‘How I got here’ – Edelmira Linares

*An interview with Dr. Edelmira Linares, Society for Economic Botany Distinguished Economic Botanist Award recipient 2010 and author of Medicinal Plants of Mexico, uses and traditional remedies and Los quelites, un tesoro culinario.

Clic aquí para la versión en castellano.

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

Yes! I am an ethnobotanist from my heart.

Please describe yourself in your own words.

I am a person who likes to help other people in different ways. One way is to document and show different ways of living and to show the importance of respecting other ways of living. This is why I do ethnobotany, especially medicinal plants of Mexico. Trying to help people, asking them what they want from us. I don’t decide what to do. I ask what they want us to do and try to help them try to accomplish it. In that way, we have been doing recipe books, videos, teaching in schools, children, adults, to answer their purpose in our projects.

What you see as your mission

I consider my mission to be a translator of people’s thinking, their needs and try to help them accomplish their needs.

Describe your work

I like to do field work, not the laboratory work! I like to be outside, talk to people and be with them. For me it is difficult to be in the lab or in the collections, though I like working with the collections, but not for very long periods. I prefer to be out in the field, even with the mosquitos.

How do you avoid the mosquitos?

We call them zancudos or moyotes. I never use perfume or perfumed soaps in the field, and also take vitamin B for 15 days before we leave to the field. The insects don’t like the smell, so helps to avoid them!  Sometimes I use plants to rub on for example in the sierra Tarahumara we use Melissa (Toronjil) and that helps. Sometimes the fleas are worse, in gardens where the animals are. In tropical fields there are chiggers, especially in rainy season. Each time you go to the field you get them. They are so painful. So, I asked people what they did to avoid them. The people said you take a shower and then put lemon juice on. I did it and it helped a lot, it seems to change the skin pH. It is important to listen to what locals do! They don’t have access to medicines, only local resources.  Lemon helps, though sometimes I use insecticides and always put the leg bottoms of my pants inside my socks.

What/where did you study? Do you think this influences you in any particular way?

I studied biology originally, I am a biologist and then I liked plants so I decided to be a botanist. There was no ethnobotanist course in my university, so I am classed as a botanist there. But I find the taxonomists are not like me, they prefer to be in labs with plants and not be interrupted. But I was not like that, I am a sociable person, so I began to look for something like ethnobotany.  

How did you discover ethnobotany?

In my university there was a Professor who was also an important ethnobiologist, Dr Alfredo Barrera.  When I did my Masters, he opened a course which I joined. He took us to the field and taught us a lot of useful things. Then he began to work with Ethnoflora Yucatanense Project of the Yucatán Peninsula with the flora. He taught us so much but I loved to be with people and so loved to go to the markets. In Mexico, the markets are wonderful, so many people, so much diversity. There was a professor in the school of agronomy, Efraim Hernandez-Xolocotzi, and in one of the botany congresses he took us to one of the biggest markets in Mexico, La Merced. I saw how he behaved and how he asked and what he told us about the plants there. I asked him if I could join his course as an auditor. I couldn’t do it officially because it wasn’t part of my university. Each student had a project, I didn’t have a special project as an auditor so I shared other projects and helped them and it helped me a lot to learn about ethnobotany. Many of his students are well known ethnobotanists today. He gave us lots of literature and I began to read and found my path.

Ethnobotany in a Mexican market.

Did you ever think you would be an ethno/botanist growing up? Or work with plants?

My father liked gardening and my sister and I always helped him, so it was part of our life. Then my father wanted larger land so he bought some space and we had little ranch outside Mexico City. Our work was to take water to the plants. There was apple and plum trees, many trees that he planted. He was interested that we help him in the garden all the time, I think that was part of my motivation to be with plants in the garden.

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

The main people that helped me understand my way of feeling were my family: my father and mother. Since we were a little, he was an unusual person. Very warm and tender, my mother as well, but my father decided that my sister and myself needed to know our country before we married. So each vacation we visited a different state. My father drove, and my mother told us the history and culture, food, behaviours and how we have to behave in that place. She taught me a lot, she liked history because my grandfather was a homeopathy doctor and a historian. In her house, there were many little statues that he collected as well as a large library. So my mother was brought up in that environment of learning about history and prepared a trip showing books and info while we were playing in the car she was telling us stories and reading. So, when we arrived, we knew a lot about our country. There are 32 states in Mexico, though we didn’t quite make the last 4, because my mother died quite young. They were wonderful trips as were my family, really good parents! Then there is my husband, Bob Bye. When I married him we were together as ethnobotanists, like partners in work and home. Travel then became easier and safer and then we would take our children with us too.  

