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Plants have many uses in people’s lives and are essential in many aspects of human life. In the prehistoric times, man relied on natural plants to satisfy his basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. Prior to the development of agriculture and domestication of plants, the hunter-gatherers derived their livelihoods directly from wild plants.
In addition, plants and plant materials bear a close relationship with many aspects of human culture. Indigenous people use plants for spiritual and ritualistic purposes whereby plants play a pivotal role in material culture within the religious context.
On the other hand, many indigenous plants, both in the past and presently, serve as an important source of food resources to people around the globe. Most importantly, wild plants, especially medicinal plants are indispensable sources of medicine for treating various human illnesses.
In many cultures, various plants are used for medication, consumption, and narcotic stimulation purposes. In particular, different plants serve as food, fodder, fuel, timber, and medicine for various communities. Thus, the uses of plants vary from culture to culture depending on the culture or tribe, indigenous knowledge and the plant species endemic to the region. In the US, there are rich indigenous and exotic plant species used differently by the tribal groups of the American continent (Glenise, 1992, p.199).
However, the traditional knowledge on the use of plant species, particularly medicinal plants is fast disappearing due to disintegration of cultures and exploitative deforestation. The indigenous knowledge on plant species influences the tribal uses of plant resources.
Ethnobotanical Uses of Plants
Although the uses of plants vary from one culture to another, plant uses fall into three general categories: nutritional, medicinal and cultural or ritualistic uses. In the prehistoric times, the important occupation of the hunter-gatherers community was the search for food.
People of various cultures had to possess the indigenous knowledge of the various plants in their locality with regard to their use as food. In particular, knowledge of edible plants as well as poisonous plants, gained through experience, was important. Through experimentation, some plants with no nutritional value were found to possess valuable medicinal properties for treating various diseases.
The nutritional needs of today’s global population largely depend on plant products as their source of food. Out of over 350,000 plant species in the world, 80,000 are suitable for human consumption. However, of the edible plant species, four principal plants viz. maize, rice, potato, and wheat are essential food crops consumed by the majority of the world’s population (Glenise, 1992, p.202).
Plants form a vital source of proteins and carbohydrates for humans. As a result, most of these food crops are cultivated on a large scale to provide sufficient food to meet the nutritional needs of human beings. Legumes (Leguminosae) such as beans and peas and grasses (Graminae) such as maize, sorghum, and millet provide the highest percentage of food for the world population.
Berries such as the Blackfeet Savis berry contain high amounts of Vitamin C and their seeds have anti-oxidant and anti-carcinogenic properties. Fruits species, both wild and domesticated, are also a significant source of Vitamin C.
Root vegetables that encompass the tubers, corms, bulbs, and the rhizomes are a valuable source of carbohydrates among various communities. Most of them are rich in starches and sugars for human consumption in many communities (Heiser, 1993, p. 201).
Plant roots are rich in minerals such as calcium and sodium, vitamins, and fibers. On the other hand, plant stems, flowers, and leaves are also rich in vitamins, but have lesser minerals and carbohydrate content. Grains such as maize and rice are stable food products for all communities around the globe.
Plants are also sources of essential products for human use. Trees provide timber for furniture and as building materials for houses and tools. Tree species such as black walnut, pines, fir, and hybrid poplar are significant sources of quality timber for construction, furniture, and paper (Laird, 1999, p. 144). In most cultures, plants are a source of fuel as charcoal or firewood for domestic cooking purposes.
Additionally, certain plant species such as johnsongrass and miscanthus are a source of plant-based bio-fuels, an alternative to petroleum fuels. Food crops including corn and sorghum are also cultivated in some countries such as Brazil for biodiesel for industrial use. Rubber derived from the rubber tree is used in making surgical gloves, machinery parts, tires, shoes among others. Cork derived from the bark of the Mediterranean Oak tree is used as an insulator against sound, stoppers, flooring materials among others.
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Different plant products are used to make clothes, ropes, and cosmetics for human use. Sisal, cotton, hemp, and rush are common plants that produce fibers yarn into cloths and garments for wear. Cellulose fibers are biodegradable plant materials derived from grasses and leaves used in the production of clothing, ropes, strings, and other products. Natural plant dyes derived from plant seeds, leaves, tubers or nuts are used for dyeing cloths and yarns (Heiser, 1993, p. 204).
The cosmetic sector also relies on plant-derivatives such as anti-oxidants and colors for hair and skin care. Aromatic plants including the jasmine, roses and cinnamon produce aromatic compounds to improve fragrance. Traditionally, in ancient Egypt, incense and myrrh were used in healing rituals and as a fragrance for women (Laird, 1999, p. 146).
Other plants frequently used in the cosmetic industry include soya because of it has anti-aging properties, chamomile, Aloe vera, and lavender. The plant extracts are incorporated into soaps, oils, lotions, creams and other cosmetic products.
Medicinal Uses of Plants
Since prehistoric times, plants with active components have been used in the treatment of various human illnesses. In general, traditionally, medicinal plants treated a broad range of diseases such as skin diseases, stomach ailments, and many disorders but their use varied from culture to culture. Traditionally, the active principles in medicinal herbs were isolated through steaming, boiling or burning.
Modern methods are able to isolate and characterize these components and make prescription drugs for treating various human diseases. The use of plant-derived traditional medicine by people across the world as remedies for the treatment of diseases is immense. According to Glenise, over 80% of the world’s population relies on herbal medicine for their primary care needs (1992, p.208).
