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March 2 SciCafe: Know Your Roots

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Photo courtesy of Ina Vandebroek


Medicinal plant use thrives even in urban centers like New York City. At the upcoming SciCafe on Wednesday, March 2, Dr. Ina Vandebroek of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden will discuss the role of medicinal plants in primary healthcare among indigenous peoples in the Bolivian Amazon and immigrant communities in New York City. She recently answered a few questions about her upcoming talk.

What is ethnobotany, and how is it practiced?

Ethnobotany is the science that documents how people perceive, manage, and use plants for healthcare, nutrition, clothing, construction, tools, ritual and social life. An ethnobotanist is part anthropologist and part botanist. He or she shares life in the field with local community members, conducts interviews, and collects the plants that are mentioned by participants to make herbarium specimens that cross-link common plant names with botanical plant names.

What kinds of ailments are medicinal plants commonly used for?

Medicinal plants are used for almost any existing ailment. The flu and common cold, for example, are ailments for which medicinal plants are often used, almost anywhere in the world. There appears to exist a relationship between the prevalence of health conditions in a region and the use of medicinal plants. For example, in the tropics there is a higher incidence of medicinal plant use for diarrhea and skin conditions than in temperate regions.

Do pharmaceutical companies pursue these plants for drug development?

One-fourth of all prescription drugs sold at pharmacies in the United States contain plant extracts or active chemical compounds prepared from plants. Two examples are the heart medications digoxin and digitoxin from the foxglove plant (Digitalis purpurea) and the anti-cough medication codeine from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). With the development of new fields and methodologies in chemistry, the commercial interest in ethnopharmacology has been waning. In recent years, there has also been a growing demand from local communities and indigenous groups to be equal partners in benefit sharing of any profits derived from the development of new natural products.

How prevalent are medicinal botanical substances in Bolivia? What about in New York City?

Bolivia maintains a rich tradition of using medicinal plants for primary healthcare, either through self-medication or through consultation with specialist healers. This is not surprising, considering the high biocultural diversity in Bolivia, with an estimated 20,000 higher plant species and more than 30 different cultural groups. Many indigenous and local communities face lack of access to biomedical healthcare, which makes medicinal plants and healers their first and often only choice. A wealth of medicinal plants can also be found in a metropolis such as New York City. Botánica shops, retail stores that sell dry and fresh medicinal plants, candles, amulets and other items used for physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, can be found all over the city and especially in Latino and Caribbean neighborhoods.

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