The Lives Behind Plant Documents

In the county of Uasin Gishu, Kenya, a recent article in Ethnobotany Research and Applications, local plants have many uses for fodder, medicine, food, and building material, but today this knowledge is threatened by increased pressures on the land. While the list of plants and their uses provides valuable basic knowledge, the article heightened my interest in a completely different realm of inquiry.

Medicinal plants in particular have very social, dynamic lives, from their administration by healers or healthcare personnel, to the everyday person collecting for personal health needs, to the younger generation or those from industrial centers actively pursuing the reclamation of knowledge. Who are the predominant users of these plants, and who are the administrators? Are there pushes for cultural revitalization, as there are efforts to revitalize perceived losses in knowledge in much of the world? I would be interested to learn the deeper stories of the list of plants.

For example, in Finland, efforts to revitalize traditional knowledge span from rural to urban areas. However, revitalization in rural areas appears to carry more discourses of “traditional” knowledge, while urban areas tend to focus on plants as products, for which remedies become absorbed into field guides devoid of cultural origins in an encyclopedic list. Do similar processes exist in Kenya and Uasin Gishu?

Meanwhile, a similar documentation of plant uses was published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. They found that 90 wild species are used in north-eastern Sicily. The group used a cultural importance index to determine which plants were most crucial to local pharmacopeias. It is important to highlight the most ubiquitously used plants, because often it is these plants that carry the most cultural weight. For example, in Finland the clinker polypore has recently enjoyed widespread commercial fame, but the success only rides the tale of a long history. It is these histories that breathe life into plants.

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