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A new edition of an iconic ethnobotany text

Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany, 2nd edition by Michael J Balick and Paul Alan Cox 2021. CRC Press

Book cover of "Plants, People and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany"

Some books have an iconic status in their field. Take, for example, Balick and Cox’s 1996/7 Plants, People, and Culture. This title seems to have been cited as further reading in every textbook on ethnobotany I’ve ever read, and is evidently a highly-regarded volume on the subject. However, for a long time that 1st edition has been difficult to get hold of [my own copy is second-hand ex-library stock] – which has probably added to its somewhat mythic status. Fortunately, there’s now no need to try and seek out that revered 1st edition, a 2nd edition has been produced. I’m therefore very pleased here to appraise Plants, People, and Culture, 2e [hereafter referred to as PPC2] by Michael Balick and Paul Cox.

What you get…

PPC2 provides an excellent, wide-ranging, broad-brush approach to the topic of plants-and-people that justifies Balick and Cox’s claim that “…plants have largely guided the trajectory of human culture” (p. vii). But, and most importantly, the authors write from the perspective of scientists who have spent four decades in extensive fieldwork in many areas of the world living in remote villages interviewing healers, weavers, shipwrights, and other indigenous experts in the use of plants. Throughout, the book is infused with the authors’ personal anecdotes borne of their intimate knowledge and understanding of the indigenous people who still use this botanical knowledge and for whom that wisdom is essential to their well-being and daily lives. Equally importantly, PPC2 doesn’t claim to be an encyclopaedia of ethnobotany, nor even a thorough survey of current work in the field. However, even with that as a caveat, the examples and case-studies included in PPC2 give a very good idea of the scope and breadth of modern-day ethnobotanical studies, and introduces the reader to many of the techniques and methodologies that are used today in The science of ethnobotany [PPC2’s sub-title]. The book is organised into seven Chapters with titles such as: Plants that heal; Plants as the basis for material culture; and Biological Conservation and ethnobotany. PPC2 is abundantly illustrated throughout its 200 or so pages of text (many of which images are very similar to those use in the book’s 1st edition). The book concludes with a 3-column Index of 9.25 pages, from Acacia goetzei [plant source of a blood-cholesterol-lowering saponin that has dietary relevance and importance in the low blood-cholesterol levels of the Masai people of eastern Africa] to Zostera marina [whose shed leaves are used to make insulating quilts for building construction]. Although PPC2 deals primarily with angiosperms [flowering plants], other plant groups such as gymnosperms (e.g. cycad), ferns, and clubmosses are included, as well as some mention of fungi. As befits the book’s main title, plants and people are very much in evidence, and this is underlined by the high number of people entries in the Index. In addition to the wealth of information that PPC2 provides, it is imbued throughout with a tremendous respect for the indigenous peoples who have been the guardians of the plant knowledge for millennia. PPC2 is a beautiful, engaging, and informative, which also has extremely high educational value.

1st and 2nd editions compared…

According to the authors, the 1st edition of PPC was seen as a chance to convey to a general audience some of the profound insights ethnobotany offers into the human condition. In producing the 2nd edition, Balick and Cox took the opportunity to rewrite and expanded the text so it can also be used as a textbook for university students. PPC2 is therefore intended both as a university text and to be suitable for a general audience. For more specifically about its educational value see the next section of this blog item. In terms of its suitability for a lay audience I’m pleased to say that it works very well. The book is packed full of stories about real people and their long-standing relationships with plants – all of which are still relevant today, and many will have increasing relevance well into the future as sources of new medicines and materials. The text is very well-written with lots of nice phrasing and great links between sections within, and between, chapters. Although there’s a lot of facts in PPC2, it is highly readable (but probably not all in one sitting!). However, careful scrutiny of both editions suggests a lot of the text in PPC2 is identical to that in PPC1 (apart from PPC2’s entirely new Chapter on plants that harm, and the start of the ‘Hunter-gathering/haute cuisine’ chapter which has a new section on the longevity of inhabitants of Ogimi village in Okinawa [whose women folk often live in excess of 100 years, and have absolute recall of events back to their early childhood…]. PPC2 is therefore not as rewritten as one might expect. But, does that matter? If people have difficulty in getting hold of the 1st edition, then probably not; it’s good to see the well-written prose again in PPC2. Nevertheless, it is something to point out to those who have the 1st edition and are wondering if it’s worth their while ‘upgrading’ to PPC2*. New to PPC2 are ‘boxes’ on selected topics that offer insights additional to that in the main text, and end-of-Chapter Discussion questions, intended to encourage student engagement. The same chapter headings and content from the 1st edition are retained. There are approx. 110 references in PPC2 that are dated post-1997 [the publication year of PPC1], and one assumes that some textual changes will have been made to integrate that new information in the relevant chapters. I haven’t checked in detail, but I suspect all of the Suggested Reading items in PPC1 have been retained in PPC2 – although now described as Further Reading – along with more than 100 new items – which include at least 30 authored by Cox and/or Balick.

