Does the Garden of Eden contain magic medicine trees?

The Ethnobotany of Eden: Rethinking the Jungle Medicine Narrative by Robert Voeks 2018. University of Chicago Press.

I suspect that most of us who’ve tried to impress upon others the importance of plants have at one time promoted the view that we need to conserve our green inheritance because the next cure for cancer – or whatever other dreaded disease you’d like to consider – will probably come from plants, especially those in the rainforest that still await discovery and/or pharmaceutical evaluation. That idea is critically examined by Robert Voeks in The Ethnobotany of Eden. I’ll try not to give away the book’s conclusion, but its goal is summarised by its sub-title, Rethinking the Jungle Medicine Narrative.

The Jungle Medicine Narrative [JMN] proposes that unknown cures for mankind’s ills reside within rainforest plants. The plants’ ethnobotanical potential and related knowledge resides within the indigenous peoples of those places, in particular their shamen or ‘medicine men’. The book’s reference to Eden relates to the idea that, if the Garden of Eden of religious scripture fame is a real place, it is likely to be located in the rainforests of South America. This suggestion – which dates back to Christopher Columbus and his transatlantic voyage of 1492 – is carefully (and quite persuasively) considered by Voeks at the beginning of his book. And the reference to Eden is highly relevant to the JMN because of the notion that for every illness of humanity God has created a healing plant and the Garden of Eden was this ‘medicine-chest’. Therefore, there was – and still is! – considerable interest in finding the modern-day Eden, and exploiting the healing properties of its flora to deal with mankind’s many medical maladies. Such a view is no doubt reinforced by the early discovery of indigenous rainforest plant treatments for conditions such as syphilis and malaria, diseases experienced by those European visitors to these tropical and sub-tropical places. Whether or not Eden actually exists, the ethnobotanical potential of the rainforest is regarded as very real but surrounded by a lot of mythology and half-truths [“The lands and peoples of the humid tropics have long constituted more myth and metaphor than geographic reality” (p. ix)]. One might like to think that the philanthropic allure of finding great medicines to cure the world’s sick may have spurred on some of the quests by European powers. However, and probably more realistically, the potential to monopolise a ‘wonder-drug’ which may help that nation in its empire-expanding ambitions of global colonization within otherwise disease-ridden and inhospitable tropical and sub-tropical areas cannot be ignored as a motive to discover this Eden. Understandably, there was – and to some extent still is in the 21st Century – an awful lot riding on the underlying truth of the Jungle Medicine Narrative.

With the book’s focus on suitably rainforested parts of the world – not exclusively South American – Voeks takes that attractive Edenic idea and analyses the various component parts of the JMN. Accordingly, in The Ethnobotany of Eden he muses on such facets as: the role played by women in traditional medicinal plant knowledge; the concept of the ‘noble savage’; the real ethnopharmaceutical value of pristine, old-growth forests; the ecological apparency hypothesis;* reasons for the loss of ethnobotanical knowledge; the question of ownership of the intellectual property that is ethnobotanical knowledge; biopiracy; and the connection between German car-maker Volkswagen [VW] and massive Amazonian fires to clear forests for pastures in 1975.**

In Voeks’ dismantling of the JMN, we learn about Columbus’ ‘nipple hypothesis’, the Nutmeg Conspiracy, the Cinchona Project, and the Periwinkle Project. We are reminded that Brazil is the most botanically-rich country on the planet with 32,364 spp. (in 2012). Voeks also dwells on the ‘justification’ for European colonialization and the enslavement of Africans and the harsh treatment of indigenous rainforest peoples as their botanical insights were extracted. We are made aware of the concept of the ‘pornotropics’, and we learn the name of Jesus Christ’s grandmother. The Ethnobotany of Eden certainly packs in more than just medicinal plant information, but it has to so that it deals with its subject matter in a proper way – and which shows the highly interconnected nature of plants-and-people studies.

For those who don’t want to read through the detailed arguments in the book, Chapter 1 gives a good overview of the rest of the book, and Chapter 9 summarises the preceding chapters. But, why would you want to skip the other 7 chapters? This is a great book and Voeks tells a great story. Indeed, Voeks’ own narrative is not only elegantly-phrased and well-written, but also is a great example of how to use rational, balanced, evidence-based arguments to support one’s point of view. All-in-all, Voeks provides a surgically-precise and effective dismantling of the Jungle Medicine Narrative. Although, as the author acknowledges,  the public perception of the JMN will probably persist, having read The Ethnobotany of Eden you will be in a much better position to appreciate how much more nuanced and complex is that rather simplistic three-word notion.

Tropical habitats have been extremely important sources of plants with medical properties in the past. The degree to which they will also do so in future is unknown, but The Ethnobotany of Eden did give me some cause for optimism. And it’s not just plant-based cures for human ailments; it seems that such habitats can also provide new ‘medicines’ for plants, too [see Dmitrii Travin et al., Nature Communications volume 10, Article number: 4563 (2019) and this press release]!


The main text of The Ethnobotany of Eden occupies 321 pages, spread over nine chapters, each of which contains 2 – 6 sub-sections. There are also c. 5 pages of Notes to the various chapters, 13 pages of 2-columned Index, and 42 pages of References (whose citations are integrated into the text). Over 230 of the references are dated post-2008, which testifies to the interest there is nowadays in ethnobotanical studies – the up-to-datedness of the book, and the volume of supporting evidence that has been considered by the author. I only found one ‘typo’, on p. 34, “there is not to a single verified case…”. But, I’m puzzled by use of the initialism VOC for both the German East India Company (I had previously not heard of such an organisation) on p. 106, and the Dutch East Indian [although one is more used to seeing this as India] Company (the expected use since it’s short for Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) on p. 124. This dual usage seems to be intentional because it’s repeated in the Index, on pages 313 and 314. The book is reasonably well illustrated with 49 ‘halftones’ [black-and-white illustrations]. Given the botanical focus of the book it would have been nice to see some of the plants shown in colour, but I suppose that would contribute to an undesirable extra cost for the tome. However, one touch that was much appreciated by this appraiser is the use of unitalicised sp. or spp. when referring to unknown or unspecified species of a genus, e.g. Colocasia spp. (p. 47). For me, that stylistic nicety – and correctness – underlines the author’s true ethnobotanical credentials.


Robert Voeks’ The Ethnobotany of Eden: Rethinking the Jungle Medicine Narrative is an important book. I would urge all those who are interested in ethnobotany – and plants-and-people, and environmental sustainability, etc. – to read it. And, with my former ‘plants-and-people teaching hat’ on, I have no hesitation in recommending this as a suitable text for undergraduate classes in that subject.

* The Ecological Apparency Hypothesis (one of several ethnobotanical hypotheses) proposes that plants that are more visible to humans are more likely to be used medicinally.

** Given the release of greenhouse gases and other noxious compounds by forest fires, maybe this is the true VW emissions scandal?

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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