‘How I got here’ – Łukasz Łuczaj

Dr. Łukasz Łuczaj, Professional Forager, Associate Professor and Botany Department Head, University of Rzeszów, Poland.*

Polska wersja tutaj.

~2,000 words, 15 minutes reading time.

Łukasz Łuczaj plant collecting in South East Poland, 2020.

Please describe yourself in your own words.

I am a botanist who started off as a plant ecologist and ended up as an ethnobotanist. I am both a scientist and a practitioner. Someone who has a garden, someone who works with his own hands, cutting trees, planting trees, experimenting with edible plants and teaching people about it.

Do you consider yourself primarily an ethnobotanist or do you have another way of seeing yourself?

Yes absolutely.

What/where did you study?

I did a 5 year Masters in Environmental Biology at the University of Warsaw, Poland. I looked at the distribution of shrub species on the edges of the Białowieża Forest. I then did a PhD studying species richness at the borders of forests and grasslands.

As an ecology masters student aged 20 (1993), on a field trip to Siberia.

Describe your work/what you see as your mission.

My main mission is documenting the uses of wild edible plants in different parts of the globe. I started off simply as a forager getting food from nature to support myself but went on to study archival sources from Eastern Europe from 19th/20th century concerning famine and scarcity foods. Later I was able to do field work in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania, Georgia, China and Laos. These were fascinating experiences, because I could compare and contrast how Central, Southern Europeans and East Asians approach wild food resources. I coined a term herbophilia and herbophobia to differentiate between communities who love or are fearful of eating wild vegetables.

Describe your journey into the field of ethnobotany.

Towards the end of my PhD I received a substantial monetary government award for promising young scholars in 1995. However, I became disillusioned, left academia and returned to my rural roots and bought a hill with the money instead. Whilst I was living in the countryside and trying to exist self-sufficiently, I interacted with many local people, learning about traditional plant uses, working, clearing land and planting trees. At first I felt like an alien but after a while I became fascinated by their stories about things that happened in the landscape, how they gathered plants, made tools, managed the space. I was also experimenting with foraging, and feeding myself primarily with gathered foods – insects and plants. I then produced two books Dzikie rośliny jadalne Polski (Wild edible plants of Poland, 2002) and Podręcznik Robakożercy (The worm-eater’s handbook, 2005). While writing these, I started reading ethnobotanical literature and my interest in research was rekindled. One of the first ethnobotanical books I bought was Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany. I like encyclopaedia type books, I can spend hours searching them. This book changed my life. I decided I wanted to document the knowledge of the people in my area in a similar way when I realised this was something you could do. I also found that many people in Poland had done ethnographical research that could also be described as ethnobotanical so myself and a friend, Dr Wojciech M Szymański, decided to gather these together and write a literature review. We published it in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine in 2007, my first ever ethnobotanical paper: Wild vascular plants gathered for consumption in the Polish countryside: a review.

Did you ever think you would be an ethnobotanist growing up?

No, but I knew I would work with plants. I made an encyclopedia with a list of languages, animals and of all the trees I knew when I was 3 (my mother had taught me to write) and traced the shapes of leaves and fruits. I experimented with eating berries I found (Editor: lucky you didn’t eat any poisonous ones!) and making maps of the area. Later, I made a herbarium of local plants. As a child, I wanted to be an explorer in the Amazon, an astronaut, a king and a priest. At least the explorer part worked out.

My Grandfather, Stanisław Rachwał, was an amateur gardener and a great influence on my life. My family all lived together in his wooden cabin surrounded by a tall hornbeam hedge he had planted. He was retired when I was a child so he would take me for walks, show me plants and tell me stories about them. He showed me things like how to make an ash bow, how to plant beans and how to graft trees. He was the only person in my family who loved nature like me.

The plant list made at 3 years old
Part of a herbarium made at 15 years old.

Was there an act of fate that changed your life course?

I must mention a strange incident that happened about in 1994, the time I became disillusioned with academia. I was thinking of switching my PhD from Warsaw to Oklahoma as I had an offer to research with Professor Mike Palmer, a renowned American plant ecologist. But one night I had a dream that I was digging in the soil on top of a hill behind my parent’s house and found a golden chalice full of coins. When I woke up I decided to stay in Poland. On the same day, a letter arrived from Warsaw awarding me the government award I mentioned before. So I quit academia and used the money to buy land in my family’s area of South East Poland, near Krosno.

Who was the most influential person(s) on your career?

There have been many people, but Andrea Peironi is one of the main ones. When my first ethnobotanical paper was accepted, he started correspondence and he flew to my village to meet and talk with me. His brilliant works showing the great diversity of ethnobotanical traditions still present and alive in Europe has inspired many people.

The other was my Masters and PhD Supervisor Professor Janusz Faliński. He ran a plant ecology field station in the Białowieża Forest, famous for its ancient vegetation. I found his paper in a second-hand book shop in Krakow when I was 15 an decided I wanted to be a plant ecologist. I bought a hula hoop and visited different types of forests, throwing it, taking a random plant sample. Eventually I became his student. He was a tough, stubborn, hard-working and strict but brilliant guide.

