A Global Ethnobotanist

Aurora Prehn, an ethnobotanist, standing in a greenhouse. Aurora is shown wearing glasses, a red hat with flowers, and a red jacket. She is carrying a backpack.

This past April I had the pleasure of attending the seminar Talking About Tea: A Networking and Conversation Virtual Event, hosted by UC Davis’ Global Tea Initiative. It was very informative, educational, and expounded on the global influences of tea. The presenter was engaging, enthusiastic and overflowing with knowledge relating to her specialty, which is ethnobiology. I am posting this article after Earth Day, but scientifically speaking, Earth Day is Everyday for ethnobotanists! 

An Ethnobotanist Does What? 

Aurora standing next to a large gray-green filing cabinet used for artifact storage. A few drawers of the cabinet are open to reveal artifacts in plastic bags.

I was mystified. I knew what botany was, but was sorely lacking in a definition of ethnobotany. Aurora Prehn, with People & Plants, LLC, and the Missouri Botanical Garden was very knowledgeable on the subject matter she was presenting. My attention was divided. On the one hand, I was thoroughly enthralled in all the tea artifacts that Aurora discussed during the zoom lecture. On the other hand, I was drawn away trying to understand exactly what a ethnobotanist was and what encapsulated their profession.

Ethnobotany is the study of the interconnection between people and the natural world of biology, with Ethno meaning people, or culture. There are multiple fields of study within Biology that include the intersection of people and nature, such as: paleoethnobotany, ethnozoology, ethnomycology and ethnobotany . Aurora’s specialty, Ethnobotany, is a multi-discipline that focuses on plants and people with a combined perspective on humanities and botany. The field of study developed in the mid-20th century in the United States, and is quickly growing globally, particularly in locations where plant knowledge is extensive, such as in Brazil and India. The world-renowned ethnobotanist Miguel Alexiades explained that “ethnobotany constitutes an exceedingly broad, diverse, multidimensional, and dynamic domain. This is partly due to…..unparalleled importance of plants in human affairs and ….interactions between diverse and changing human societies and an astounding diversity of plant species: about 400,000 world wide.” (2018, p2) 

Helping The Future By Looking Into The Past

Artifacts behind glass. These include woven animal statues, a travel bag, and a long rectangular box.

Ethnobotanists are not just focused on the past but consistently looking toward the future. Plant conservation is crucial for biological and cultural diversity. Looking into the past via ethnobotany, and preserving existing diversity is fostering and nurturing the future. The Missouri Botanical Gardens website states that approximately one half of the world’s plants are rapidly approaching extinction. Ethnobotanists come alongside other scientists and indigenous people groups to support and preserve existing biological practices via a range of methods. Ethnobotanists are aware how closely linked diversity is and by conserving biological diversity you are simultaneously preserving cultural diversity. For example, ethnobotanists can support the cultural continuation of a culture’s medicinal tea by documenting its usage. They can make scientific based suggestions for plant substitution if a culture needs to amend their medicinal tea due to a decrease or lack of sustainability in growing plants.

The Missouri Botanical Garden’s (MOBOT) website states that approximately one half of the world’s plants are rapidly approaching extinction. The conservation and science departments of Missouri Botanical Garden (including geneticists, horticulturists, botanists, taxonomists, and ethnobotanists) work tirelessly to analyze, describe and catalogue plant material before the plants become extinct.

They uphold the Garden’s mission to “discover and share knowledge about plants and their environment in order to preserve and enrich life.”

Shared Knowledge Is Valuable

There is an extensive botanical database called Tropicos operated by MOBOT for all to access. Libraries, archives and online databases are invaluable tools for scientists and researchers studying tea. Oxford, Kew Gardens, Duke University and Missouri Botanical Garden are just a few of the locations that have biocultural collections of tea and teaware. The famous English merchants Fortnum and Mason have cataloged tea relics and utilitarian objects relating to the consumption and processing of tea in their archive. A French tea company Mariage Freres has an extensive collection of antique tea cakes, and tea artifacts on the second floor of their Ile de St. Louis Paris location. Global preservation of tea and tea objects help insure the continuation of the rich cultural heritages of how tea has been and continues to shape cultures economically, and socially.

Tea, Ethnobotany, and Objects D’Art

Artifacts behind glass. These include what appear to be small books, a tin can, some bottles, and a woven hat.

Tea and tea objects d’art can tell a story about a culture and the people who consumed the tea and owned the objects. Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, behind water and almost every culture has its own unique tea culture and rituals. Ethnobotanists, like Aurora, research a tea object utilizing an ethnobotanical perspective to explain both the botanical and the cultural aspects of the acquired tea object. Ancient tea samples and artifacts can inform researchers and scientists as to what a culture was consuming, how a tea was processed and what purpose did the tea serve. Also, the age of the tea, how the tea was packaged, and if the tea was adulterated are some of the mysteries that ethnobotanists unravel.

Around the world, various forms of tea have, and continue, to be served in numerous cultures. For example, ethnobotanists can take residue samples from ancient pottery, ceramics, and tea chests and isolate exactly what was in them. Ancient Japanese tea ceremony objects d’arts pottery pieces can be tested and analyzed. The stories behind the ancient pottery come to life when it is discovered what specific tea leaf was served in the ancient drinking receptacles. Ancient Tribute teas in China, when genetically tested by botanists, give historians a snapshot of the tea drinking preferences of Emperors of China. An analysis of the tea explains what tea was processed culturally at that time in history, and the meaning behind the ancient, well preserved pressed tea cake shapes. It is purported that in the Forbidden City, in Beijing China, there is Pu’Erh tea that is hundreds of years old. Ethnobotanists, I surmise, would aid in the handling, preservation and correct storage of the ancient tea within the Forbidden City, in order to preserve a treasure trove of history and culture through the story of tea. 

Keeping an eye on earth and helping to keep it green,

Leslie

References: 

Alexiades, M. A. (2018) Ethnobotany, In: The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, ed. Hilary Callan. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell. 

https://www.auroraprehn.com/resources/ethnobotany

https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/about.aspx

https://www.tropicos.org/home

About The Author

A photo of Leslie on the patio wearing a pink cardiganLeslie Sundberg is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Specialist, a World Tea Academy Apprentice Tea Sommelier, a Specialty Tea Institute Level IV trained Tea Specialist, and a Tea and Business Etiquette Specialist. On any given day, Leslie can be found teaching, speaking or sharing in the joys of a cup of tea.  No matter what Leslie is doing or where she is, one thing remains constant: 4:00 in the afternoon is tea time!

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