Tools and Methods

A multidisciplinary approached fieldwork, combines botanical inventories, collection of plant specimens, structured, semistructured, and informal interviews and classic anthropological participant observation techniques (Vogl et al. 2004; Bernard 2002). Participatory research approach usually needs long-term fieldwork that focused on shared learning, building collaborative relationships between the researchers and the researched, and validation of local knowledge (e.g. Medley and Kalibo 2005; Ticktin et al. 2002). The information collected through direct observation and participatory techniques are generally very useful for documenting plant use. Different data collection techniques can be used in different type of studies or at different stages of data collection.

  • It is usually proposed to use informal exploratory interviewing at the early stages of the study in order to define the area of inquiry and obtain a general notion of what to expect (Weller and Romney 1988). Informal data collection techniques provide means for both getting to know informants and generating important insights that can be compared with results from our structured techniques (Vogl et al 2004: 292).
  • A free listing usually helps at the early stages to defines the domain, and to see if the researcher's understanding is corresponding to that of the local informants. For example, when asked to several informants the questions such as 'how many edible plants you can name?' or 'what diseases you can name?', we provide lists we can infer better known, important plants, their frequency and the ranking.
  • Triangulation, the cross-checking of facts using a range of methods and multiple investigators is also used in ethnobotany (e.g.Tuxill and Nabhan 2001; Medley and Kalibo 2005). For example, paralel application of research methods at two study areas, provide a good deal of comparison and cross check between two villages.
  • A comprehensive article related to some of the multidisciplinary methods adopted to medical ethnobiology can be found in Berlin and Berlin (2005), and a chart representing their understanding of the integrated system of three major components: ethnomedicine, medical ethnobotany, and ethnopharmacology is presented here.
  • Prior to the mid-1950s, research in ethnobiology was primarily descriptive, and a large amount of data was collected regarding traditional names and uses of plants and animals for a number of socio-linguistic groups (Stepp 2005). Advances in borrowed methods have large impacts in both on the social sciences and ethnobotany and ethnozoology.
  • In addition to the developments in more qualitative methods, quantitative techniques are becoming increasingly important in all branches of ethnobiology (Phillips 1996), as a mean to address particular questions. However the number of our informants, the quality and length of the interviews, the consensus of informants about use category of the plants, and the lack or the overlap of the subjective categories we construct, such as food plants and medicinals with our informants, highly affects the outcome.
  • Using quantitative techniques as complementary to traditional forms of ethnobotanical inventory, not alternatives to them would be suggested. Which quantitative techniques and why will be applied has to be considered during the planning stage of the fieldwork, and data collection has to be made with these in mind. Issues such as frequency of gathering wild foods, frequency of using medicinal plants, identification of most important uses and species, evaluating the sustainability of uses (% of destruction), comparisons of knowledge of different ethnic groups/ social levels will be very useful when statistical analysis available, thus can provide new insigths. Further information on quantitative methods such as Informant Concensus, Subjective Allocation and Uses Totaled can be found in Phillips (1996), and in Bernard (2002).

Informants/ source peoples

Cultural data related to a useful plant is usually collected from one or more individuals, which we call 'informants'. Selecting the right informants is one of the most difficult tasks at the beginning of the fieldwork. If a good rapport is established with several members of the society/community, they might suggest some names to contact with. Gender relations are also important for selecting the informants, while in some societies women's talking with a male researcher is not considered proper, while if she is an elderly woman it may not create a big problem. So age, status, sex and political attitude of the informant have to be taken into account. However, while trying to choose the best informants, we should not forget that there is no single specialist in any area, and the information can be obtained from every single people, as one may knows more about the fodder plants, while a young children can take you to a rare catch of mushrooms. If we are trying to gather information on medicinal plants we need to get into contact with local healers, midwifes, shepherds, bone-settlers, herbalists, as well as medical doctors, practitioners of the area. If our aim is to gather information on edibles we may need to ask to women of various ages, and to children and men if they gather particular plants, e.g. mushrooms or root plants. Local office of agriculture, a restaurant nearby and particularly local markets may provide large amounts of data about edible plants and the local reciepts. Once the ironsmith of a village provide the best info about the digging tool of which people once used for digging up Crocus' bulbs. He told me that the boys were usually bribed him with the eggs they stolen from their own coop, in return to the iron tip he prepared for them.

