things like benefit sharing and prior upon consent, but I would summarize this all in one word it’s about collaboration. And so the idea that we or any researcher would simply go off and do research somewhere is a really roundabout way and 30 years out of date.

Most ethnobotanical field work these days, I think is fair to say is probably initiated by the communities where that work is being done. And the agenda, the dissemination of the results, the way they’re used where the benefits flow back into those communities. So I think that’s one of the differences you could say to the 19th century economic botany, it was extractive. It was about taking plants and information elsewhere for our benefit. Modern day ethnobotany the focus is always on the community that you’re working in. How can the techniques and so on that we have be shared and benefit them. So if you are doing collaboration, but all of these things are worked out through joint discussions and you’ve got to budget time to take place. But if the agenda is being led by where you’re working, you know, the conflicts are going to be less because you’re clearly working to their agenda. 

Robin: [00:14:37] So just to feed back to people, looking for courses, I’ve come across some courses claiming to be a level four accredited programs in ethnobotany  under the guise of the institute of outdoor learning. What’s your feelings on those kinds of courses? Are they valid or are they just kind of riding on the bandwagon? 

Mark: [00:14:59] I’ll have to look up those courses, as I don’t know them. But I do sometimes make suggestions to people who are looking for a different route or for a taster or for field skills. And there are quite a few field courses around.  And what I always look for there is do the people leading these courses have PhDs or equivalent qualifications of the subject? What does the modules look like, do they include, intellectual property, conventional and biological diversity?  So modern quantitative methodology is how do you do surveys? And there are some really great courses, particularly in Latin America that do meet those criteria? In an ideal world looking for courses that are coming out of reputable institutions, but its important to say, there are also individuals running really good courses too.

Robin: [00:15:52] So where do you see the future of ethnobotany? Some people, have said to me, well, you know, really what’s so relevant about it. Surely it’s just all been done. It’s all everything’s been bagged and tagged. What is the relevance of ethnobotany in the modern world, or are we all just living in past? 

Mark: [00:16:09] Interesting that you ask that question right at the moment in the middle of the covid pandemic. Which I think is, for all sorts of reasons, including this incredible silence which we suddenly had in London, where I’m living and working. Has attuned people to thinking more about our relationship with the natural world, and also about how our disruption  of the natural world although it may sometimes have short economic benefits, can have longer term, perturbations or really, added affects for our own future. So I would argue that ethnobotany is probably more relevant than ever. And in terms of where there’s future directions, one is actually United Kingdom itself. It’s one of those subjects a bit like anthropology that tended to look to the other. The work, particularly of Gabrielle Hatfield. Some of her wonderful books, have redirected attention to the wealth of what we have here. Both amongst people still around who remember days before the national health service, when access to medicines was really poor. The evolution of new knowledge, the influence of new diasporic communities in United Kingdom is a really rich, area, for work. Overseas, I think, it’s a really interesting time when some of these messages around sustainable forestry for example, have been taken at a high international level because there is now international legislation controlling these. But making these actually work on the ground, making sure communities are involved, that communities benefit, that above all is where the ethnobotanist, can bring together these techniques. Drawing on ecology, drawing on anthropology, drawing on quite wide fields could be really relevant. 

Robin: [00:17:58] People have often said to me, Oh, well, we’ve, we’ve lost our indigenous knowledge. And I kind of said, well, yeah, we kind of lost it possibly with the Picts, but we have cultures like the Roma. From my experience they’re, they’re very, quite closed to outsiders with their plant knowledge.

I just wondered if there were any projects that you know of that have managed to build bridges into those communities. So before their elder people  start passing on. That knowledge can be recorded and documented. Is there such a thing? 

Mark: [00:18:35] That’s a good question. I think first it’s important to say, knowledge is not static and new knowledge is evolving across the whole foraging movement that’s seen a big boost this year.

Sometimes it comes under attack and they’re accused of being unsustainable. And that’s where real on the ground studies could be really valueable . I think on Roma culture and perhaps a subject for another one of your podcasts would be Sarah Edwards.

He has a PhD in ethnobotany. She did her field work in Northern Australia, but she has a traveller heritage herself. I know there’s been developing quite detailed conversations with Roma communities, around,  ethnobotany and I think that’s a really good example of the research agenda being set within a community rather than outside the community.

Robin: [00:19:25] Most of the audience that listen to this podcast, often they’re beginners. They’re very excited about plants and culture. Say someone is going: “Right I want to start a projec t.” What would be your advice for someone where they are. Not flying away somewhere, but actually on the ground, in their local community, what would be your advice for them to start recording knowledge?

Mark: [00:19:55] I would start then if you’d like more wider by doing a bit of reading beforehand. So look for those books by people like Miguel Alexiades, Gary Martin, Tony Cunningham, and some ways he buys eBooks these days. I think the basis is still in print. Rather than leaping into research, its worth just stepping back. Perhaps reading  one or two of those books by people like Mark Plotkin writing about the Amazon. As well as Richard Schultes work too. So a little bit of context first and what you will find in books like Ethnobotany: A Methods Manual,  Gary Martin’s book, really quite clearly set up methodology on how to do this kind of thing, how to interview people. There’s simple techniques around open questions, for example, techniques that produce data tables that you can share with other people. And then a gain, thinking about networks. Is there a forager’s group in your area. Can you create such a group. Talk to people who do commercial foraging as well. But also then, the heart of research, if you like, the heart of what we do is, is asking questions. And that’s what drives research forward and leads to really exciting research.

