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My Dad,
the Ethnobotanist
By Gabrielle Plotkin

Age 10
Arlington, Virginia

The bark of the Pau D'Arco tree is said to help people suffering from fever.
The bark of the Pau D'Arco tree is said to help people suffering from fever.

Gabrielle: Describe your research. What lessons has it taught you?
Mark (Gabrielle's dad): An ethnobotanist lives with a different culture of people to learn how they use plants in their lives. I want to learn, but I also want to help conserve their environments. Iāve been working with the forest peoples of the Amazon since the late 1970s.
The most important lesson Iāve learned is how much we still have to learn about nature! And the best teachers--who know much more than we do--are the Indians themselves.

Gabrielle: How did you first become interested in ethnobotany?
Mark: I took a class in college about medicinal plants, or plants that cure or heal. Until then, I hadnāt realized how much of our medicine comes from nature! And my teacher had lived in the Amazon with the Indians for 15 years. I wanted to follow in his footsteps ...

Gabrielle: What has surprised you about your research?
Mark: I have been surprised about how local peoples can successfully treat all sorts of diseases using local plants. Sometimes they even use insects as medicines! I work with one medicine man, called a shaman, who lets ants bite him on the arms. He says itās a great treatment for arthritis, a problem with aching joints.

Gabrielle: What is your favorite tree?
Mark: My absolute favorite is the ćWee-deeä tree. It has a blood-red sap, which is used to treat skin infections, dandruff, wounds ... everything, just about. It is a beautiful tree: very tall with a straight trunk or bole and beautiful yellow flowers.

Gabrielle: What can you say about peopleās relationships with plants?
Mark: People depend on plants for EVERYTHING: for food like fruits, for shelter to make houses, for weapons to make bows and arrows, for medicines, and for lots more.

Gabrielle: How did you come about writing a book for children about your research?
Mark: Kids are the best environmentalists! They are energetic and curious; and they're dreamers! I wanted kids to know more about not just rain forests, but the people and plants that live there. Thatās why I wrote The Shamanās Apprentice with author and illustrator Lynne Cherry--to say what I think is the most important environmental issue of all: saving the tropical rain forest!

Gabrielle: Do kids use plants differently than grown-ups do?
Mark: In the Amazon, all kids play with toys made from plants. They have toy bows and arrows, necklaces made from seeds, and dolls made from cornhusks.

Gabrielle: Are kids in the Amazon different than children here?
Mark: There are schools now in many Indian villages. But kids in the forest spend less time in schools. They spend more time with their parents, usually learning from them in the forest. Jealous?

Gabrielle: Whatās the yuckiest plant you ever tasted?
Mark: Cassava beer! Women of the tribe make the beer by chewing the cassava root and spitting it in a pot. Chemicals in their saliva turn the stuff into a kind of beer that smells like spit-up. Even though the Indians love it, I think it is, without a doubt, the grossest thing on the planet!

Gabrielle: Yummiest?
Mark: The fruit of the ćassaiä (pronounced as-sah-ah-yee) palm is mixed with water and sugar in the Brazilian Amazon. It is purple and tastes better than chocolate!

Ethnobotany is a science of understanding all the ways plants and people interact. Some ethnobotanists study plant medicines; some are more interested in farming. There are ethnobotanists who train mostly as botanists, and others who train mostly in the study of cultures. But no matter the exact topic of study, you need to know about plants. You also need something that is hard to teach. You have to like talking to people.-- Mark Plotkin

My Dad the Ethnobotanist Amazing Amazon Kids Totem Poles Create a Totem Pole Dragonfly Home Page

Photos courtsey of Rain-Tree and Mark Plotkin.

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