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

The moment I was most proud when I helped the Tarahumara people to retain their corn seeds. They’d had a terrible drought, it hadn’t rained for 2 years and if you can’t plant the seeds after 3 years, they are lost. My husband Bob got some seeds and together we did a great job looking for money and inviting different people to help us multiply the seeds. We managed to find 5 different maize races and gave them back the seed. If not, they would have lost their seeds. They would not have had enough to eat (though the government and NGOs would help with food) but the main problem was that they had bred special races that are adapted to their specific environment ecological situation and there was none to replace that. There are about 63 maize races in Mexico, but not all adapted to this specific environment and could not be planted in the Sierra Tarahumara. So we managed to collet as many different types of seeds as possible and worked with key peasants to plant the seeds. The UNAM Foundation at university helped administrate the funds and we found a farmer who helped to planted the seeds and irrigated the plants when needed. We managed to save them and returned the seeds the hundreds of Tarahumara families.

A video of the project.

And a lowlight? Was there ever a point you looked at yourself and thought what am I doing/how the hell did I get here?

Sometimes when you are putting in a lot of effort into something and it doesn’t work, you think ‘what am I doing here?’ 2020 is the year. Regarding the last project, we did a workshop on family seed sharing as families like to maintain their own stock if they want to eat, there is no store to buy it from. They don’t always want to share with others. However, they asked us to help us keep them for a longer time to be sure that they wouldn’t have the problem that happened before. So we asked around who could help make small silos. We found some in Veracruz but the project was in Chihuahua (2,000 km apart) using silos of 25 kilos at a time. We had the workshop in February and by November the silos were ready, and tried to find a person to take them to Chihuahua but it was so far and expensive and no one wanted to do it. Finally, we found someone who could take them to Mexico City little by little and it would take 3 months. They didn’t turn up and I had to call every day and ask when they would arrive. That was frustrating because I felt we couldn’t accomplish the workshop needs because someone did not want to complete the contract properly. Finally, though we got the silos and we will be able to get the seed silos working for future seed security.

What would be your top advice for a student of ethnobotany? Something you had wish you had known as a student?

To know that maybe the first time [a project] won’t be successful, nor the second time but you just have to keep doing it. Sooner or later you will have success and will be really proud of what you are doing.

Not everything is publishing: you have to go back to communities and give back the things that you learned. Maybe you can’t publish it [due to restrictions] but to give back to the people the wisdom they have offered you is what is right. Perhaps this is by eating with them and sharing, or teaching children in a school. This is very important as well.

How do you see the future of ethnobotany research?

In my country, there are very few jobs in this field so you have had to be creative and find your own way. But with Covid-19 everything is going to change. People are realizing that plants are important; also, their conservation and biodiversity are important. This pandemic has shown us how important our behaviours are. Ethnobotany combined with environmental education will be very important in the coming years. I started with education. For 22 years I was the head of education and public information Department, at the Institute of Biology’ Botanical Garden and everything I learned in the field, I tried to produce an educational programme about it, to educate the public and make them sensible to the reality of my country. I think this will be important for the future.

Favourite ethnobotanical researcher?

Apart from my husband, in Mexico, there are many very young, great ethnobotanists e.g. Jose Blancas, Felipe Ruan. They are young but very active, publishing a lot. Alejandro Casas, a classmate, a wonderful ethnobotanist who has trained a lot of students. Other people include Heike Vibrans who has also done a lot of wonderful work in the Graduate College of Agriculture. She is very active with many students. Sometimes I am on the student committee with Heike and she works tirelessly for students, she has had much impact on the field. In other countries Diego Rivera, Esteban Hernández, Manuel Pardo and Michael Heinrich and in the United States: Cassandra Quave, Mike Balick, David Lenz & Gary Nabham among others.

Have you any ‘must read’ ethnobotany books?

The plants of the Gods: The sacred, healing and hallucinogenic powers by Dr Richard Evans Shultes. Trade, tribute, and Transportation by Ross Hassing. The Desert Smells Like Rain by Gary Nabham.

What do you do in your downtime? Any secret hobbies?

I love to embroider, I love it! and to Knit, and I LOVE to cook. I did a collection of embroidery of different codex from the Badianos Manuscript. In it there are several drawings of Datura this is a part of Bob’s research so and I made a Datura room, embroidered them and framed them for him. Even the lamp!

Edelmira’s embroidery from the Badianos Manuscript

What is your favourite plant and why?

Toronjil moradao (Agastache mexicana subsp. mexicana).  We published a paper on medical plant complexes. There is another called toronjil blanco, (A. mexicana subsp. xolocotziana). We dedicated that subspecies to the professor Hernández-Xolocotzi that I mentioned earlier. The herbs smell wonderful! They are very useful to help people to relax and sleep well. They have lot of essential oils including linalool and limonol. It makes you feel great. You take the whole plant in tisanes, flowers stems and leaves.

*An interview with SEB Student council member, Kim Walker. Translation by PhD Student Nataly Canales. 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 would like to interview someone, please email Kim at students@econbot.org

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