So what are the problems in your area or what are the opportunities in your area. Are there wild plants that could be encouraged for example, if you’re thinking about foraging, But all of that comes around through networking and talking to people. The other piece of advice is around getting to conferences and going to meetings.

I often advise students to just do some simple Google searches around keywords that they’re interested in. I think meetings like the Society of Economic Botany which was going to be in Jamaica this year. Certainly next year, are very good opportunities for people, all stages in their field and starters are very open and not at all limited to people in academic jobs to see what people are doing. And of course this is the way research works. So it’s not a lone scientist enterprise. It’s about learning tricks from other people. Find out, what’s the important question in France or Belgium could just as well be an important question in Britain as well. 

Robin: [00:22:15] You brought up the Society of Economic Botany, which I’m a member of and have been for a number of years, which I find absolutely vital, really because of the wealth of research papers that I have access to. So tell us a little bit more about the Society of Economic Botany, and why should people join?  For me it’s really important but I don’t know many people in my network who either have heard of it or have even joined it. 

Mark: [00:22:48] Actually one of the questions that does come up from time to time, is should we be changing our name?

It’s a complicated question because the scope of the society is around a very broad view of ethnobotany, it includes people working in archaeology for example. As I used to do myself, people working on novel crops orphen crops, genetic sources, all of this kind of thing. And we really value that breadth, but I think it is the closest to a professional society that we have for ethnobotany. , but I think that in print anymore, and I regret that I get a free access. It’s one of the very few academic journals that anyone interested in plants could actually read from beginning to end and actually really enjoy reading.

If you do join, you get all issues from 1951, onwards, the annual meeting, I think it’s a notably friendly meeting. At our last meeting. I was meeting people who were coming to ethnobotany for the first time, looking for resources and some great resources and loads of videos on the website, for example, if you become a member. 200 videos, for teaching. I think one of our questions is how can we be a more international society and it is an international society. It’s always had 50, 60, 70 UK members. and in the past we used to meet more on a regional basis.

I remember meeting with Ghillean Prance when he was director of Kew. He hosted such a gathering in his house at Kew back in the eighties. and that’s something we need to return to. But one change that we have made is we now do rotate these annual meetings. So typically one would be United States and then the following year we’ll be in another part of the world . 

Robin: [00:24:37] So anyone listening to this who wants to follow up on what Mark has suggested either with the books or with the various organizations, like Kent university, there will be links in the show notes.

So you just need to visit, eatweeds.co.uk and click on the podcast link. And the share of the episode will be there for you to explore further. Mark, thank you for your time. I know that where we’re cutting into it. And I just wanted to ask one more question and it became a personal question. So a few years ago, my academic botanist and ethnobotanist friends said: “Robin you’re an ethnobotanist.” And I was going well, no, I’m not an ethnobotanist because I don’t follow rigorously the methodology . And they said, yes, but your research goes really deep. And it was like, well, okay. So for a very short while I did use that tag, but I became very, very uncomfortable using it because I don’t have, I haven’t done the MSc course.

So. What’s the boundary, because I know some people in the community are starting to call themselves ethnobotanists without having done the Kent MSc. Is that acceptable?

Mark: [00:25:51] So it’s the question comes up quite a lot, particularly, in, from perhaps early career researchers who have invested in the masters and a PhD and for whom, you know, that the word ethnobotany is really quite important. I’m not sure. Ethnobotany as I have said before is this very new and very interdisciplinary, very community based, community orientated field.

And so setting strict boundaries, doesn’t sit well with that. I would say perhaps the central aspects I would bore in with someone who describes themselves as an ethnobotanist, just like you, I had the same doubts myself as to whether that is the right word for what I do, is, is perhaps like a central commitment to the ethical aspects.

And if I don’t see those then I really would raise questions. So there is a community based. Is there prior informed consent. Is it benefit sharing? Is it capacity building? And in an ideal world there would be no  ethnobotanists jet setting off to other places ,because every place would have a capacity to do that work itself.

So I think that ethical aspects, sit at the heart of ethnobotany. And if you sign up to those and by all means, call yourself an ethnobotanist. 

Robin: [00:27:09] It’s a funny one because it’s a bit like herbalism. There are folk herbalists like the marvelous Christopher Hedley, and then there are medical herbalists. So the medical herbalists have done all the academics and got the qualifications and the folk herbalists haven’t. But what they have is decades and decades of experience of what I call embodied learning.

So they have worked regularly every day with plants in a medicinal context. So it kind of borders into that and I suppose at the end of the day, for anyone who’s listening, who is wanting to call themselves an ethnobotanist. One, listen to what Mark just said and two, can you genuinely hand on heart sit with yourself and know that you’re not basically bullshitting people?

Mark: [00:28:02] I quite like your distinction, the idea of being an ethnobotanist and the idea of being someone who  does ethnobotanical research. It’s just somehow more modest and realistic claim. And think one that I’d be happy to sign up to. 

Robin: [00:28:15] So it’s been wonderful having you on Mark.

I really appreciate it. I know, you know, you’re Kew. You’re inundated with work even with lockdown. So many, many thanks for coming on.

Mark: [00:28:26] Well  that was very good. Thought provoking questions. 

Robin: [00:28:30] ** THE END **


  1. Thank you, Robin and Mark, that was interesting – just catching up! He mentioned the idea of joining or forming local foraging groups. Does anyone know of any such thing? It would be good to share experiences of that. I’d really like to be part of a local foraging community.

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