2023 Distinguished Ethnobotanist: Dr. Bennett

This year SEB celebrates the achievements of Dr. Bradley Bennett by selecting him as the 2023 Distinguished Ethnobotanist. Dr. Bennett served previously as a council member, as president of SEB in 2004 and as a senior associate editor for Economic Botany. He is a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Florida International University and a senior research associate at the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Kampong Garden. Dr. Bennett’s widely diverse career has focused on ethnobotany in the neotropics. It was a pleasure to speak to Dr. Bennett about his career and reflections on ethnobotany.

Ella: What led you to the field of ethnobotany?

Dr. Bennett: I was an accidental ethnobotanist. As an undergraduate, I was exposed briefly to it. I had a geography professor, Harley Manner, who talked about his work in Papua New Guinea and indigenous resource management. It was interesting but nothing that I thought I would pursue, partly because I had so many other interests! I took an ethnobotany course as a master’s student with Dan Austin. The subject  was interesting, but nothing I thought I would pursue.

Then while working on my Ph.D., I went to Peru to do a project with an anthropologist, Bruce Winterhalder. My part of the project was vegetation sampling. It was in a very remote area and very difficult to work. Most adults in the community were initially afraid of me, as I was so much taller than they were, but the children would follow me wherever I went. As they watched what I was doing, they realized that when I found a new plant, I would collect it out of these half-meter square plots and press it. So they started to “help”! They would run through this field, grab new plants, and then throw them down at me. It was a game for them. One would run one up, drop a plant down, and say, “Well, my grandmother used to treat ear infections.” And then the other one would say, “well, this is good for stomach aches.” I literally had plants and information thrown at me. I dropped what I was doing and just started recording. I thought that , this could  be an interesting side project, but even then did I consider ethnobotany as a career..

A couple of years later, I finished my Ph.D. In 1988, a postdoc position was open at the New York Botanical Garden in the Institute of Economic Botany. They were looking for a systematist, an ecologist, and an ethnobotanist. Well, I’ve done some of all of that! When I went to New York, I could talk to each person who had his or her expectations for the position and somewhat satisfy them.

I got the position. I actually defended my dissertation on a Monday, interviewed in New York on Wednesday, and went to Ecuador a week later. It was a quick turnaround. It wasn’t initially what I was going to do for my career, but I found that it suited me well. I’ve always had broad interests and been a jack of all trades. With ethnobotany, I could wear lots of different hats–I could incorporate ecology, systematics, geography, history and many other disciplines. It suited me well.

E: What has been the most gratifying part of your career?

B: The things people would expect–which are true–are collaborating and working with indigenous people. I’ve always seen my work as a shared project. I’ve always thought about what I do as sharing knowledge–not taking it. I recorded what indigenous people knew, combined it with scientific knowledge, and ensured it got back to them. I trained them in science while they were training me about their culture and their knowledge. That’s always satisfied me.

I’ve also enjoyed working with students. I’ve had a chance to work with and talk to elementary school children on to graduates and postdocs. I love that and the mentoring aspect–particularly when I can see my influence in their careers as they move on and become more and more senior.

But really–this is a selfish end of it–I like to talk, and I like to talk about economic botany and ethnobotany. I love taking an audience who doesn’t think it has any interest in the subject or plants and capturing them, get them sitting on the edge of their seats. At the end of those talks, I hope that they think, “Wow, plants are pretty cool!”

I remember one vivid example. I was giving a talk at an out-of-context conference. It was something like the Florida Literature Society. I was a fish out of water. I was totally unknown to them, but I gave a talk on a book called ‘The Yearling.’ The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 and I had read it many times, but I reread it because my youngest daughter Katie was taking a course, and it was part of her reading assignment. As I read it from a different perspective, I realized the book was filled with ethnobotany. There were three to four references on every page about plants, and it was a 300-page long novel! It was based on the author’s personal experience. She’d lived with people in the scrub area in Florida, and she wrote down what they knew, then incorporated it into a novel. I would call it ‘science in fiction’ instead of science fiction. My daughter was able to go to the talk, and I remember her saying, “Yeah, a couple of women came up to me and said, ‘Wow, that was fascinating. I thought, ethnobotany was going to be so boring, and that was the best talk ever!’” It was satisfying to get an audience that knew nothing about ethnobotany and thought they probably wouldn’t be interested in it and to get them excited about the subject.