The gender aspect in ethnobotany is very important, while women are usually the agents of transmitting the information and main caretakers of most plant-related information, vast majority of ethnobotanical studies until recently has been done by male researchers, and they have had quite indirect access to the women informants (Howard 2003; Price and Ogle 2008; Turner 2006). Women researchers not only brought a new understanding and appreciation of the gathering role of women and their role as farmers and in transmitting the knowledge, but also approach women informants more directly. Women farmers in many parts of the world collect while plants, some of them are weeds, fruits, seeds while they are also tending their garden, and this continuous collection is important from nutritional point of view as well as food security, and for extra cash (Ertug 2003; Etkin and Ross 1994; Kabeer 2003; Price and Ogle 2008). Usually the women create and maintain 'the taste' of the food and contribute to the health of the household through her gathering, shopping, trading, cooking and daily care.

Collaboration with local community can have positive affects on the transmission of the unrecorded heritage, particularly when the ethnobotanists contribute of creating a guide, a co-authored booklet, and/or a poster related to local plant use, including local names, images and landscape narratives. Presentations and collaborative studies in local schools also help to building up cultural valuation of local resources.

Inteviews/ Questions

Types of interviews and how to probe or encourage your informants during the interviews seems quite technical as well as private, but data provided on informal, unstructured, semistructured and structured interviews, as well as field and group interviews in various field manuals (see Alexiades 1996: 60-68; Paul and Cox 1996; Martin 2004; Thomas et al 2007). In one a recent overview related to the results from a quantitative ethnobotanical study in five Yuracaré and Trinitario communities in the Bolivian Amazon, the pros and cons of the following methods are evaluated: (1) interviews in situ during transects, walk-in-the-woods, and homegarden sampling; and (2) interviews ex situ with fresh plant material, voucher specimens, or plant photographs as reference tools. Although the systematic use of plant photographs for ethnobotanical interviews is poorly documented in literature, the results show that indigenous participants in this study recognize significantly more plant species from photographs than from voucher specimens. It is argued that, especially in remote and isolated study sites, photographs might be advantageous over voucher specimens (Thomas et al 2007).

Several types of questions (direct, indirect, open or closed) may be used during the fieldwork, selecting the proper type of question at the right time is one of the key skills in successful interviewing (Alexiades 2006:61).

