An ethnobotanical new year

By: Mark Nesbitt - 25/10/2011

This autumn Kew welcomed the 14th intake of students into the joint University of Kent/Kew MSc in Ethnobotany.  In a packed two days the students were introduced to Kew's collections, had an intensive day of plant-collecting, and heard this year's Distinguished Ethnobotanist lecture.

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Every autumn Kew welcome's a new group of Ethnobotany Masters students. They'll spend October-March based at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, followed by a summer of fieldwork and dissertation-writing. But for eight days they come to Kew, where we fit in 15 seminars covering key plant families and selected elements of ethnobotany. Quite a few of the students come up on other days to use Kew's Library or to explore the Gardens, and one or two will do their summer project here. For 2011-12 we have nine students starting the course from seven different countries (Belgium, Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands, Oman, USA, UK). The international reach of the MSc is not surprising as nowhere else offers such a one-year programme in ethnobotany. It is very intensive and covers a lot of ground.

Off to a good start

We can't always guarantee sunshine for visitors, but were lucky this time. My tour of the Gardens didn't get far beyond the Grass Garden, where the tropical cereals are still looking good. They've been chosen to illustrate some ethnobotanical themes, including the biology of domestication, the importance of crop diversity, and the role of local crops (such as teff) in what can be very local foodways, so we had a lot to discuss. But we also had time for the now traditional photograph of the group in front of Thorneycroft's statue of The Sower.

The student group in the Grass Garden

The student group in the Grass Garden

Each year we tweak the course according to last year's student feedback. Collecting plant specimens is absolutely central to ethnobotany, so we expanded this to a full day. In the morning my colleagues in the Herbarium showed good and bad specimens, and covered difficult plants such as palms. These need special techniques because of their large size. In the afternoon, the students practiced their skills on plants in a behind-the-scenes part of the Gardens.

Students collecting plants

Students collecting plants

Learning from the experts

The evening of the first day is always the date of the Kew-Kent Distinguished Ethnobotanist public lecture, given this year by Will McClatchey from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (a growing powerhouse in the world of plant science). Will is well-known for his fieldwork in the Pacific, and as an advocate for modern ethnobotanical techniques of the kind taught on the Kent MSc. He presented a bold series of experiments designed to investigate the formation and transmission of indigenous knowledge in the Solomon Islands, Thailand and on his home territory of Texas, a reminder that ethnobotany is not always about the tropics or "the other". It was an inspiring talk that attracted a large audience.

We make good use of the Economic Botany Collection in teaching the Kew module. It's a great opportunity to show the links between plant biology and human use, and to discuss some of the underlying issues of plant conservation, indigenous knowledge and global trade. For their next visit the students will be learning about modern ethnobotany at Kew, the history of economic botany and the role of ethnobotanical collections, international treaties and legislation, and another new module this year, mycology.

- Mark -


Related links

MSc in Ethnobotany, University of Kent

Economic Botany Collection

Will McClatchey's web site

Science events at Kew

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About Mark Nesbitt

Mark Nesbitt showing students Kew's collections

(Photo by London College of Fashion students)

Mark Nesbitt is curator of the Economic Botany Collection at Kew. After studying agricultural botany at Reading University, Mark moved onto the archaeology of plants via a doctorate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. After 15 years of research in the Near East, he joined Kew in 1999 as a specialist in useful plants both past and present.

At the core of Mark's work is caring for the Collection: adding new specimens (about 800 a year), monitoring environmental conditions, lending to exhibitions, upgrading the Collection database and rehousing specimens. Mark hosts around 500 visitors each year, from many different disciplines, organises conservation, teaching and research projects with collaborators, and carries out research into the history of plant fibres, medicine and colonial botany. A team of 5-6 volunteers, placement students and interns play a vital role in keeping everything going.

Mark's aims are both to ensure the Collection is cared for to modern museum standards, and to help the fascinating stories told by its 85,000 artefacts reach the widest possible audience.

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