Ethnobotany is a specialized branch of plant science that aims to understand the complex relationships between human beings and plant life. Different cultures of the past and the present have discovered a variety of uses for their indigenous plants. People use plants for food, medicine, shelter, clothing, cosmetics, and in religious rituals, among many other uses. Public interest in ethnobotany is on the rise due to conservation concerns and increasing appeal in the potential benefits of natural foods and medicines.
Typically working outdoors, ethnobotanists observe how certain cultures make use of their plants. Field ethnobotanists commonly travel to isolated, exotic locations, such as tropical forests, to learn how and why certain plants are used. Before embarking on field expeditions, scientists often engage in extensive research of what is already known about the native plants and people of a region. Once on location, ethobotanists commonly spend several months or even years with a group of native people, gaining knowledge about the practical and spiritual aspects of hundreds of different plant species. They make detailed reports of their findings, meticulously collect plant samples for analysis, and when possible conduct personal interviews with natives.
Laboratory ethnobotanists analyze the chemical and physical properties of a variety of plants to determine if they can be of practical use to humans. Experts combine their knowledge of ethnobotany and laboratory science to conduct exacting experiments on plant tissues, seeds, and pollen. Ethnobotanical research can lead to the direct development of new pharmaceuticals and dietary supplements. Additionally, the principals of ethnobotany are frequently employed by researchers at biotechnology companies, cosmetics factories, and food science institutions.
Most practicing ethnobotanists have received doctoral degrees in botany, as well as extensive training and education in anthropology, ecology, sociology, history, or medicine. Ethnobotanists need a broad knowledge and training base to properly execute field and laboratory work. They commonly use anthropological principals to objectively examine a society's use of indigenous plants, and apply their ecology knowledge to promoting botanical conservation, protection, and awareness to a public audience.
There is a growing demand for skilled scientists to carry out ethnobotany research, both in the field and the lab. Ethnobotanists are quickly becoming prominent figures in conservation efforts, as well as expert consultants on restoring ecosystems and forests. In addition, there is a strong global trend to employ natural herbal remedies in place of modern artificial medicines. The specialized knowledge of ethnobotanists will continue to influence research and development of medicine and natural food products.