The Smithsonian Botanical Symposium took place on Saturday 25th September 2010 at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. This event was entitled ‘Food for Thought: 21st Century Perspectives on Ethnobotany’ and included a range of speakers talking about their research spanning the botanical and other effects of crop domestication to the management practices of humans in a variety of cultures and contexts. For me this was a great opportunity, as a clinical herbal practitioner just lucky to be in the United States at this time, to hear about other aspects of ethnobotany today. And I thoroughly enjoyed meeting a good number of expert botanists who care deeply about the future of both people and plants on this planet.
The event commenced with introductions and the award of the José Quatrecasas Medal for Excellence in Tropical Botany to Beryl Simpson of the University of Texas. We also heard about the Encyclopaedia of Life project ( This project, EOL, aims to generate a million species pages over coming years and to provide educational materials for biodiversity. Also mentioned was the initiative of “Recovering Voices: Partnerships on Endangered Languages and Knowledge Systems,” which is a recent multidisciplinary initiative of the Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage. Recovering Voices to encourage collaborative research in the documentation and prevention of language endangerrment and loss of knowledge
Then Kenneth Olsen (Washington University in St Louis) described work on genetic signatures in a number of crops with a focus on coconut (Cocos nucifera) and rice (Oryza sativa) and past links to oceanic trade routes. This analysis has enabled identification of likely connections between introduced crop varieties on both sides of the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well as clarification of the source of contaminating wild crops in the United States such as ‘weedy rice’ which is difficult to dehusk and makes rice appear blemished. It was evident from his talk that the ‘weedy rice’ has been encouraged by modern methods, in older systems of hand planting the unwanted plant would have been selected out. Alison Miller (St Louis University) discussed clonal propagation of perennial crops and profiled the cases of Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) and Pecan (Carya illinoiensis). She noted significant aspects of perennial crops such as their likelihood of contributing to ecosystems, longer growing periods, deeper roots and less intense cultivation requirements. In each case, she discussed possible effects of decreased fertility and genetic narrowing arising from clonal propagation. Eve Emshwiller (University of Wisconsin) discussed another clonal crop, Oca (Oxalis tuberosa), grown in the central Andes region. In her presentation she emphasised the importance of talking to the people, alongside chromosomal analysis, which provided information on different purposes for varieties. As this crop is also clonally propagated, it cannot be preserved and she stressed the importance of living collections of plants. As we broke for lunch I became aware of the hubbub in the Museum as hundreds of excited children and their parents approached a wide range of stalls and activities linked to the centenary celebrations of the Natural History collections. Our group was fortunate to nip upstairs into a quiet staff area for a welcome lunch box and a table about the Appalachian Center for Ethnobotanical Studies, interesting information provided by Mimi Hernandez of the Frostburg State University in Maryland.
The first afternoon speaker was Cameron McNell (New York City University) who talked about the many and ritual uses of Chocolate (Theobroma cacao). Sources for understanding how Chocolate may have been used include burial deposits where containers show remains alongside other foods. Both Maize and Chocolate appear to have been highly significant items, and had cultural associations. Maize had sky, bird and make associations whereas Chocolate had earth, crocodile and female associations. However modern communities have far less access to this plant due to its cost and availability. Julie Velasquez Rank (University of Georgia) discussed culture and ethnobotany in Panama and the United States flagging up research methodologies. She also raised the question of why there was is much more emphasis on international ethnobotanical investigation and so little research in the US context, noting interest in primitive skills such as ‘Back to the Land’ gatherings and other developments in regional traditions alongside popular interest in food. Our last 2 speakers provided something of a change from the botanical and anthropological crop themes, both pointing out that they were not really botanists! Torben Rick (Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology) described his work on the use of kelp by Native Americans, highlighting the lack of data for marine sources and relative absence of knowledge about this important aspect of human interaction with marine eco-systems. Finally, Ruth Defries (Columbia University) reviewed the larger picture of the planetary supply of food and the consequences of human interventions. She emphasised the variety of human interventions, the interlocking metabolic processes of the earth, and the challenge of moving towards increased food production methods which do not undermine planetary systems.
Our meeting ended around 5.45 and we were then able to view the new botanical illustration exhibition which showcases plants at risk or endangered. (‘Losing Paradise: Endangered Plants Here and Around the World’ runs till December 12, 2010 at the Museum of Natural History). I was moved by the exquisite detail of these works by varied botanical artists, and would recommend a visit just to see them. Our day rounded off with a memorable meal seated at temporary tables set up in the Rotunda, overlooked by the resident African bull elephant (stuffed of course!). Throughout the day I felt very fortunate to meet a number of enthusiastic botanists and others and was pleased to find that there was much common ground between botany, ethnobotany and anthropology. This Symposium will have contributed to bridging the divides between these areas and may also provide added impetus for national and local initiatives concerned with biodiversity and sustainability.