For the love of people and plants

Do you like plants? Gardens? Forests? Eating?

Do you like people? (Even just one or two? Don’t worry, I won’t tell.)

Great. Me, too. And it turns out that PEOPLE and PLANTS are an amazing combination. People need plants to survive and thrive—we need plants to filter the air we can breathe, to create shelter and clothing, for food and medicine, and many other things. Do plants need us? Turns out they do (or at the very least, we’ve been pretty helpful to them). We tend, propagate, and spread them, thus continuing their legacies across generations and geographic expanses.

Here I am in 2013 in a botanical garden in Joensuu, Finland. I search out plants wherever I go. Obsessed? Yeah, probably.

You probably know this already, but studying the interrelationship of plants and people is called ethnobotany, and it’s my favorite subject (although I tend to be interested in everything). I study ethnobotany (among other things), and my research often focuses on medical ethnobotany—the knowledge and practice of plants for medicine. I’m going to tell you a little bit more about what I do and my general approach so you can see where I’m coming from as I write this and other posts.

Currently, my research takes place in the Maya area—specifically in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas—which is an incredibly diverse area—both biologically and culturally. So I study what rural and Indigenous Mexicans know about plants (for food, medicine, you name it), including how they use them and whether they grow them in gardens or forage them in wild places.

Here I am this past summer (2022) in Chiapas, Mexico, steaming leaves to wrap around tamales.

I also look at how people’s knowledge about medicinal plants varies among individuals in different communities. I look at this variation and try to figure out what it is related to–like differences in where people live, how close their community is to urban centers versus rural settings, their cultural background, age, education levels, and other factors. I also study traditional foods, because, you guessed it, I like to eat. Well, that and food is a powerful symbol of cultural identity and encompasses all sorts of environmental and social knowledge in its production and preparation.

One reason that medical ethnobotany is important is that plants provide the basis for most modern drugs (like quinine for malaria. No one wants to get malaria). And obviously, drug development is super important.

HOWEVER (and this is a big however), it’s important that in the future, new drug discoveries and other applications of plants take into account both sustainable sourcing of plant material and respect and equitable benefit-sharing for Indigenous and local people whose cultural knowledge informs us of how we might use plants for everyone’s benefit. This is a big deal, which I’ll discuss more in future posts. Being sensitive to these issues hopefully creates a better world for all—plants and people alike.

Susy and me sitting in her garden in Chiapas, Mexico. She just gifted me that freshly picked dragonfruit (pitahaya, Sp.) that I’m holding.

When I work in the field, my main goal is to connect with people and develop good relationships. With good relationships, I can interview local residents about everything plant-related: foods, medicines, gardening, foraging, and more. We usually do this while walking around gardens, forests, or lakesides or sitting in people’s homes or gardens. It often involves eating or drinking something local and delicious. With these good relationships, we can find ways to develop projects together that have direct benefits for local people.

And these relationships extend beyond the field. When I’m not in the field, I engage others in science by giving talks—in person and online—and doing hands-on activities with school kids and adults. Sometimes I lead plant walks. Other times, I get kids to do art related to plants and wild animals.

With colleagues, I’m also developing short educational videos related to our research, so locals can use these “recipe videos” to make herbal medicines and traditional foods, and folks outside of my research area can use them to learn about plant traditions in other parts of the world. My whole jam is ensuring that my work is useful to host communities.

I started this blog as a way to share the plant (and people) love. (OK, full transparency—the kind folks who awarded me a Botany in Action fellowship also requested that I write a blog about science education. Two birds.) I plan to write about research findings—mine and others’, info about plants and tips for using them, thoughts on being a white woman working with Indigenous people, important considerations for conducting ethical research, travel experiences, garden planning ideas, my quips with academia, and more. I might even write about cats and cold-water snorkeling (probably not at the same time).

If I never get another chance to mention snorkeling and cats in the same sentence, here it goes, with pictures of each!

I’m open to suggestions if you have a topic you’d like me to write about. I would also love to connect with you about our shared love of plants, so feel free to send me an email or find me on social media to tell me about your recent botanical activities or whatever excites YOU about plants.

Thanks for reading!

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