After Berlin and Berlin 2005.
  • Direct questions usually starts with what, when, who, whom, why and how, and usually are main starting to interview questions, like open ended questions such as 'tell me about this plant'. Alexiades called them as to 'break the ice' questions, while calling indirect ones as: ' beating around the bush to find out what is in the bush' which used related to the sensitive issues such as death and sex. Once I was interviewing one of the respectful elders of a society about the castration of a bull, so my questions as a relatively younger female researcher in front of an elder male member of the community need to be addressed quite indirectly, without using phrases such as the balls of the bull.
  • Closed questions generally require yes or no type of answers, and should be used carefully, as it creates a control over the response. If we do not know much about the culture, we need to prefer more direct, open ended questions, while the yes-no type can be useful if we have enough control over the topic and try to quantify for example the number of plants each informants knows.
  • It is always useful to have a written framework of questions, and it may be useful to keep it with you to check when needed, or keep it for anyone who might like to see them all. However, having a questionnaire at hand, and/or filling a questionnaire is not always advised for an ethnobotanical or in general any anthropological inquiry. This format of study is overused for marketing purposes, and people feel quite uneasy and trapped when they see a long list of questions. Though data provided with structured interviews and fixed questions can be very useful in quantification, they should at least not used in the early stages of the fieldwork.
  • Taking notes to a note book, and/or with the consent of the person using a tape recorder or video recorder might be much better, especially when explained carefully why we need to write and record these all, as these are important part of the local heritage, etc.
  • Usually people answers what we asked them, as they probably does not understand the depth or the reasons behind our interest. If we ask about a plants ability to dye wool, they can tell us about its use as dye, but may not explain its ceremonial use or fibre use. If we have some info - even in genus level- about the plant we are dealing and has checked its use in other areas we may ask the right questions and get the right answers.
  • Related to the expectations of local people: 'While doing fieldwork, researchers should be wary of making promises they can not keep and of raising unrealistic expectations (Alexiades 1996:14) '. In addition to that being judgemental or disapproving of the informants or the information they are given is not advised, as well as being in the contradiction with the informants, unless this is strategically used by a skilled interviewer as a specific technique (ibid:60).
  • One of the most important way of gathering information is not only making interviews with people, but joining all activities related to plants, and participating all aspects of life even it seems no relation with plants. Gathering of greens, fruits, weeding the crops or harvesting potatoes seems closely related, but usually we do not think that joining a wedding teaches us various aspects of plant use in rituals.
  • Asking questions, collecting plant specimens and helping at the same time to that task is not controversial, as people can be more relaxed and freely answers questions while working together.
  • The issue of payment or compensation of the informants or the community has to be taken into account as the research are taking their time, and in some studies a commercial outcome might be expected. Formal and communal compensations are discussed and various case studies provided in Alexiades (1996:11-14), Cotton (1996) and Cunningham (1996:23-47).

Vernacular/ Local names

Recording the vernacular name (indigenous/ local name) is one of the most important aspect of ethnobotanical study. Plant names contain a wealth of information on how a particular culture perceives and utilizes its plant resources and on how plants and their uses are diffused (Alexiades 1996:71). Although training in phoenetics might help to detect and transcribe the names, in most cases the ethnobotanist might not have such a training, or enough linguistic skills; but getting help from a linguist or carefully recording every name at least twice, and later confirm its written form with local people is strongly recommended. For example in Australia, about 200 languages has been recorded among aboriginal peoples, and some researchers assume that this large variation is not related with the isolation of various tribes, but is related with the jigsaw of microclimates within the ‘dry heart’ of Australia. Each tribe has their own names of the fauna and flora for their survival, that means they know them by heart, with all their properties, characteristics, and while they provide name to them that landscape provided survival. Thus knowing its name means more than a name, but knowing where, when, and how. An answer such as ‘no name’ may means: ‘the plant doesn’t grow in my country’ (Chatwin 1988:300). ‘A man raised in one part of the desert would know its flora and fauna backwards. He knew which plant attracted game. He knew his water. He knew where there were tubers underground. In other words by naming all the ‘things’ in his territory, he could always count on survival. But if you took him blindfold to another country, he might end up lost and starving’(Chatwin 1988:301). Recording vernacular/ local names with a taperecorder is also a necessity for further checks. In the study of medicinal plants and ethnoveterinary practices, the terminology of local diseases poses a challenge. The local term of a disease may or may not have a direct translation in Western medicine. When people explaining symptoms, causality and treatment, their terminology has to be carefully recorded. In this kind of study local practitioners, medical doctors who has been working in the area for long periods can be very useful informants. A list with local names, the description of each disease and its symptoms can be provided at the early stages of study by using free listing and interviews.

