Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between people and plants, including how different cultures make use of indigenous plants for uses such as medicine, religious ceremonies, food, housing, and clothing, and how people view nature. The aim of Ethnobotany is to study how and why people use and conceptualize plants in their local environments.
The two questions most asked are (1) how and in what ways people use nature and (2) how and in what ways people view nature. Ethnobotanists gather data mainly from living peoples in hopes of gathering a view of their past existence as well as an understanding of present uses of plants for food, medicine, construction materials, and tools. Ethnobotanical research can be a door into cultural realities as well as a way to understand the future of human relationships with the Earth.
The historical dimensions of ethnobotany that were largely listings of plants, names, and uses play a role in contemporary approaches to traditional plant knowledge. Most past researchers did not regard what the people thought about plants as important. The situation today is that researchers would like to include conceptualizations of plants in their studies, but do not have the methods to do this. This does not criticize ethnobotany, but rather attempts to build the framework upon which new methodological approaches can be explored.
Although ethnobotany seems to be a loose composition of theory and methods, common methodologies and theory can be found. Theoretically, direct contact with the vegetation of a region is encouraged and essential in order for researchers to fully comprehend the flora of a small geographic area on which they usually focus. From close contact with the plants, ethnobotanists are able to relate local and specialized plant taxonomies and study all the physical properties of the plants.
Ethnobotanists sometimes pay attention to culturally relative cognitive and symbolic properties of the plants in a region. Ecological relationships within the plant community are central to these studies as well as the larger plant/human relationship in terms of community economics. Here anthropological economic theory plays an important role in that it helps the ethnobotanist assess and quantify human requirements and their impact on a local environment
There are large parts of South America which are covered by jungles and rain forests. Within this wilderness, there are many plant species which have potential medicinal value, some of which are known, others which have yet to be discovered. Indigenous cultures have used these plants for centuries but scientists have yet to learn the full value of these plants.
An ethnobotanist is a person who is trained in botany and also has an understanding and sensitivity of cultures who use these plants. The ethnobotanist works with native people to understand the value of how the plants are used. In many cultures, it may be the shaman with whom the ethnobotanist works most closely.
An expedition to collect the relevant data for the study of the plants takes many months of preparation and an equal amount of time in collecting the relevant data and plants, obtained by co-operation with the local shamans or healers. Many ethnobotany expeditions are to remote and unknown communities deep within the tropics.
Today the field of ethnobotany requires a variety of skills: botanical training for the identification and preservation of plant specimens; anthropological training to understand the cultural concepts around the perception of plants; linguistic training, at least enough to transcribe local terms and understand native morphology, syntax, and semantics.