What is ethnobotany and what is its significance?

An interviewer asked why an ethnobotany of the Ashkenazim is important to me, or at least that’s what I thought her question meant. I should have asked her for clarification, but what I understood was: this look back at the medicinal herbs the Ashkenazim would have known, why is it so important to you? That’s a complicated question for a lot of different reasons.

Generally speaking, ethnobotany is the study of the application of plants by humans. A more detailed definition includes the consideration of a region’s cultural groups and the specific plants they turn to for their needs, including food, clothing, medicine, etc. Ethnobotany’s roots can be found in the texts of the ancients such as Dioscorides who authored de Materia Medica in the first century AD. But the field wasn’t officially recognized until the late 19th, early 20th century. Even then it took several decades for practitioners of this new science to hone their research skills.

Ethnobotany can additionally be described as the study of a culture’s “folk medicine” or “traditional medicine”. Before modern medicine, humans healed themselves for hundreds, if not thousands of years with folk or traditional medicine and this medicine included the medicinal plants. Many variables (geography, climate, religion, contact with other groups of people, etc.) contributed to the folk medicine each distinct group would have known, and local remedies reflected these possibilities, especially in terms of the plants and other natural materials that were available regionally.

Why is knowledge of ethnobotany or traditional medicine important? Because every culture had its own folk healing practices and those customs can tell us a lot about our past and can even influence current healing practices.

For the Ashkenazim, ethnobotanical research seemed to have passed them by. Until now, there have been no known detailed ethnobotanical surveys of Ashkenazi folk medicine that would have taken place prior to the Second World War. And what little had been gleaned about their disappearing folk traditions did not include any of the medicinal plants they would have known.

By the end of the WWII, holocaust survivors were scattered around the globe trying to piece their lives together. If any Ashkenazi folk healers remained among the survivors, it would have been next to impossible to locate them, let alone conduct interviews about their traditional practices.

Ashkenazi Herbalism weaves together newly discovered ethnobotanical information with fragments of long forgotten folk practices to offer a new glimpse into an old world, one that was much more connected to nature and the plants than we might ever have imagined.