The Ethnobotany of the Gulf of Mexico Florida

Ethnobotany is a combination of social science, mainly anthropology and botanical science. It is a study of the ways in which humans and plants interact and the way that botanicals contribute to human cultures. Originating in the 1800s, perhaps in 1885 by the botanist John Harshberger, ethnobotany has been developing for a time.

Florida presented a unique, plant filled environment where people, through indigenous knowledge, used their understandings to make the maximum use of plants and the substances derived from plants for maximum nutrition, healing and other uses. Since plant substances can be extremely harmful, poisonous or the triggers for serious allergies, they provide as much for bad as they do for the good of humans.

The problem with European settlement of just about anywhere was in the fighting, disease, imposition of European knowledge and other causes for decimating the pool of indigenous knowledge. Thankfully, paleobotanists have been able to restore some knowledge of how plants were used to enhance life in ancient times. Current Native American peoples, even if they are not indigenous natives are also able to describe the knowledge that was handed down from their ancestors to restore some of the missing information.

There are classifications of plant benifits in ethnobotany: food, housing, tools and toys, food, fiber, transportation, medicinal and other uses, such as for ceremonial purposes and objects.

Native Americans and the early settlers of Florida had native plants that provided nutrition and starch. These included saw palmetto, coontie, swamp cabbage or hearts of palm. Food plants could be bartered with or exchanged for needed items, creating economic benefits.

For fiber, Florida offered palm, Indian hemp, sawgrass, wire grass, switchgrass, as well as bark from mahoe (a type of hibiscus) and strangler fig trees.

The study of botanicals that were and are used for medicines is bound in the indigenous knowledge, which may have been passed down to add in magic, spiritual components, the use of placebos or other information that makes understanding of the medicinal plants and herbs a challenge.

Florida’s saw palmetto berries have been analyzed and are being tested for use in treating prostate cancers and other prostate disorders. There are also mayapples which may provide help in other cancers. This has led to enormous economies in the tens of millions of dollars for mayapple and saw palmetto harvests for the medical research and drug industries.

The future of ethnobotany in Florida centers greatly around two things: restoration of natural resources after the BP oil spill of 2010 and  the value of botanical substances to the drug and medical industries. The hemp industries could be booming, given the incredible range of products that could be made from hemp if it were allowed to be a legal source of fiber  and oils. 

The citation link below has a good discussion of ethnobotany in general, some issues with Florida, and a detailed table of 50 plants that contribute to the rich ethnobotanical heritage of Florida. It is a worth a look, even though the site is a little balky.

Ginger M. Allen, Michael D. Bond, and Martin B. Main, “50 Common Native Plants Important to Florida’s Ethnobotany, University of Florida IFAS Extension.