Collecting data in the field is the main and the most time consuming part of ethnobotanical studies, and various steps has to be taken into account before starting a fieldwork. We need to define what we want to accomplish, focus on our aims and complete a project with our proposed methodology, techniques of quantification, and try to find the financial support for our proposal (for further details see: Alexiades 1996; Cotton 1996; Martin 1994; Vogl et al 2004 and check IDRC website). A very useful guidebook was compiled for recording indigenous knowledge (IK) is available in the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) webside, including characteristics of IK, intellectual property rights, developing a research framework, data collection techniues and case studies (

Although every study presents unique challenges, there are some main issues in each fieldwork, such as defining sample size (study area, respondents) and the methodology. In addition to carefully designed research plan, links and collaborative exchanges with host-country institutions and colleagues has to be established. Many countries require written permissions for collecting plant material and researching, protocols for those permissions has to be completed and received before starting the fieldwork. An extensive literature available concerning intellectual property rights, as traditional knowledge is considered an intellectual property, it is subject to regulations (Berlin and Berlin 2005; Wickens 2001).

We also need to write or work on our objectives, ways of proceeding research and our expectations from this study in a more simple but very clear, accurate way to communicate with local community and our informants. Even if we have written the best professional or theoretically perfect proposal, received grants and permissions, if we can not explain clearly our aims and objectives to the peoples we will work together, we can expect no success.

Pre-field studies

Pre-field studies of checking the literature related to the study area, plant lore, agriculture, economy, ethnography, botany and checking the herbariums are a necessity while planning the field-work. Floras, check lists, ecological reports and databases can give valuable insights about which plants are likely to be present in a particular area (Wickens 2001:20) and their possible uses. If available, explorer’s and travellers reports about the area, and ethnographic, folkloric, historical accounts of researchers has to be checked. Contact with experts related to the topic you are interested, and/ or about the area. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew provides three interconnected bibliographic databases: the Economic Botany data set in relation to Kew Record of Taxonomic Literature and Plant Micromorphology datasets ( do). In addition to these a database for the survey of Economic Plants for arid and semi-arid lands is also operated by Kew (SEPASAL and more general information can be searched through epic: University of Michigan- Dearborn also hosts a Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants ( Missouri Botanical Garden’s Database is focusing on tropical plants, although it does not include uses, provide the bibliography and images:

Fieldwork can be quite fun, especially when working with a group of wise women, Central Anatolia, 1995, Turkey, F. Ertug.

Local awareness

One aspect is the need to conduct research with local people rather than purely for or about them (Alexiades 2006: 20). This aspect of ethnobotanical study is getting more and more emphasized recently. If we want not only to record, but to sustain the biodiversity and local diversity of cultures we need to aware that people and areas who protected this diversity and knowledge should be encouraged by bringing together our strengths. We also have to aware of socio-economic and political context of fieldwork, as well as who might be considered as stakeholders. Alexiades pointing out that hunter-gatherer societies for example, universally recognized for their acute observation and ecological insights, are extremely vulnarable to material and political marginilisation and displacement by pastoralists and agroculturalists (Alexiades 2006: 21). On the other hand small farmers who protect and disseminate their traditional knowledge also under the threat of commercial agriculture and market needs. Recording and publishing their knowledge can create a threat to their environments, resources, ways of living or patent rights. The genetic and chemical attributes of plants and their processing techniques should be saved and stored until necessary regulations for the property rights or intellectual rights are established. Traditional knowledge of endemic species, genera, or families has to be taken into account with more sensitive approach as these are not only culturally important but has to be treated with conservational concern.

Berkes rightly says in his seminal work of Sacred Ecology (2008: 270): Rooted in different worldviews and unequal in power, Western and traditional knowledge are not easy to combine. It may never be possible or desirable to meld the two, even if Western knowledge is represented by one of the holistic traditions. Each is legitimate in its own right, within its own context; each has its own strengths. The two kinds of knowledge may be pursued separately but in parallel, enriching one another as needed.