Availability of plants, resources

Useful plants are available in all kinds of climates and landscapes and people were capable of find/ discover useful plants whereever they live. From the Arctics to deserts, whereever people live they provide most of their needs from plants. Paul Nabhan, an Arab-American ethnobotanist points out that: 425 edible wild species found in the Sonoran Desert demonstrates how bountiful a desert can be. From the red-hot chiltepines of Mexico to the palms of Palm Springs, each plant exemplifies a symbolic or ecological relationship which people of this region have had with plants through history (Nabhan 1985). Some limitations imposed by the climate, soil and the altitude or landscape, other limitations are dependant on the culture, the technological abilities or know-how of the society. Religious restrictions and rules such as fasts or taboos and the beliefs also affects what and when some resources can be collected, harvested and eaten. While some plants and animals are considered edible by some societies, others are considered as a sin or as unacceptable, vulgar. Knowing one plants' usefulness, does not mean that it is considered useful in another area. Even if people knows its virtue, e.g. edibility, if they do not consider it as tasty or healthy, they do not gather it. On the other hand people consume quite toxic or unpalatable plants after long and tedious processes, why? The reasons are not always obvious and most of the time are not related with unavailability of other food resources, famine or any hardship. There are some common edibles, but no black-and-whites, and there is 'a sliding scale of edibility' (Mears and Hillman 2007: 32) among various cultures.

Limitations and Strengths

It is important to note that to create a complete ethnobotanical inventory of any traditional society is almost impossible, particularly when the destruction of tropical rainforests and other natural habitats where indigenous peoples live has reached an unprecedented rate (Prance 1991). Unless we spend years and years in the field, and be a part of the studied society we can not hope to have a full inventory, even then not only plants but some ways of processes and recepies have long been lost. Every time we found some informant who has lots of knowledge on plants, s/he complains that we should come 20 years earlier to meet his/her grandmother or grandfather. So we have to accept what we can gather, and we have to aware our weak points while trying to start data collection. Making a list of useful plants, including how they have used and for what is not enough, we also need to be careful about how people manage their resources. Many local people use their resources more friendly way than we can think of. It is crutial to learn ways of locals manage their resources for a more sustainable harvest and thus living.

Strengths of the ethnobotanical work from the archaeological point of view, lies in the universality of most common plants and the basic similarities of techniques of processes beyond borders and ages. When we record the traditional plant knowledge of one society, that knowledge is not limited to only that particular area and time. In many parts of the world oral histories and traditional knowledge accumulate over centuries, even millenias. However remote the area we have studied seems to, it does not cover only the traditional knowledge of one group, but usually inherited previous cultural knowledge or other peoples’ whom they have contacted. The plant seeds and the knowledge of cultivation and processes travels more rapidly in the past than expected, and people adopt plants quite easily sometimes just by curiosity. Finding traces of this make us astonish, such as facing a plant of the Far East origin, in a remote town of Anatolia, which is cultivated in a garden to make praying beads. Realizing how some of our cultural relations with some plants, such as tea and coffee developed far back in other countries and societies. The amount and rate of adopting plants from Americas just within a few centuries, such as potato, tomato, beans, tobacco, and corn are amazing. They become our daily ingredients, main crops, drugs which we can not think of living without. Some experiments of introducing medicinal plants into a forest shared by some tribes indicates that, local people quickly find out the medicinal properties of some of these plants by trial and error (Balick and Cox 1997). Several similar examples are recorded among the migrated workers to Europe, they gather plants in their new environment by tasting and checking to the similarities to the plants they know previously (Pieroni and Vandebroek 2007).

Main strengths of ethnobotanical studies lies not only its strong bridges with the past but with the means it provide to the lives of today’s people. More and more people wants to change the ridom of their lives, change the ways of living from the competitive, stressed cities and 'escape to the country'. Without the wealth of traditional knowledge of dealing with nature, living closer to nature and interacting with plants again seems not an easy job. The traditional knowledge can give valuable clues not only about our past but also today how we can get use of them, for living more nature friendly and protecting both the nature and our own health. Keeping the tradition alive might not be a bad idea.