E: What’s your favorite memory from your fieldwork? I know it must be hard to narrow it down!

B: In a way, it’s returning to the US after being away. My older daughters, Elizabeth and Rebecca, are twins, and I spent a lot of time away when they were little. That was terrible for me –I hated being away from them. I loved being in the field and the work I was doing, but I didn’t like being away from them.

There are many great memories. One was written down by Chris Joyce, who recently retired from NPR. He was a science reporter and wrote a book called ‘Earthly Goods,’ and he describes this event. I took Chris into the rainforest of the Pacific coast of Ecuador where I was working with an indigenous group called the Chachi. Cristobal, a Chachi who worked as a park guard invited us to help look for some illegal logging. It gave us a chance to explore some very remote areas. We didn’t find any active logging but the forest and river were spectacular.  On the way back, we decided it was easier to float down the river through some rapids rather than to paddle in a canoe. We were floating on our backs in this mystical paradise–just crystal-clear water and a forest that was so healthy and unaffected.

Another memory has to do with the Chachi as well. We did an inverse kind of project. We were always going down and working with Chachi, but in 1996, we decided to do something different.  We brought three Chachi to the US, all the materials to build a traditional Chachi house and four dugout canoes. When it got here, the Chachi came up, and we made a house at Fairchild Tropical Garden, and it was a great exhibit. The Chachis were excited about it. The goal was not just to build a house at Fairchild, but for the Chachis to experience about our culture. We’re always going down and studying them, so we wanted to give them a chance to come to check us out. 

E: What role has SEB played in your career?

B: It’s been my primary society. My first meeting was in 1990, and I missed the next meeting. Then I went to 19 meetings in a row! At a relatively early stage in my career, I served on the council and was president of the Society in 2004. While I was president, I asked Dan Moerman to be the editor for the Society. The editor is by far the most critical person in the Society. When you have an outstanding editor like Dan, the Society thrives–the quality of the journal and impact factor goes up. When you don’t, everything goes downhill. I also won the Klinger Book Award for The Ethnobotany of the Shuar. my I served also served on the first Klinger committee and later chaired the committee for several years. Since then, I’ve served on all sorts of other committees associated with the Society.

E: There’s been a decline in Society membership in the last few years, what would be your advice for reversing that trend?

B: We’ve done it to ourselves partly by being more restrictive in how we define the discipline. There are so many areas that we are missing. If you look at the history of the discipline, it was much broader–everything from domestication to forestry. Every person teaching an intro botany course should be a member of the Society because it would give them resources that would make botany more interesting. There are many cases where plants are being used, but because it’s not obvious, we forget there’s a plant there. Plants are everywhere from drugs that are slightly modified to the finish on musical instruments and the materials in the instruments.

If we did better at making those connections between plants and products, we would see how relevant this discipline should be. A few years ago, there was a meeting at National Tropical Botanical Garden, and we came up with the idea that “ethnobotany is the science of survival.” I was always bothered by that just because it seemed like an act of desperation–the survival instinct. We need plants for food and shelter, but it’s more than that. It’s for the quality of life. It’s not just the mere survival–it’s for our recreation, our enjoyment, our music, and fine wine. It’s making life full and complete. We need to do a better job of getting that out and preaching the gospel of plants to people unaware of this fact. We need to be more creative. The connection between everyday things and plants–it’s important.

E: The field of ethnobotany and science, in general, is at a turning point. How do you see the field of ethnobotany changing in like 25 years?

B: Well, I hope it’s around. It’s not just ethnobotany. It’s the same problem with botany in general. Botany usually gets short shrifted. Neither the public nor the broader scientific community understand or appreciate it’s importance. Ethnobotany should always be around because we depend on plants–we cannot escape that fact. I hope we realize that we’ve harmed ourselves by making claims we didn’t fulfill in the 90s, like ethnobotany and the search for new drugs. I actually gave a talk several times called ‘The Death of Ethnobotany.’ It was a little bit tongue in cheek, but the gist of the argument was something like: Ethnobotany is a search for new drugs. Ethnobotany is not finding new drugs. Therefore, ethnobotany is dead. That’s true if you define ethnobotany narrowly, but we need to define it more broadly. I’m hopeful that we can do that.

