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Importance of Ethnobotany in Various Cultures

Updated: Aug 28, 2022

The plants’ curative power was well known since civilization’s origin or as early as Neanderthal man. The most primitive documented applications are found in Babylon circa 1770 B.C. in Hammurabi’s code and ancient Egypt circa 1550 B.C. The Sumerian Herbal of 2200 BC was the first record of curative plants. Between between CE 60 and 78, Dioscorides wrote De Materia Medica, using 600 plants, which ultimately became the base for many later works. The materia medica of these systems contains a rich heritage of indigenous herbal practices.

An epoch of science and philosophy, the Greek civilization has made a worthy contribution to phytopharmaceuticals. -The Greek doctor Hippocrates, in the 5th century BC, known as the father of allopathic medicine, listed some 400 herbs in everyday use and formulated the first scientific medical paradigm of treatment (Schultes, et al.,1978, Sykiotis, et al., 2006).

Fu His, a pioneer of Traditional Chinese Medicine, addresses exogenous factors that have engaged in the pathology. Shen Nong Ben Cao Jin (22-250 AD) owns the crown of written Chinese medicine. In contrast, the etiology of various diseases and remedies for various medical problems was described in a book titled Zhu Bing Yuan Ji Lun written CaoYuan Fang (550-630) and in Pen Tsao, the Chinese pharmacopeia (Kopp, et, al., 2003; Xu, et. al., 2009).

With the fall of the Roman Empire, scholars from the Islamic Arab world translated books from Greece and Rome. Arabs, being the pioneers of basic pharmacy practices, introduced the foundation of drug stores, the job description of physicians as diagnosticians of disease, and pharmacists deputed for drug extraction and formulation. Written by The initiator of the Greco-Arabic school of medicine, Abu Ali Al Hussain Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-932 AD) wrote Canon, which describes more than 1000 drugs and Kitab Ash-Shifa, which is known as a Scientific encyclopedia. The Book on Poisons and Antidotes: is a comprehensive book on different plant poisons and antidotes written by Abu Musa Jabir ben Hayyan (Saeed et al., 1998; Azaizeh et al., 2003; Azaizeh et al., 2006; Sad et al., 2006).

In Europe, According to Arber (1938), during the age of herbals (from 1470-1670 A. D.) and Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus of Hohen-hein, popularly known as Paracelsus ( 1493 – 1541 A. D. ) advocated the use of plants for curing diseases.

Indian traditional systems of medicine

In Indian civilization, 114 hymns, formulated for the treatment of different diseases. The two primary schools and eight specializations got evolved from the knowledge gathered and nurtured over the centuries. One was the school of surgeons referred to in the literature as ‘Atreya Sampradaya’ (Sampradaya means tradition), and another one was the school of physicians called as ‘Dhanvantri Sampradaya.’ Ayurveda and Unani have survived for more than 3000 years and served as traditional medical systems using plant-based drugs. The ancient texts such as Rig Veda (4500-1600 BC) and Atharva Veda describes the uses of a large number of drugs. The two crucial Granthas of ancient India, which describes 700 Indian medicinal plants, are “Charaka Samhita,” written by Charak, an ancient healer, and “Susruta-Samhita,” written by Susruta, an ancient surgeon as well as a healer. The “Vrikshayurveda,” written by Parasara, is known as the science of medicinal plants.

India is one of the wealthiest countries in ethnobotanical knowledge due to the multi-ethnic group of ancient lineage and very diverse vegetation. There are over 50 million tribal known as “Adivasi” (Original Settlers, Aboriginal Indigenous, Vanvasi, forest inhabitant, Etc.) belonging to 550 tribal communities, mostly living in the forest, hills, and naturally isolated regions.

The works like Materia Medica of Hindoostan (Ainslie, 1813), Indigenous Drugs of India (Chopra, 1933), and Indigenous dealt mainly with plants and drugs of established Indigenous system of Indian Medicine Since 1960. In India, Emphasizing the tribal system of medicine and culture, the organized study and research on ethnobotany began in the middle of this century. Now, ethnobotany has transformed as an interdisciplinary science which involved botany, sociology, anthropology, archeology, folklore, mythology, economics, medicine, ecology, linguistics, forestry, agriculture, pharmacology, phytochemistry, and economic botany.

History of Ethnobotany

Li Shizen, a great Chinese physician and naturalist, wrote a more inclusive pharmacopeia Ben Ca Gang Mu, published in 1596, contains 1894 prescriptions, and used as a guide and reference for research and schooling in China and several other communities. Referring to Aboriginals’ plants, Harshberger, a botany professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1895, coined the term ethnobotany, where “ethno” means – the study of people and “botany” means the study of plants. Later Schultes (1962) defined ethnobotany as “the study of the relationship which exists between people of primitive societies and their plant environment.” Apart from Schultes, various workers (Robbins et al., 1916; Jones, 1941; Fualks, 1958; Heiser, 1995) also defined ethnobotany, thus widening its scope. Leopold Glueck, a German physician working in Sarajevo, was the first individual to describe the plant world’s emic perspective. Rural people in Bosnia (1986) published his work on traditional medical uses of plants considered the first modern ethnobotanical work (Choudhary et al., 2008).

From ancient times, the songs, tales, and other expressions in India has not only included trees, plants, and flowers as members of their own family but has also portrait as an image of Goa (Jain, 1958). During the last 30 years, Ethnobotany studies have proceeded to several lines such as ethnobotany of particular plant group, Specific tribes of a certain region, diseases, and various other miscellaneous subject or interdisciplinary approaches.