Timing of the fieldwork

Short term surveys and exploration trips is not considered efficient data collection method for ethnobotanical studies. Researchers usually avoid what is called “conventional extraction” of information over a short time period (Medley and Kalibo 2005), unless the data has to be collected in a short time in collaboration with local co-investors. One of the leading economic botanists of UK, Gerald E. Wickens noted that: ‘Living in a country teaches one more about the significance of plants in the lives of people than it is possible to learn through expeditions’ (Wickens 2001). Cotton (1996:91) also argues that ethnobotanical research most commonly involves a “sustained observation of people, which can be achieved only by long-term participation in local customs and daily life.” The longer the time in the field means the greater opportunity to build rapport and collect more data (Alexiades 1996:14). Bernard says (2002) that rapport is 'what makes it possible for anthropologists to do all kind of otherwise unthinkably intrusive things'. Gaining the rapport and acceptance needs time and good will of both sides, as well as time to explain your focus. An example of this can be given from a fieldwork in Turkey: while at the end of the first six months the number of plants that has been recorded as useful was 60, and at the end of 18 months this number has been reached to 250 (Ertug-Yaras 1997). This was a fieldwork in the author's own country, so with no obvious language barriers in theory, however, due to the differences in attitudes, perceptions, local idioms, the first few months was not productive or the author may not explain well what her aims was.

Living in the fieldwork area over a year with the group of people is ideal to create efficient bonds, rapport, and observation time in various conditions, seasons. Seasonality is also important factor as people interact with different plants in various seasons, further people might be more available during particular times of the year to participate in the study. Logistically it can be impossible or very hard to work during rainy season in tropical areas (Alexiades 1996:15) or of the extreme heat during the summer. The agricultural calendar (plant gathering, cultivation and animal husbandry) as well as the religious feast days of the area should be checked and the fieldwork should be designed according to it. For example being in the field, during the holy fasting month of Ramadan in any Muslim country is not an ideal timing, as people would not pay any attention to you or your research.

Useful hints about fieldwork

  • Usually markets occur once a week in a small rural town, provide a magnet for numerous villagers around, and became a non-replacable area of focus for ethnobotanical research. While it is difficult to find information on some specific plants such as fodder, fuel, fibre, etc. many useful plants and producers can be traced in the market area. In a small but very touristic town called Bodrum, in the SW corner of Turkey, Friday markets proved how a market based research can be an important source of data for a long term ethnobotanical project. While useful plant sum was 315, with 275 natural plants and 40 cultivars, over 100 of them were recorded in the Bodrum market (Ertug 2003b). Most market studies are focusing on herbal medicine (e.g. Hanlidou et al 2004; Putscher and Vogl 2006) and they provide very interesting data about the gender aspect of buyers and sellers, interaction between the plants and peoples in urban areas and about the knowledge transmission.
  • During a fieldwork in a small town, Buldan in the Inner Western Turkey, our team has found friendship, hospitality and the best discussion environment in a tiny grocery store, where two or three people could hardly sit over the sacks or boxes. Every night we settled there with 5-6 local people, sometimes until midnight we had spoken, and our talk always accompanied by tea. We brought our plant samples, or sometimes they brought a plant, we asked our questions on this or that, and we were given extra interpretative tools for the evaluation of each interview or each contact person. When we were not in the field that store served us as a post office, study center, and our returns were celebrated each time with news related to a newly found plant names or uses. That kind of store where both men and women of the society can enter freely can provide a heaven for the researchers.
  • Keeping a research diary in the field in addition to daily note books is a very useful tool to keep track of what had happened, when, how many people you have interwieved, how many plants you have collected, and what is still missing. A personal diary to express daily feelings can be also useful, but this does not taken as an alternative to research diary. Writing daily expenses in a notebook or a separate file in the laptop is also advised.
  • Daily notes of information, free lists, and plant collection data should be transferred into a database or an excel sheet to make the reporting easier and it can be very useful for comparisons. Information related to all informants (incl. age, name, sex, birth place, years at school, occupation and contact info) also be the part of this database.
  • During the fieldwork, whenever possible the collected information has to be checked with the related literature, and some identifications has to be made, thus further questions can be asked while still in the fieldwork area.
  • A local people know their plants by heart, checks them by touching, smelling or just know its height, color, smell or where it grows. This ease of distinguishing not only different species, but the different stages of growth of each useful plant, and where you can find them in every season creates a great challenge for the ethnobotanist to document. So we try to document not only a list of useful plants, but when, where, how people collect that plant and what they do with that. How each plant used in various ways? What its bark or stem is good for, how do you collect pieces of root without disturbing the tree? How you manage to collect that same plant from the same area without over explotation? To be able to succeed this depth and range of information we need to combine both data collection processes with the same care and keep up the related documentations as detailed and as accurate as possible.

