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The search for more and better plant-based medicines continues today.
It’s more than a matter of finding new plants or documenting traditional remedies before they disappear, although that is part of the process.
Researchers are also trying to understand more about the medicinal plants we already use - to identify how each chemical compound affects the human body. Full-scale clinical trials of traditional remedies are just beginning, a process that will give doctors a more complete picture of what a particular herbal remedy can (and can’t) do for a patient.
Botanists and growers are also part of this process, as they work on ways to produce plants with a higher or more consistent level of medicinal chemicals.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Tim Johns

Ethnobotanist

McGill University

Montreal, Quebec



Works with the James Bay Cree to refine the way they use traditional remedies against diabetes.

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between humans and plants, and perhaps some consequences of that relationship. It is a very broad field and it looks at such interactions very expansively. More often than not, people are interested in how plants affect humans and how people use plants, but it could also be the other way around. Some people are particularly interested in plants and want to understand something about what their use by humans, in the past or the present, does either to the genetic makeup of species, like what we see in domestication, or its impact on plant populations.
Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between humans and plants, and perhaps some consequences of that relationship. It is a very broad field and it looks at such interactions very expansively. More often than not, people are interested in how plants affect humans and how people use plants, but it could also be the other way around. Some people are particularly interested in plants and want to understand something about what their use by humans, in the past or the present, does either to the genetic makeup of species, like what we see in domestication, or its impact on plant populations.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Because this field is so broad and so multidisciplinary, there's no one way in which ethnobotanists work. My own interest is how human-plant interactions affect aspects of human health. So I focus on plants themselves and knowing what their properties are, and I also work with human populations to try to understand what the role of these plants is in people's subsistence and how plants meet basic nutritional and other health needs. Because it is an interdisciplinary field, you have to know something about plants and you have to have some basic ways of interacting with the communities of people. But the tools you use beyond that are very specific.

Because this field is so broad and so multidisciplinary, there's no one way in which ethnobotanists work. My own interest is how human-plant interactions affect aspects of human health. So I focus on plants themselves and knowing what their properties are, and I also work with human populations to try to understand what the role of these plants is in people's subsistence and how plants meet basic nutritional and other health needs.

Because it is an interdisciplinary field, you have to know something about plants and you have to have some basic ways of interacting with the communities of people. But the tools you use beyond that are very specific.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

I look for populations of people who maintain some aspect of a traditional lifestyle, that is a relationship with the resources of a certain environment that has been handed down over time. Those areas can be anywhere in the world. I work in North America and Canada, but I've also worked extensively in Africa and Latin America and with students who are working in other countries. Ethnobotany in practice is a global enterprise. The issues tend to be very much universal as well. We see the same problems of people adapting to change, the focus of a lot of ethnobotanists, and the dynamics are global.

I look for populations of people who maintain some aspect of a traditional lifestyle, that is a relationship with the resources of a certain environment that has been handed down over time. Those areas can be anywhere in the world. I work in North America and Canada, but I've also worked extensively in Africa and Latin America and with students who are working in other countries.

Ethnobotany in practice is a global enterprise. The issues tend to be very much universal as well. We see the same problems of people adapting to change, the focus of a lot of ethnobotanists, and the dynamics are global.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Tim Johns at work

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


Not so long ago, most ethnobotanists who came from an academic perspective felt like the knowledge and the people who possessed it were simply study subjects or the material for study. This is no longer acceptable. That's not to say there aren't people who still hold those perspectives, but really, in the contemporary context, I think you define your problems differently than we have in the past. Today, most ethnobotanists define problems in terms of issues. Typically they're not only academic issues, they're practical issues for people and the communities that are using those plants. So the orientation of the research is important. And once you actually engage in the work, rather than work on people or study people, you work in a partnership. I, and increasingly most of my colleagues, try to work with communities to find some common understanding of concerns, issues, or problems. Then we go about collecting data in a way that will give theoretical insight and also help find a practical solution to some kind of problem.

Not so long ago, most ethnobotanists who came from an academic perspective felt like the knowledge and the people who possessed it were simply study subjects or the material for study. This is no longer acceptable. That's not to say there aren't people who still hold those perspectives, but really, in the contemporary context, I think you define your problems differently than we have in the past.

Today, most ethnobotanists define problems in terms of issues. Typically they're not only academic issues, they're practical issues for people and the communities that are using those plants. So the orientation of the research is important. And once you actually engage in the work, rather than work on people or study people, you work in a partnership. I, and increasingly most of my colleagues, try to work with communities to find some common understanding of concerns, issues, or problems. Then we go about collecting data in a way that will give theoretical insight and also help find a practical solution to some kind of problem.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

The best example that I'm involved with is our work with James Bay Cree. It's been recognized by people in public health and by First Nations people themselves that diabetes is the most important health problem they face. It's a growing problem, but the magnitude we see now is relatively new. There are attempts certainly to find solutions, but so far none have really been satisfactory.
The best example that I'm involved with is our work with James Bay Cree. It's been recognized by people in public health and by First Nations people themselves that diabetes is the most important health problem they face. It's a growing problem, but the magnitude we see now is relatively new. There are attempts certainly to find solutions, but so far none have really been satisfactory.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

One issue in relation to health of First Nations is that people have their own concepts of health and traditional ways of dealing with health. Within their community some people have been influenced in their thinking and lifestyle by mainstream society, while many older people still have traditional perspectives on things and continue to use traditional resources. The community as a whole sees health in a holistic sense, and as a way of maintaining their own integrity as a community. So they're interested in finding solutions that address problems, but they'd also like to do it in a way that's appropriate to their own situation, both socially and culturally.

In James Bay, our objective is to examine some of the traditional plants and plant uses that probably in the past have protected people in some way from diabetes and other diseases. We certainly [want to] understand some of the resources that have been commonly used and that might be very acceptable to people if they were used further. So we're conducting interviews in the community, identifying some key plants, and following that up with work in the laboratory. But the whole object here is to find some Read More

One issue in relation to health of First Nations is that people have their own concepts of health and traditional ways of dealing with health. Within their community some people have been influenced in their thinking and lifestyle by mainstream society, while many older people still have traditional perspectives on things and continue to use traditional resources. The community as a whole sees health in a holistic sense, and as a way of maintaining their own integrity as a community. So they're interested in finding solutions that address problems, but they'd also like to do it in a way that's appropriate to their own situation, both socially and culturally.

In James Bay, our objective is to examine some of the traditional plants and plant uses that probably in the past have protected people in some way from diabetes and other diseases. We certainly [want to] understand some of the resources that have been commonly used and that might be very acceptable to people if they were used further. So we're conducting interviews in the community, identifying some key plants, and following that up with work in the laboratory. But the whole object here is to find some useful things in those plants that could be brought back and used in some other form, in a more targeted way, by the community against this problem of diabetes. We are not thinking of something that could be used in some sort of drug or medicine, but [something that] would be applied in a logical or scientifically rational way in a form that, again, is culturally acceptable. Ultimately we're trying to put together an approach that involves scientific understanding of the physiological and the pharmacological properties of some of these plants, but put them into a form and bring them back in a way that would be acceptable to the community.

For more information go to: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/sr-sr/activ/consprod/cree-cries_e.html


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • define what an ethnobotanist is;
  • specify the work of an ethnobotanist in terms of how, where and why.

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