My dream for an Ethnobotanical Garden!

Ethnobotanical Gardens what are they?

This is an earlier blog which became lost somehow so will reinstall it using the neat Gotenberg editing of WordPress.

The whole idea of starting an Ethnobotanical garden came about after volunteering for 2 months at ‘Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca’ in 2008!

So what is an Ethnobotanical garden? Hope to explain all about this on the next page and why I feel it is important to have one in this day and age of global warming and pandemics!

There is a lot to talk about but I will make it easier for you, dear reader. If you got little time you can just skip the plain background text and read the coloured blocks only.

First of all what is Ethnobotany?

Ethno-botany (from ethnology, study of culture, and botany, study of plants) is the scientific study of the relationships that exist between people and plants.

But I would go further than this as they have done at Oaxaca’s Botanical garden and this is to just grow their own, native plants in relation to all the uses by their people.

The biodiversity of the State of Oaxaca is enormous and therefore the variety of plants so interesting. When I came back to Britain I found hardly any reference to ‘Ethnobotanical  gardens’  in Europe- the only one seem to be at the University in Kent .

And this garden seems to concentrate mostly on foreign plants and not endemics…

I found this old article by Sue Minter (she was the Supervisor of the Palm house while I was studying at Kew for the Kew Diploma (1986-1989)) Just a short extraction of that article here:

Volume 1 Number 19 – December 1999:

Ethnobotany is not about the use of plants by indigenous people in the tropics alone, it is also about the daily dependence on plants by all of us.  The Convention on Biological Diversity and Agenda 21 have brought a new pride in national biological heritage and the knowledge of both its use and sustainable use by consumers are all issues relevant to ethnobotanical teaching.  Educators are encouraged to reconnect people to plant use via collections of products, product packaging,  living plants and by exploring the use of Europe’s own flora, as well as the rich heritage of plant use by immigrant communities which is often concentrated in urban areas – so called ‘urban ethnobotany’.

It is tempting to see ethnobotany as the study of the use of plants by anybody other than ourselves.  Historically, the strength of this subject has emerged from the study of the uses of plants by tribal and indigenous people, particularly in the tropics.’ 

In Britain and Europe there are what we call here in Britain; Physic Gardens, which are Gardens associated with medicine. I can’t find anything similar with the same ideas as the Etnobotanical Gardens in Oaxaca where they display only their native plants which have an association with people either as food, medicine, art or any other use.

The director of the ‘Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca’ also did not want any name or interpretation labels ‘spoiling’ the garden and instead there are guided tours provided in Spanish as well as in English by employees who all know about the uses and communicate this knowledge in this ‘novel’ or ‘traditional’? way!

We are all very proud of our Botanical Gardens here in the Western world and appreciate the many amenity gardens too, who mainly display exotics!

I always thought it was rather sad that we don’t seem to celebrate, or even know, our native plants/herbs to the extent  as we seem to value and know our exotic plants!

There are of course many individuals and groups interested and working with our native flora but never with the association & tradition of people.

Is it not a good idea to make the native plants (sometimes called weeds) ‘popular’ again to make people appreciate them and therefore take care more of their own surroundings? When I have spoken about this with fellow gardeners/friends they tell me that it won’t ‘sell’ as native plants are not exciting enough to tell a story about….

The knowledge is there still-just- in books mainly, for example in Richard’s Mabey’s ‘Food for Free’ and there is a renewed interest in things like foraging such as with the brilliant Eatweeds blog and herbal medicine-although many herbal medicine are either from North American plants or Chinese origin!  In Cornwall there is the interesting ‘Plants for a Future’ project and this is native plants as well as exotics. 

‘Heemtuin’ or Native Garden and what are they?

In my native ‘Holland’ all major towns have ‘heemtuinen’ (=’native gardens’) where various local habitats are re-created with all their typical plants. Some information is given mostly on signs about their uses but these gardens are mainly to do with nature-conservation and to make people aware about their local environment. Although there is one nice small heemtuin In Nieuwkoop  (Zuid-Holland province) where they grow a whole range of different Willow for different traditional purposes in that region.

Just a little flavour on what this small garden does:

There is nothing similar to this in Britain although there are plenty of Wildlife Gardens which come close to this unique concept.

I was thinking that our traditional Botanical Gardens would be interested in including ethnobotany as a subject and I must confess not to have researched it enough as they already may do so in some.

 But I couldn’t find any information on our best known Botanical Gardens at Kew; they just have the Economic Botany Museum.                     

Most gardens have to find their own finances and might not find ethnobotany rewarding enough. But I feel that (like the Australian Aborigines and North American Indians) we ought to know about our own plants?

So, this is the reason why I’ve started my Virtual Ethnobotanical Garden, where I can at least start with researching the varied uses of all our native plant families and their many varieties!

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