Medicinal plants have antiseptic, analgesic, anti-parasitic, and anti-helminthic properties, which make them potent against common human diseases. Most medicinal plants are potent when used topically i.e. externally, orally or snuffed in case of dried ground plant parts such as leaves. For example, the Cedarwood (Thuja occidentalis) plant native to Asia and the Americas is used topically in the treatment of skin diseases such as warts and psoriasis (Glenise, 1992, p.217).
Its extracts are applied topically as paste on the skin to cure skin warts and other skin problems. It also serves as a counter-irritant in the treatment of rheumatism and muscular pains when taken orally as boiled extracts. Some properties of plants, including anti-inflammatory, emulsifiers, decongestant, and antiseptics make the plant extracts beneficial for topical use.
In addition, plant species with anti-inflammatory qualities are useful in pain relief and treatment of rheumatism. Herbalists use extracts from rhizomes and plant roots such as Chickweed to treat skin diseases when applied topically. In the American continent, over 25 species of Chickweed have emollient and vulnerary properties hence used to make ointments for the treatment of ulcers (consumed orally), boils, and eczema (Cocks, 2006, p. 451).
The American coneflower, native to Missouri, is another significant source of traditional medicine in the Americas. The dried plant parts including the leaves and roots are used in the treatment of snakebites and dizziness. Its fresh leaves are bound on wounds to relieve pain and prevent inflammation. Medicinal plants are widely used globally especially in Asia where the practice is widely spread. In India and China, the practice of herbal medicine is highly developed as a source of foreign income through export.
In Africa, traditional medicines are preferred to conventional medicines for treatment of various illnesses. The use of herbal medicines is fast increasing in North America and Europe as an alternative treatment of illnesses and ways of maintaining appropriate health. In recent times, Artemisia annua, a Chinese plant, has been discovered to have anti-malarial properties while Prunus africana, which has anti-carcinogenic properties, is incorporated in prostate cancer drugs.
Importance of Plants in different Cultures
Ethnobotanical surveys reveal essential plant species within a particular cultural and geographical context. In most cultures, plants are used for nutritional purposes while non-nutritional plant metabolites are used as medicines. The cultural significance attached to given plants revolves around the medicinal-food plant uses (Cocks, 2006, p. 448).
Cultivated crops common to a particular geographical region often have nutritional or medicinal value. In the Mediterranean region, food species with high cultural significance include vegetable species eaten as salads in spring such as fennel (Feoniculum vulgare) and calamint.
Plants also serve as medicines and sources of drugs in many cultures. In Asia, the traditional Unani medicine, which is common in Pakistan, relies on wild medicinal plants and animal products for the treatment of human diseases (Glenise, 1992, p.218). Glenise (1992, p.212) identify 50 species that are a source of herbal medicine for indigenous people in Pakistan. Other indigenous treatment systems such as Ayurveda, Allopathy, and Siddha rely on different plant species to treat various illnesses (Laird, 1999, p. 147).
The Siddha and Ayuverda systems are alternative medicine practiced India uses herbs and meditation to treat various ailments. In India, over 20,000 plant species are used for curing different ailments affecting the traditional communities. Allopathy medicine is a Western medical model common in Europe and America and relies on active biological components in plants to treat various illnesses. In Africa, the plant-derived medicines are widely used among the different cultures compared to conventional medicine.
The traditional Chinese medicine practitioners utilize medicinal plants and acupuncture to treat many conditions. The Chinese traditional medicine dates back to over 5,000 years and relies on natural products including herbs (Moerman, 1998, p.231) Different plant parts such as seeds, flowers, roots and stems are made into teas, powders and tinctures for treatment of various conditions. The effects of the Chinese herbs range from heart-clearing, cooling, and warming effects on patients.
Herbal plants such as Panax ginseng are used in the treatment of diabetes, Momodica charantia, and Psidium gnajava, whose leaves are taken as tea or an infusion to treat hyperglycemia (Laird, 1999, p. 150). Jamaican cultural groups, as well as Afro-Brazilian communities, root tonics and bitters serve as preventatives to common illnesses. Additionally, among the African people, various forms of bitters are used to remove body toxins, treat impotence, improve circulation, and maintain virility.
Certain plant species are used to fulfill ritualistic and religious needs of various cultures. According to Cocks (2003, p. 445), over 50% of wild plants in South Africa are used for spiritual and cultural purposes. In this regard, sacred sites that are of a high spiritual value have distinguished animal and plant biodiversity. Traditional brooms derived from grasses serve as a ceremonial gift for the bride in Xhosa culture, South Africa.
The brooms are used to splash medicine known locally as ‘amayeza’ as a ritual to sanctify the home of the newlyweds (Cocks, 2006, 446). Additionally, African communities use medicinal plants for healing purposes within spiritual, religious, and cultural contexts and in many non-traditional settings such as urban areas.
Plants and many cultural practices are intertwined in many respects. Plants and their products primarily serve as food, human medicines, sources of drugs, and objects of religious or spiritual purposes. In most cultures, main food crops such as rice, maize and legumes are highly domesticated to meet the nutritional needs of the people.
Most importantly, herbal medicine is widely used as an alternative to conventional therapeutic medicines. However, the exploitation of plants for various uses depends on the indigenous knowledge and cultural contexts.
Cocks, M. (2006). Bio-Cultural Diversity: Moving Beyond The Realm Of ‘Indigenous’ And ‘Local People’. Human Ecology, 34(2), 445-451
Glenise, M. (1992). Medicinal Plant Review. Aust J Med Herbalism, 4(4), 199-221.
Heiser, B. (1993). Ethnobotany and Economic Botany. Flora of North America North Of Mexico, 1, 199-206.
Laird, A. (1999). Forests, Culture and Conservation. London: UNEP.
Moerman, E. (1998). Native American Ethnobotany. New York: Timber Press.