The tabulation of ethnobotany data used to produce these tables resulted in the statistics noted above.
The tables developed consisted of 125 columns of ethnobotany terminology (with room for expansion); not all of these columns have received their complete sets of entries yet.
These tables are meant to display relative amounts (pie charts) and numbers-generated (tabular) distributions of the major classes defined above. (For details on this large groups, see earlier page in this part of the blog.)
This is the distribution of all uses for all plants. Algae are typically included in my course on this subject, but have been excluded for this detail-oriented approach to reviewing my data.
A few types of entries were not included in this first pass through the data evaluation. Due to partial research coverage of these particular sets of plants, this information will be added later as a complete dataset once the research is completes. Examples include the medicinal values for ferns and equisetum, and other lower plant divisions; this information has to be reevaluated and scrutinized before it is to be incorporated into this evaluation process. (This type of problem happens because it not uncommon for the sources used for this ethnobotany data do not always provide information on the lower phyla.)
One of the first things to note is the largest number of genera utilized in some way, shape or form for a particular kind of use are food plants. These include everything related to food consumption, ranging from primary nutritional source, to spices and flavorants, to other types of unusual food additives, to beverages. (Food preparation items are classified along side wood and fiber products and other utilitarian methods of utilizing plants).
The use of plants for foods is followed by medicines. Those plants classified as medicines were subgrouped early on into two classes: folklorish remedies and remedies with some sort of scientific basis for their use. [For more on this, I have reviewed the issues related to determining how much of a plant medicine is folklore and how much is science on another page in this section of the blogs.] These plants will be covered in more detail later on, in which the primary chemistry of plants, supplemented by evidence through prior uses related to each particular chemical subgroup, will be added. [No Occam’s Razor will be used in the methodology here.]
Dyes, poisons and triterpene related uses are fairly common classes of ethnobotany plant use as well.
The first two of these cross chemical groups in the plant kingdom.
Dyes are perhaps the most widely dispersed. Their chemical classes can include carotenoids, chlorophylls, flavonoids, some iridoids, alkamines, benzylisoquinolines, etc.
Poisons are almost equally dispersed, but the classification of “poison” is difficult to deal with as an American experience (less so for indigena). For a plant to be called a poison, some human toxicity relationships are included, like poison ivy. But for the most part, only selective toxins used for specific purposes, by different cultures, usually cultural settings in indigenous settings and developing countries, are covered in this section. These include plants known to be used for ethnic practices like poisoning the rhinoceros, attempting to kill a neighboring tribal leader for political reasons, using the plant as a piscicide (fish poison) or insecticide, etc. Other toxins that are poisonous, but not used as such, are not included here. Such as the vermicidal medicines used to treat intestinal worms. Other plant toxins that are usually included in this section are such classes as phenolic co-carcinogens (Euphorbs), cyanogenic glycosides, many hepatotoxins (Boraginaceae and Asteraceae), and specific highly selective alkaloidal neurotoxins.
The third class–triterpenes–is a single of these broad plant class, with a fairly ubiquitous nature. This class has multiple levels of toxicity and multiple applications due to its numerous stages of development as part of the evolutionary process. The triterpenes essentially go through several stages in their evolution and development. Returning for a moment to my method of evaluating chemicals which classifies their uses as primary (biochemical), secondary (biochemical-environmental, for survival enhancement), tertiary (ecological) and quaternary (human ecological), we can interpret the sterols in plants in the following fashion:
- ubiquitous sterols (primary)
- sterols with growth related purposes, such as those produced by the mustard family (this may be more ecological)
- sterols and saponins that serve as natural defenses
- sterols, sterol alkaloids, saponins, and reversed triterpenoids that work as human ecological agents
Now there are other fairly well dispersed chemical groups in plants absent from this review. The aromatics will be covered in more detail at some later point in time and subdivided more correctly into their various chemical groups. Alkaloids deserve some coverage of their own, as do the fixed seed oils. Like the triterpenoids, seed oils have multiple levels of ecological and environmental significance and so will have to be discussed in detail in the appropriate place and setting.
The term “polymers” needs some explanation. This is probably a misuse of this chemical group term usually related more to petroleum and industrial chemical product synthesis. In the plant kingdom I use it to refer to the major classes of polymer like chemicals in plants, these are:
- polysaccharides (starches) and mucopolysaccharides
- gums and gum resins
- the very large polyterpenes or latex bases
Proteins are not included in this group; they are reviewed separately. The most common protein-related ethnobotany products are primarily lectins, certain enzymes, and most recently proteases. (Amino acids and modified amino acids are in a separate group as well.)
The above charts and tables seem fairly simplistic. Their relevance will become clear in the next section when we see how these distributions of major chemical groups changes and evolves as the plant kingdom itself evolves and becomes more chemically complex.