Plants and animals have co-existed and co-evolved throughout time.The survival of both plants and animals is intimately intertwined.Ethnobotany is the study of humanity and our relationship with the plant kingdom.Ethnobotanists document, describe, and explain complex relationships existing between humans and the uses of plants.Plants are used for food, medicine, fiber, structural materials, fuels, and sources of beauty and inspiration.Ethnobotanists take into account cultural, artistic, religious, ecological, economic, and scientific relationships with plants.
There are roughly 300,000 species of plants.About fifteen of these species form what are considered to be the staple crops keeping humanity from starvation.Seven of these species are Old World grasses: barley, millet, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, and wheat; one species, corn, has its origin in the Americas.Wheat and rice make up about 75% of the world’s cereal grain production providing about half of all human dietary calorie and protein requirements.Add to that legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) and root crops (cassava and sweet potatoes) along with bananas, coconut, and sugar cane to form the bulk of humanity’s food crops.Roughly another thousand species comprised of fruiting trees and shrubs, herbs, vegetables, spices, and those plant species providing beverages, stimulation, and intoxication contribute to the quality of human life.Plants, mostly grasses and legumes, also provide feed for man’s livestock.A few hundred species of woody plants are used to satisfy the demands for wood, lumber, and pulp for construction, furniture, paper, and fuel.
Primitive cultures used a much wider range of wild plants based on a community’s needs, but that model has been replaced by the mass production of monocultures.The survival of the world’s population has become dependent upon the introduction of new genetic strains (cultivars) and genetically engineered varieties of a few plant species suited to modern mechanized agricultural processes.
Humans have also been identifying and using plants as sources of medicine for thousands of years.Plants possess the ability to synthesize a tremendous variety of chemical compounds used for biological functions and as defensive mechanisms against insects and larger herbivorous animals.So far, about 12,000 compounds have been chemically isolated, but undoubtedly, an even greater number of compounds have yet to be discovered.The use of plants in the treatment of diseases predates written human history.Herbal use is almost universal in primitive, non-industrialized societies, but even in the industrialized nations, the use of herbal remedies is becoming more commonplace as scientific evidence about the effectiveness of herbal medicine becomes more widely available.Many medicines currently available to physicians have a long history of use as herbal remedies including aspirin from the bark of willow, digitalis from foxglove, quinine from the cinchona tree, and opium from poppies.
It is easy to take a narrow view of plants as simply green photosynthetic machines providing humanity’s food, fiber, medicine, building materials, and fuel.This rationale could make the argument that we humans now grow all the kinds of plants we will ever need.This is a false assumption, though, for it would not ensure our own survival nor of the world we share with so many other living things.All things are inextricably linked into a web of life.