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Ethnobotany examines the cultural and biological relationships between plants and people, usually human populations organized into communities or linguistic groups. Ethnobotanists study how people use plants, modify habitats to benefit plant species, alter entire landscapes, and create new plants through genetic selection (domestication) and unnatural places to grow them (gardens and fields).
People without metal or advanced technology have been regarded as incapable of transforming the environment from its “pristine,” pre-European contact condition. Ethnobotanists have demonstrated through extensive fieldwork that indigenous people worldwide had the means and knowledge to modify the landscape and to create anthropogenic plant communities. In North America their interactions were extensive enough to make a “domesticated” plant environment where the actual presence of plants, their distribution, associations, quantity, and physical condition were determined by indigenous people’s behavior, utilitarian needs, and worldview.
Plant Species Management
Many techniques are used to target individual plant species to increase their productivity, ease of harvest, or spatial proximity to benefit people. Nonsedentary foragers, small-scale farmers, and agriculturists employ them. Burning clumps of a species will encourage sprouting for basketry or wooden tools. Redbud, hazel, and oak are manipulated by this means in Native California. Some plants are burned seasonally to encourage edible seed production or greens for humans and grazing animals.
Weeding seasonally “useless” plants to reduce competition and raise visibility, shaking propagules to increase seedlings, and creating monotypic plots encourages other plants. These are forms of selective harvesting and tending. Another form of plant lifecycle intervention is harvesting plants’ subterranean roots, tubers, or bulbs with a digging stick. This technique incidentally replants root cuttings (e.g., Jerusalem artichokes and sweet flag) and bulblets (e.g., onions and camas). Through cultivation, the soil seeds are sowed, the soil is aerated, allelopaths are oxidized, and nutrients are recycled. Sedge and bulrush rhizomes for baskets grow longer from these tilling practices. Another method to assure the availability of important plants, especially rare medicines found some distance from a community, is transplanting them in a garden or protected track. A final procedure commonly used is pruning or coppicing perennial trees or shrubs for basket canes, cordage, and firewood. Breaking fruit-laden branches of serviceberry and huckleberry reinvigorated them to stimulate vegetative growth, flowering, and fruits. The Pueblo Indians in the Southwest pruned dead limbs from pinon pines for firewood and knocked the branches to stimulate growth of more nuts from a healthier tree.
Humans create heterogeneous environments through their broad-scale management practices. Plant manipulation and harvest methods follow a multiyear cycle of plant management according to species and their locality. The result is an ecosystem composed of a mosaic of communities maintained by human cultural practices. Wildernesses only came to be when the indigenous managers lost their land, were killed in wars or by disease, or were replaced by foreign colonists.
Fire is a common tool throughout the world to alter plant communities. Fires set locally around acorn, hickory, and other nut trees clear brush, aid collecting or, indirectly, establish shade-intolerant seedlings. By burning grasslands and berry patches, new growth is stimulated and plant competitors are eliminated. By using fire, nutrients are recycled simultaneously, pests killed, and lower stages of plant succession maintained. The overall result is a patchwork of communities characterized by species diversity and vigorous growth.
The entire landscape is not managed the same annually. Patches are burned in different years and harvests varied according to biological factors but aided by human practices of settlement, social dispersion, and even ritual regulation for determining which plants can be harvested at different times and places.
Special anthropogenic spaces are gardens. These are not a duplication of other plant communities but instead are associations of plants, which exist nowhere else, brought together and maintained by humans, often women. They are convenient for procuring plant products, for their high productivity, and for their great diversity of utilitarian species. Gardens may consist of native species alone, domesticated plants, or a mixture of both categories.
Wild versus Domesticated Plants
Wild or domesticated is a difficult distinction. Most plants have been selected for by many cultivation techniques. Few have avoided these human-induced lifecycle alterations to be called truly “wild.” Agricultural plants, on the other hand, have been selected for features useful to people. Their new genetic expressions are plant “artifacts” that do not exist in nature and probably would not reproduce without the assistance and habitat maintenance by people. Domesticated plants are found in all temperate and tropical continents except Australia. They include annual plant seed foods (wheat, barley, rice, millet, maize), vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, onions, squash, spinach, cabbage), herbal spices (chilies, coriander, parsley), perennial tree fruits (apples, peaches, mangos) and nuts (walnuts, coconuts), and beverages (coffee and tea). People also domesticated utilitarian plants (bottle gourds, cotton, hemp). Each requires a beneficial habitat for growth, and people determine these. In arid lands, irrigation canals and lithic mulch fields are necessary to conserve water for plants. Examples are found in Arizona, Israel, India, and China. The soil is improved with the addition of animal manure and kitchen waste. Heat and the impact of direct sunlight are mitigated by intercropping shade plants with tea, coffee, and fruits. Stone terracing to create more arable land surface alters topography in Peru, Mexico, and China. Women often maintain gardens for culinary variation, dietary supplements, or the aesthetics of flowers. Small fields are maintained for subsistence and are weeded according to local cultural rules of plant use. Large fields are cleared for staple crops or for surplus to sell in markets.
Ethnobotany of Environmental History
Ethnobotany tracks the actions of people, guided by their belief systems, to learn about alternative management techniques, and to understand how plant worlds are manipulated by different cultures. People use many techniques to secure a harvest of utilitarian plants. They have many management principles that regulate exploitation through scheduling their harvest activities, rotating collection areas, and limiting access by applying social and religious sanctions. These practices may benefit individual species and, simultaneously, increase habitat diversity through communities at different stages of plant succession and diverse landscapes of more productive plant associations.
The domestication of maize (Zea mays) and it methods of production present an example of the ethnobotany of environmental change. Maize is an artifact, created throughout human selection of phenotypic traits, which cannot reproduce without human assistance. To grow it humans must eliminate plant competition by clearing the land and providing the environmental qualities required for growth, mainly control over water and temperature. By clearing the land a habitat is created for ruderals, like pigweed (Amaranthus) or lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium), which can be eaten as leaves and seeds by farmers or weeded according to cultural practices. After the field is abandoned, new plants volunteer that might be useful as well and create successional patches of diverse plants and animals. None would occur in nature without human manipulation of the environment for cultural purposes.
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