I’d also like to mention Professor Andrzej Batko, a fungal taxonomist, whom I met at a scientific camp when I was 11. He was completely the opposite of Faliński. He would come to work in flip flops and a jacket with missing buttons. He was always with his head in clouds, thinking of theories and reading books from different disciplines and was interested in the opinions of everyone from someone he met at the bus stop to other academics, he was a bit like Socrates.

What was the highlight of your career? A moment you were proud of?

I felt so honoured to receive the Distinguished Ethnobotanist of the Year from the University of Kent and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 2018.

And a lowlight? Was there ever a point you looked at yourself and thought ‘what am I doing here?’

When my colleague, a botanist, offered me a job in his department in a university but the department of the faculty voted to reject my placement. Some of them commented that they don’t want a crazy person promoting the eating of insects and human placenta which I had written about in publications. It hurt, but luckily a more open minded institution hired me later on.

What would be your advice for a student of ethnobotany?

Do not get discouraged by lack of funds. Do not spend too much time seeking the finances before you feel you can start researching. Establish yourself a part-time portable job (e.g. translation, copy editing) and travel. And get traditional skills, such as gardening, carpentry, fishing. This will help you to connect with local people everywhere. When you travel, get in touch with local botanists and ethnobotanists, cooperate with them. Also, when you are established in your career, try to keep financially independent. Although I have a job at a university, I also run a company selling wildflower seeds and this means I can stick to the research I want to do from the depth of my heart rather than chasing funding. I know this advice may sound weird, but I rarely hear these kinds of statements in academia.

How do you see the future of ethnobotany? i.e. new trends, areas not yet researched, areas that are over researched?

I feel that in ethnobotany now there is too much emphasis on the quantification of ethnobotany. There are increasingly sophisticated papers showing complex data analysis and indices. The field appears to be merging more and more with ecological data processing tools where as originally, ethnobotany was a science of discovery. Of course, this has value and I see how it is difficult to discover ‘new’ things as globalisation happens. However, I still think not enough effort is put into documenting the remaining traditional knowledge, especially in the area of ethnoecology and land management practices that may help the future of biodiversity preservation. I really miss the appreciation for qualitative studies, for example, works documenting the life of one or a few informants. I fear now in ethnobotany there are too many indices, too little literature.

Favourite ethnobotanical researcher?

Nancy Turner has to be number one for combing good quality botanical data with detailed descriptions of plant uses, I love her books on Native American ethnobotany and consult them regularly.

Ingvar Svanberg is another, I think of him as a Renaissance scholar – in his research interests and publications he encompasses studying ethnozoology, ethnobiology and ethnomycology of Scandinavia as well as Central Asia. His publications cover the history of zoological gardens, animal breeding, utilisation of molluscs, fish, mushrooms, the list goes on. When I met him in one of the first meetings of Eastern European ethnobiologists in Estonia in 2011, I felt he was a gigantic database of the history of the interaction of people and their environment in Scandinavia as well as being a very kind person to talk to.

Another is Professor Zsolt Molnár, an ethnoecologist studying landscape management and grazing. I really admire how he earnestly interacts with shepherds and for being an amazing mentor with PhD students.

Do you have any hobbies in your downtime?

My hobbies are often things which border my professional interests. One obsession is spreading native plants to new localities in the land I own. When I go for a walk I often take a small spade and divide clumps of plants, such as snowdrops and bluebells and take them to new spots so they can spread.  Another hobby is traditional architecture, recreating types of houses once built in my part of the world. I live in a traditional wooden cabin built by local craftsmen and I am now building a stone cottage. I experimented over the years making shelters out of bark and dry grasses and once made a semi underground hut.

I am also interested in writing, with publications bordering my main research interests, for example I made a paper on the flora of children’s books, the guidebook on edible insects and a book reminiscing my pursuit of living a natural life in the countryside called W dziką stronę (On the Wild Side, 2019) (Polish version here, English version here).

What is your favourite plant?

The love of my life is the early spring snowflake, Leucojum vernum. It is native to Poland but quite rare. I grew them as a student at my parent’s house and from one plastic bag of bulbs, I have now managed to grow it in my forest to cover a hectare carpet. I love it because it is the earliest flower we have but is relatively large for spring flowers and stays open in bad weather, even when covered by blizzards. I can’t explain why I love it, it is just so beautiful and speaks to my heart.

Find Lukasz’s Polish Blog here and his English one here.


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056/365: Spring Snowflake
Spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum). Image credit: “056/365: Spring Snowflake” by haslo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

*An interview with SEB Student committee member Kim Walker, May 2020. This is part of a series interviewing ethnobotanists on their career path and experiences. To read more of these, click on the Interview/Bio category in the side panel. If you have someone you would like to recommend for interview, please email Kim at students@econbot.org

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