Types of data

Ethnobotanists collects two main types of data: 1. Cultural data 2. Related plant material and specimens.

These two main data collections should be simultaneous for each plant. There is no way to collect first the information about all useful plants and then collecting plants or vice versa. Even if you know all the useful plants of one area, the local names, uses, processes and recipes changes occasionaly from village to village or from a house to the next.

observing every aspect of life in a rural community might teach us something related to plants, Aksaray, F.Ertug.
weaving a cordage with a very simple loom, Aksaray, F. Ertug.
carrying oak for leaf fodder and fuel, Beypazari- Ankara, F. Ertug.
weaving a basket from Vitex branches, Buldan-Denizli, F. Ertug.

Cultural data collection and considerations

What do we mean with cultural data? Anything we need to know about a person's relation with plants, her/his knowledge about plants are usually culturally determined. Asking the questions and recording the accounts of our informants is not straightforward. Collecting cultural data- talking to another person in a different society or just with a different background belies the tremendous challenge of learning to recognize and minimize the ways in which we unconsciously reinterpret and reformulate the experience of others on the basis of our own (Alexiades 1996:55). For example while you are asking to the informant to find out his/her knowledge of a crop or a traditional farming technique, he/she might expect you to find a solution to his/her immediate problem with that crop or that field. So with different expectations in mind, you may not receive the answers you have asked, or get scattered answered. When we receive an answer we also do not know how to interpret that, as we were not aware the usual interactions among individuals in that society. So, asking the same questions to various informants, and having some group discussions time to time is advisable.

A positive, straightforward relationship with local informants has to be one of the main concerns of the resercher, Buldan- Denizli, Turkey, F.Ertug.
  • Sometimes body language or facial expression decipherations would also be helpful. The knowledge of each informant in the society also show distinct differences. This aspect of 'differences in knowledge' is not always related to ethnicity, religion or social differences in one society. It can be due to intra marriages among various villages, someone may married with a woman from another village, or his/her mother came from another village. As women transmits the information of most useful plants, they teach different plants or ways of processes to their daughters and daughter in laws.
  • Another aspect of difference can be related to specialized knowledge. We come across with this fact quite often related with medicinal plants, medical treatments and crafts. There is a high level of specialization in crafts and medicine. The healers of particular disease or treatment are quite common in traditional societies, and that knowledge can be unique to an individual, a family or a minor group in the case of crafts.
  • Multiple uses of plants is an important consideration we have to be careful about. Most cultivars have various uses, and they may be selected for these multi functional characteristics. For example flax (Linum) and hemp (Cannabis) stems are important as fibre in many societies, but flax seeds are also used as food, an oil and a medicinal, while hemp seeds considered as a valuable food, its flowers and leaves used as narcotic and medicinal.
  • Sometimes 'secondary' uses beyond food becomes more important, and there can be a long-term shift from primary to 'secondary' products (Sheratt 1999). Sheratt, provides an example of 'palaolithic hunters ate elephant meat, but left the tusks; now ivory poachers leave the meat to rot' (ibid:14), while Peña-Chocarro et al (in press) provides a perfect example of present day einkorn use in Morocco, that they still plant this antique hulled wheat, not for its grain but for its long, sturdy stems good for thatching. According to authors, the survival of this tradition has been a key factor for einkorn conservation (Peña-Chocarro et al in press:109). Recording one main use can be mistaken, we may record a consideration for that limited time frame, but if we aware of multi-uses of many plants, we may ask for the other/ past usages of particular crops.
  • Among all considerations the most important of all is the researchers open/ transparent attitude toward the community about his/her aims, motives, expectations, and these needs to be addressed, formally and informally, in public and private meetings (Alexiades 1996: 10).
Plant press and some dried samples, F.Ertug.