Interpretations/ implications

Ethnobotanical findings provide important clues for a number of questions usually asked by archaeologists and archaeobotanists, such as:

  • Why people are still gathering so many plants instead of domesticating them?
  • What are the roles of these species in their diet, in their health and in their culture?
  • Seasonal patterns of gathering related to other activities such as planting, harvesting, and winter preparations?
  • Can we trace the past uses of these wild plants in the archaeological record?

Recent archaeobotanical studies provide some positive answers to the above questions:

  • Yes, we can trace the past plant-human interactions increasingly through modern archaeobotanical (including pollen, phytolith, charcoal, macro and micro analysis), caprolite, and trace analyses techniques. Systematic flotation applications, pollen and phytolith investigations are providing data on many plant species; trace analyses on tools and materials are presenting ways of preparation and uses; and when available the caprolites provide important clues on diet. Of course all these techniques have their own limitations as well as strengths.
  • The scope and the approaches of the specialists are also important for investigations and further interpretations. Analyses that focus only on remains of seeds and fruits –common practice in temperate regions where agricultural systems are largely seed-based—may miss some of the most important evidence, especially from foods such as ‘roots’, inner bark, stems, leaves, as well as from the largely vegetative parts of plants commonly used as sources of materials (Hather and Mason 2002:2).
  • All evidences need some comparative material for better interpretation and ethnographical analogies of processes. For example, Arum species have some poisonous properties, yet, both their tubers and the leaves can be eaten after drying and/or boiling (Grieve 1996:236; Baytop 1994:287).
  • Without knowing which, when, and how each plant might be useful we can investigate neither the subsistence nor the economy of a past society.
  • Recent ethnobotanical studies, as well as the new trends in archaeobotany changed our previous concepts and definitions of “agrarian” societies. The terms such as “hunter-gatherer” and “agriculturalist” were once used by the archaeologists as opposed states, and implicitly excludes transitional states. It is very important to realize that hunter-gatherers may undertake agricultural practices, and agriculturalists persist on gathering, and these should not be seen as mutually incompatible (Hather and Mason 2002:4).
  • Ethnobotanical investigations not only provide relevant reference collections for identifications, but also provide many ways that each species can be useful, for example for thatching, for fuel, for food and/or medicine. In addition these studies present clues about the possible timing of uses, the harvesting and processing techniques of various plant parts.
  • In a recent study on Anatolian plaiting crafts (basketry, cordage, mat making and brooms) more than 90 species of plants is listed, as a resource material of these crafts (Ertug 2006), in addition to various techniques of plaiting. If we can integrate all these information to the archaeobotanical investigations we could create a clearer picture of the daily life, the subsistence, the know-how and social interactions of the past populations. Processes, tools and techniques, such as the tools and methods of harvesting, detoxifying, and preparation the plants as food, medicine, dye or fibers were also provides useful data.
  • Ethnobotanical studies conducted in different parts of the world also provides different use informations of the same plants. In one area the corn can be considered not only as a food, but fodder and thatching material, and in another a fiber for producing containers, dolls.


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

  • Alexiades 1996
  • Baytop 1994
  • Berkes 2008
  • Berlin and Berlin 2005
  • Bernard 2002
  • Buck and Thiers 1996 (in Alexaides)
  • Chatwin 1988
  • Cotton 1996
  • Cunningham 1996 (in Alexaides)
  • Ertug 2003b
  • Ertug 2006
  • Forman and Bridson 1989
  • Grieve 1996
  • Halling 1996 (in Alexaides)
  • Hanlidou et al. 2004
  • Hardy 2007
  • Hather and Mason 2002
  • Martin 1994
  • Mears and Hillman 2007
  • Medley and Kalibo 2005
  • Nabhan 1985
  • Peña-Chocarro et al. in press
  • Phillips 1996 (in Alexaides)
  • Pieroni and Vandebroek 2007
  • Putscher and Vogl 2006
  • Stepp 2005
  • Thomas et al. 2007
  • Ticktin et al. 2002
  • Turner 2006
  • Vogl et al. 2004
  • Weller and Romney 1988
  • Wickens 2001