Educational value…

Unlike some other texts on plants and people/economic botany/plants & society/ethnobotany that have extensive sections devoted to botany, e.g. basic anatomy, physiology, taxonomy, Balick and Cox dive straight into the people dimension of the plants. You therefore feel as if you are getting much more ethnobotanical ‘bang for your buck’, which is great. And that content is both educational and informative. Yes, PPC2 contains several of the more usual ethnobotanical case-studies, such as foxglove and digitoxin, opium poppy, and anti-malarial quinine (Jane Achan et al., Malar J 10, 144 (2011); https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2875-10-144). But, even for those well-known examples, Balick and Cox add lots of material that was new to me. For example, they tell us how the Americans secured quinine** stocks from greedy Nazi agents who were out to make money during World War II. We are also introduced to several less familiar ethnobotanical tales: e.g. the connection between the diet of the inhabitants of Guam and ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis]/PDC [Parkinsonism dementia complex] – which is a tremendous piece of detective work by way of cyanobacteria in roots of Cycas micronesica, a cycad used to make flour, flying foxes [which aren’t foxes but are large bats], and a neurotoxic non-protein amino acid [BMAA, β-N-methylamino-L-alanine] that substitutes for L-serine in the human body with serious and deleterious health consequences; the discovery of an anti-HIV drug, prostratin, from Homalanthus nutans, a Samoan tree traditionally used to treat hepatitis (with 20% of the profits from sale of prostratin going back to the people of Samoa whose traditional medical practice is the original source of the intellectual property for this pharmaceutical); and Mucuna pruriens – the hairs of which plant were used traditionally as a murder weapon in western Africa, but which legume has been found to contain a non-protein amino acid – L-dopa – that is nowadays used to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Discussion questions at the end of each Chapter are included to encourage student engagement with the taught material – or could be used as questions in an exam on ethnobotany, or essay briefs for a taught course on the subject..?

Statements and sources…

Undoubtedly, the material presented in PPC2 has high educational value (and is also of great interest to the more general reader). But, what is the true scientific value of the material in the book? How much of the evidence base that supports the real science of ethnobotany is there? Each Chapter has a listing of Further Reading, which clearly has relevance to the information contained in the Chapter [I’ve checked]. And, in terms of up-to-dateness, it is pleasing to note that at least 108 of those sources are dated post-1997, the publication date for the 1st edition of this book. However, with no citations in-text, it is not straightforward to relate sources to statement(s). OK, in several cases you can probably work out which reference relates to which fact by the title of the book or journal article listed. But, why not make it easier on the reader and make that link more explicit, e.g. by use of in-text super-scripted numbers? I can’t stress enough how important it is to provide the evidence for the science and factual statements in such plant-based textbooks [and I have tried, e.g. here, here, and here – as has Josh Bernoff more generally for fact-based books]. Even then, there are occasions where I’ve noticed great facts are stated but with no indication of their source – e.g. the “estimated 400,000 species of flowering plants” (p. 8), and the claim that humans depend on plant chemicals for 25% of our prescription drugs (p. 8). Yes, one could cite Balick and Cox (2001) as support for those statements, but that’s not really doing the citation-sourcing thing properly. A related issue relates to sources for ‘illustrations’; as far as I can tell all the photographs have suitable credits, but items such as Figures 2.25, 2.26, 4.9 don’t have anything. That is a shame because some of those displays would be great teaching resources, and it would be nice to know where they came from – and there may be even more material of educational value in the relevant source. On an accuracy note I only found one error; on p. 87 it is stated that rice is a C-4 photosynthetic plant [https://c4rice.com/the-science/photosynthetic-pathways/]. It isn’t, it’s a C-3 plant (e.g. Maria Ermakova et al., Plant Biotechnology Journal 19: 575-588, 2021; doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/pbi.13487). I was disappointed to see that this error also occurs in the1st edition (on p. 74).


“Designed for the college classroom as well as for lay readers, this update of Plants, People, and Culture entices the reader with firsthand stories of fieldwork, spectacular illustrations, and a deep respect for both indigenous peoples and the earth’s natural heritage” [from the publisher’s site, and the back cover of the book]. Balick and Cox’s new edition of Plants, People, and Culture is both a superb ethnobotanical resource for students of the discipline, and a thoroughly good read for any- and everybody interested in knowing more about the ancient and enduring relationship between plants and people. Balick and Cox continue to set the standard for what a great ethnobotanical text should be, and this 2nd edition can only enhance Plants, People, and Culture’s iconic status.

* Upgrading must be a personal decision. For what it may be worth, PPC2 has at least 27 pages of entirely new text (which is approx. 12% of the book’s main text length of 222 pages), plus many references that are unique to the 2nd edition…

** Curiously, there is no mention of artemisinin (Sanjeev Krishna et al., Trends Pharmacol Sci. 29: 520–527, 2008; doi: 10.1016/j.tips.2008.07.004) as an alternative anti-malarial treatment to quinine (Jane Achan et al., Malar J 10, 144 (2011); https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2875-10-144). That is surprising because artemisinin is a component of is a component of Artemisia annua, a plant that has been used for hundreds of years in Traditional Chinese Medicine (Jigang Wang et al., Engineering 5: 32-39, 2019; doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eng.2018.11.011). Its more modern use as an anti-malarial is another great example of an ancient ethnobotanical treatment that has been exploited in modern Western medicine.

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 phytological organ for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I also continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Botany One. 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. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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