Episode #21 Ethnobotany: The Science of Indigenous Medicine with Michael Balick, PhD

Body of Wonder Podcast

Plants have provided human beings with nourishment, medicine, fibers, and other resources for millennia. And, the passing of botanical knowledge through generations not only ensured survival, it shaped how cultures understood their world. Occasionally, this knowledge would be exchanged with neighboring people in the forms of stories, rituals, and daily practices.

In the 1800’s Western anthropologists studying indigenous cultures began to categorize this relationship between plants and people as a new science called, ethnobotany, “ethno” meaning people and “botany” meaning plants.

Over the last 200 years the field has evolved to include ethnomedicine and most recently it’s application in modern pharmaceuticals.

But, how is it that centuries ago societies without modern laboratory equipment learned how to use botanicals with such precise applications and outcomes?

To understand this, we welcome Dr. Michael Balick, ethnobotanist, and Vice President and Director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Gardens. For more than four decades, Dr. Balick has studied the relationship between plants and people. Most of his research is in remote regions of the tropics, like Micronesia, on the islands of Pohnpei, Kosrae, Palau and Melanesia, in the Republic of Vanuatu where he works with indigenous cultures to document plant diversity, knowledge of its traditional use and evaluation of the potential of botanical resources, particularly medicinal plants, for broader application and use.

Dr. Weil, Dr. Maizes, and Dr. Balick discuss why it's so important to understand ethnobotany in modern society, the benefits of “whole-plant” traditional medicines, and how ethnobotanists are working with indigenous elders to preserve cultural practices and ancient knowledge.

Please note, the show will not advise, diagnose, or treat medical conditions. Always seek the advice of your physician or healthcare provider for questions regarding your health.

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Andrew Weil, MD and Victoria Maizes, MD


Michael Balick , PhD

For more than four decades, Dr. Michael Balick has studied the relationship between plants and people, the field known as ethnobotany, and floristics, the study of botanical diversity within a specific region. His research has included studies in the Amazon Valley, Central and South America, The Middle East and Southeast Asia. His most recent scientific work focuses on Micronesia, on the islands of Pohnpei, Kosrae, Palau and surrounding remote atolls, and Melanesia, in the Republic of Vanuatu, documenting the diversity, local use and management of plant resources in these poorly known but biologically important areas of the world in support of biocultural conservation. Dr. Balick has authored over 150 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, and authored, co-authored or edited 29 scientific and general interest books and monographs. Recent books include Rodale?s 21st Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature?s Most Powerful Plants and Palau Primary Health Care Manual: Health Care in Palau, Combining Conventional Treatments and Traditional Uses of Plants for Health and Healing (with various coauthors). His recent book, Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants, 3rd Edition (with Lewis S. Nelson, MD), is the standard reference for Emergency Department physicians addressing cases of suspected plant poisonings. Another recent book, Plants, People and Culture, the Science of Ethnobotany (with Paul A. Cox) is a widely used textbook for teaching ethnobotany. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and became friends with Dr. Andrew Weil during his time in Cambridge. He has been at the New York Botanical Garden since 1980.
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