Contribution to indigenous medicinal plants was established only after the publications of Delton’s (1872) Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal: Dutta’s (1877). The Translation of Sanskrit Materia Medica: Fliickiger and Handbury’s (1879) Phamiacographia of India followed by Dymock’s (1883), The Vegetables Materia Medica of Western India: Warring’s (1886) The Pharmacopoeia of India and Hooper’s (1891). The Materia Medica of Madras. 10 Hooker and Thomson (1855) dedicated Flora Indica. Later Hooker (1872 – 1897) enumerated 14000 species of angiosperms, which became a pioneer record on the flora in the Indian subcontinent. Similarly Watt (1889-1896) contributed A Dictionary of the Economic products of India, which completes the encyclopedic work. These contributions helped in one way or the other for the development of ethnobotanical investigation. Harshberger (1893) gave some new ideas in the path of ethnobotany. Later in 1895. he explained the purpose of ethnobotany. Thus ethnobotany came into existence and systematic work on traditional medicine rooted during 19th century.

Current status of Ethnobotany

In the US, around two-fifths of all modern pharmaceutical products contain one or more naturally derived ingredients, the foremost of which are secondary metabolites, like alkaloids, glycosides, terpenes, steroids, and other classes grouped supported their physiological activity in human beings or chemical structure.

To the uninformed, herbs are generally thought of as ineffective medicines used before the arrival of simpler synthetic drugs. To others, herbs are simply sources of compounds to isolate then market as drugs. However, herbs and crude plant extracts and efficient medicines for some people to be respected and appreciated. For many people, herbal medicines were the sole therapeutic agents available. In 1985; WHO estimated that 80% of the earth’s population relies on herbs (Farnsworth et al., 1985). This widespread use of herbal medicines is not restricted to developing countries, as it has estimated that 30-40% of all medical doctors in France and Germany rely on herbal preparations as their primary medicines (Wagner, 1988).

According to Kurian and M. Asha Sankar (2007) about 9650 plants have medicinal properties; out of these flowering plants were 8000, pteridophytes 200, bryophytes 150, algae, and lichen were 650 each. They stated that in India, families such as Asteraceae, Solanaceae, Apocynaceae, Cucurbitaceae, acanthaceae, Malvaceae, Rubiaceae, Convolvulaceae, Euphorbiaceae, and Poaceae are contributing to medicinal plant wealth. The medicinal plant species occur in 10 biogeographical zones which are Western Ghats (2000 Species), Trans Himalayan zone (700 species), North-West Himalayas (1700 Species), Central and Eastern Himalayan Zone (1200 species), Semi-arid zone (1000 species), Desert zone (500 Species), Deccan Peninsula (3000 species), Northeast India (2000 species), Gangetic Plain (1000 species), Coastal lands (500 species), Andaman and Nicobar, and Laccadive Islands (1000 species).

Ignacimuthu et al., 2005, surveyed ethnobotanical information on medicinal plants in Southern Western Ghats of India (Madurai district, Tamil Nadu) from paliyar tribes. They observed that tribal people still depend on medicinal plants to cure skin diseases, poison bites, stomach-ache, nervous disorders, Etc.

The study conducted by Panghal et al., 2010, revealed that the indigenous community of snake charmer belonging to the ‘Nath’ community of village Khetawas located in district Jhajjar of Haryana use 57 medicinal plants species that belonged to 51 genera and 35 families for the treatment of various diseases. The highest number of plants, i.e., 19 different types of medicinal plants belonging to 13 families, were used to treat Snakebite. They even used many plants to treat piles, mental diseases, abdominal problems, toothache, treatment of respiratory problems, and mouth ulcers.

Intending to identify traditional healers who are practicing herbal medicine among the Kani tribals in Thodu hills of Kerala, India, Xavier et al., 2014, investigated 35 medicinal plant species belonging to 28 families and 34 genera. The informant consensus about medicinal plants’ usages ranges from 0.70 to 1, with an average value of 0.83. Herbs (46%) were the primary medicine source, followed by shrubs (23%). Plumbago zeylanica (UV of 1.86) and Ocimum tenuiflorum (UV of 1.57) are the most frequently used medicinal plant species in the study area. Aristolochia tagala is rare, and a vulnerable climber, Curculigo orchioides, Elephantopus scaber, Helicteres isora, Smilax zeylanica, and Strychnos nux-vomica are rare species which needs conservation for future use.

A medical ethnobotanical survey on Yanadi tribes of the Chittoor District, Andhra Pradesh, India, conducted from 1990 to 1992 reveals 22 plant species commonly used as antidotes for poisonous snake bites. The evaluation of plant drugs used as antidotes revealed that Yanadi tribes widely use roots (50% of times), leaves (45% of times), and other parts (5% of times) of plats. Sudarsanam et al., 2010, also found that most antidotes taste bitter, hinting the presence of alkaloids or perhaps glycoside and saponins.

Naik et al., 2014, documented the hot spot of plant biodiversity, which is also known as Ayurveda’s land, i.e., medicinal plants of North and South districts of Goa. The rich diversity of plants used by tribal people enumerated with their local botanical names, family, habitat, disease, which it cures, plant parts used, and formulation. He also stated that under the threat of modernization, overexploitation, and the destruction of forest wealth, resulting in the depletion of these herbal medicines from their natural habitat and the only way to conserve, is to preserve the precious knowledge and create social awareness about this traditional knowledge as well as resources.

This world is blessed with a rich and diverse heritage of cultural traditions associated with domestic and wild plants, which can be used to solve most of the direst problem.


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