E: What are the new areas of ethnobotany that you think are the most exciting?

B: Domestication and our ability to trace the history of plants. Not only is it interesting, but it’s also absolutely crucial. All humanity is dependent on a relatively small spectrum of biodiversity. The more we understand about domestication, the better and more secure our food situation will be. The other aspect is something that has been demonstrated through metabolomics. We all know that plants are diverse chemically. We usually think of that only in the context of medicine but plants are are equally or more valuable as feedstocks for the chemical industry. The field of green chemistry–it’s a growing and exciting field, but there’s no crossover with ethnobotany and there should be! The ‘green’ in green chemistry is for sustainability, but it’s also green because a lot of the green chemistry refers to compounds from plants. We can produce plants that are making more of the compounds we want. We’re generally not doing a good job of tapping into that market.

E: Do you have any advice for young and inspiring ethnobotanists?

B: First, be a botanist. I’m serious when I say that because I’ve seen a lot of people who express interest in ethnobotany but don’t like plants that much. They’re not excited about them, or they don’t know much about plants. One needs to learn as much as they can about systematic botany so that one can identify plants. Ethnobotanists must be better taxonomists than taxonomists. If you’re a taxonomist, you go into the field and collect fertile specimens. But if you’re an ethnobotanist, you go on the field and collect what is available. You often have to take things that are not the best, so you have to be a good botanist.

People also need to learn how to look when they’re in the field. In ethnobotany, so much of our knowledge we get from asking questions, and that itself is a skill set that’s developed from the anthropological side–how we interview people and how we work. We can learn a lot by looking and watching, and we need to do that more. Learning how to look and listen to people as well- there’s so much information that ethnobotanists miss. Looking, listening, and then there’s a bit of old-fashioned reading. There’s so much ethnobotany in the literature that is not available online. There are scores of things out there that have a trove of botanical information, or at least background information that is helpful. You got to be a reader. You must be a voracious reader if you want to be a good ethnobotanist.

E: What do you see as your legacy as an ethnobotanist?

B: Well, that’s really for others to decide. I hope somebody in the future, if they remember me, they will see me as a teacher & enthusiastic advocate of ethnobotany. I tried to spread the word. It’s important to include many audiences across the globe, and I hope I have done some that. I also hope that I have, in a little way, increased the scope of ethnobotany through some of the papers I’ve written.

I’ve tried expanding the horizon by making the field a bit more rigorous. I came up with an approach with one of my former students, Chad Husby, who had a background in biostats, called a regression approach to analyze medicinal plant patterns. It’s an easy, statistically valid way of looking at patterns, and it’s one people have followed since then. In a paper with Ian Prance, I argued that commonness and versatility were significant factors in people’s choices of medicinal plants. 

You have to be somewhat of a cynic, right? A good scientist always is. I wrote a few papers about the doctrine of signatures because it was so heavily criticized. And yet when you look at it, if you work with people, you realize nobody ever said, “Well, I use this because it has red latex.” They might say, “It has red latex, and I use it to treat blood disorders.” But they’re not saying, “I discovered the use of it because it had red latex.” Yet a researcher says, “Oh look, they’re using the red resin to treat this blood disorder; therefore, it’s the doctrine of signatures.” No, nobody ever said that. I looked at the history of the concept and applied some statistical models to suggest t most people got it wrong for 2000 years. The doctrine of signatures was never a method of discovering medicinal plants. It was a mnemonic–a way of passing information in preliterate societies about plant use.  Say, for example, that ten different plant species are effective in treating the same ailment. If one of those plants has a signature, knowledge of its use is more likely to be transmitted to the next generation. I hope my work has gotten people to think critically about some of the arguments that have been made.

Submitted by Ella Vardeman, SEB Student Representative 2023

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