Ethnobotany is the study of the relationships between people and plants. The word ethnobotany is a combination of the Greek root ethno, meaning "people" or "cultural group" and botany, meaning "plants."[i] Ethnobotany focuses particularly on how human societies around the world (1) make use of plants in their local environments and (2) perceive, classify and name the natural world. Research in this field "integrates biological, cultural and linguistic studies to understand the knowledge and beliefs that indigenous and traditional communities have about their biological environments and their practices of use and management of the natural resources found in their ecosystems."[ii]The main areas of ethnobotanical investigation include 1) the traditional knowledge of plants, societal adaptations and interactions with the natural world; 2) spiritual and cultural significance of plants in native cultures; 3) knowledge and use of plants and plant products in art, textiles and technology; and 4) traditional knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants.[iii]

People and Plants in the Pacific Northwest

Among the Lushootseed-speaking First Peoples of the Puget Sound region, native plants have been valued for much more than their beauty. They have also been cherished as important foods and medicines, and employed as materials for a wide range of uses including building, carving, weaving, fishing, and ritual activities. Lushootseed oral traditions and teachings reflect and preserve a detailed knowledge of these native plants. In the harvesting and use of native plants, this sophisticated knowledge has been guided by an ethic of reverence and restraint that balances the needs of humans and the needs of the plants.

Reverence and knowledge are clearly demonstrated, for example, in the use of xepayac (Western Red Cedar), a native tree that has provided materials for an astonishing variety of products, from clothing to housing, canoes to cordage, bentwood boxes to intricately woven baskets. In appreciation of its many gifts, xepayac is honored in stories and teachings as a model of generosity, and it is harvested with expressions of gratitude and respect.

Although ethnobotany often focuses on traditional uses and knowledge of plants, its subject matter remains applicable in the modern world. Ethnobotanist Nancy Turner, author of The Earth's Blanket, writes,

"Traditional ecological knowledge (and its practice) has much relevance to contemporary efforts by both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people to live sustainably… indigenous and local communities – and even people in larger, urban communities – are finding ways to maintain, restore and sustain some of the cultural and ecological richness of their home places."[iv]

Traditional diets are currently being examined within Native communities to address diabetes, a condition that is alarmingly common among Native Peoples.[v] Some believe that this may be due to the dietary changes that occurred among Native Peoples when they were relocated onto reservations and away from traditional sources of subsistence. The Puget Sound Traditional Food and Diabetes Project – a joint effort of the Tulalip Tribes, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, the Suquamish Indian Tribe, King County, and the Burke Museum – currently works to assess the therapeutic values of traditional diets of native foods, which may work to combat diabetes among Native populations (see link below).

Online Resources on Botany and Ethnobotany

Excellent, informative list of ethnobotanical plant profiles for the Pacific Northwest

A bibliography of materials on ethnobotany that are available in Seattle University's Lemieux Library

British Columbia Native Plant Society and Electronic Atlas of Native Plants of British Columbia

King County Native Plants site

University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture and Elizabeth C. Miller Library  

Washington Native Plant Society

Searchable national database on Native American ethnobotany

Giant searchable database of images and information for Washington State plants and lichens hosted by the UW Herbarium at the Burke Museum

Puget Sound Traditional Food and Diabetes Project

Botanical and Ethnobotanical Gardens and Trails

Western Washington

British Columbia


[i] Carlson, Thomas J., and Luisa Maffi, eds. Ethnobotany and Conservation of Biocultural Diversity. New York: New York Botanical Garden,  2003.

[ii] Payne, Gabrielle D. Ethnobotany Curriculum Guide : Cultural Uses of Plants. New York: New York Botanical Garden, 2000.

[iii]  Cotton, C. M. Ethnobotany : Principles and Applications. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 1996.

[iv] Turner, Nancy J. The Earth's Blanket : Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living. Seattle University of Washington Press, 2005.

[v] McHenry, Eric. "Dinner Without Reservations." Columns Magazine. Sept. 2007. University of Washington.