Why Unimportant Plants are Important: Further Thoughts on Ethnobotanical "Canaries in the Coal Mine"

Ethnobotany 2
Date and Time: 
Thursday, 17 March, 2016 - 13:30
, John Richard - University of Florida

Much ethnobotanical research has been concerned with documenting the plants most useful to a particular culture.  Clearly, long-term survival of a community is predicated on this subset of traditional ecological knowledge.  However, the relatively little attention paid to unimportant plants obscures the relevance of these flora as a gauge to measure change in traditional ecological knowledge and practices. Due to their relative unimportance, they are the first to disappear from a culture's collective knowledge and wisdom.  The metaphor of the "canary in a coal mine," where British and American miners in the 19th and early 20th century relied on canaries to detect deleterious environmental change before it affected humans, is relevant here.  The loss of knowledge about un-utilized plants serves this purpose in demonstrating change before more drastic effects occur. This paper relies on examples from fieldwork in Chiapas, Mexico; Yunnan, China; and Swaziland.