Collecting plant specimens and considerations

The collection of the right and the good quality samples (herbarium specimens or dry material, such as seeds, pods, bark) are prerequisites of proper identification. Right samples means what the people are actually using, not what we think they are using! To be able to collect the right samples we need to go to collect the material with reliable informants, and/or we need to confirm the collected plant specimens with more informants. Detailed field notes, including where, when, what has been collected and photographs of the plants within their surrounding habitat has to be consided as a must. We will not explain the plant collecting techniques or which plant organs are required for identification, or when and how we will collect samples, how to dry them, etc. These techniques are described in various reference books (Alexiades 1996, Forman and Bridson 1989, Wickens 2001) and it is always advised to get help from a specialist, a botanist and/or a taxonomist. Ethnobotanical studies usually embrace not only the plants, but some non-plants such as fungi, algea and bacteria, for their contribution to food and drink (edible mushrooms, fermentation of drink) (Wickens 2001:4), and their collection techniques also need to consult to a specialist (e.g. for collecting mushrooms: Halling 1996; for bryophytes: Buck and Thiers 1996).

  • Whatever the method we choose it is essential to remember that we have to collect the right and good quality material in sets of at least three (for sending identification and extra sets for donating either local or national herbariums other than that of your own collection), and all samples has to be properly labelled, dried and fungal growth prevented.
  • One of the best known ethnobotanists, Sir Prance was rightly pointing out that: "Ethnobotany has often been conducted by botanists with little training or contact with anthropologists or by anthropologists with little background in biology who collect poor herbarium specimens that are impossible to identify!" (Prance 1991).
  • While collecting plant samples, botanists usually collect plant specimens when they are flowering or fruiting to make the identification possible. However, ethnobotanists need to collect the plants in their use stage, for example if this plant is an edible green, we need to know what it looks like when people are gathering. This does not exlude of collecting the same plant in flowering and in fruiting/ seed bearing stages. Having a complete set of different growth stages of the same plant is very important for further comparisons. Photographs alone usually not acceptable for identification purposes, but always helpful for indicating the color, the habitat, etc.
  • Another important consideration is collecting all cultivars, land races or well known, dominant species as all these species often ignored by the collectors. Especially cultivars, vegetables (including wild greens which some can be considered as weeds by agriculturalists) are usually rarest items in most herbariums.
  • The plant samples collected for identification and for further research (e.g. machroscopic analyses, chemical) provides an essential record against misidentification. These voucher specimens can be used means of correcting identification when any taxonomic revisions occured (Wickens 2001: 17). The existence and location of these specimens have always be cited in the publications.

Collecting plant-based material

Objects made by plant materials are considered important samples for teaching and for further research purposes. Brooms, mats, baskets, nets, strings, musical instruments, toys, clothes, wooden tools, boxes and containers has to be collected in addition to herbarium specimens, and all information related to its production, who, where, when it has produced has to be recorded and labelled. When possible having a video of the production of the object would be a great help for future researchers. A special artifact interview sheet and a data base for recording various characteristics of the object will be advised. Drawing a sketch and recording the names of various parts is also useful.

A pair of wooden clogs in the field, Asturias, Spain, 2005, F.Ertug.
Bee hive basket plastered by mud, Morocco, 2006, F.Ertug.
Two butter containers made of powdered roots of Eremurus spp., Turkey, F. Ertug.
A wooden press for processing apple juice, Kastamonu 2006, F. Ertug.


To follow up on the refrences below please see the references page.

  • Alexiades 1996
  • Berkes 2008
  • Buck and Thiers 1996 (in Alexaides)
  • Cotton 1996
  • Ertug 2003b
  • Ertug-Yaras 1997
  • Forman and Bridson 1989
  • Halling 1996 (in Alexaides)
  • Hanlidou et al. 2004
  • Martin 1994
  • Medley and Kalibo 2005
  • Peña-Chocarro et al. in press
  • Prance 1991
  • Putscher and Vogl 2006
  • Sheratt 1999
  • Vogl et al 2004
  • Wickens 2001