Economic Botany Principles and Practices

Gerald E. Wickens
Published in: Springer Netherlands
Release Year: 2001
ISBN: 978-94-010-0969-0
Pages: 538
Edition: 1st
File Size: 15 MB
File Type: pdf
Language: English

Description of Economic Botany Principles and Practices

As a background to the rationale for Economic Botany book, these ramblings of a retired economic botanist are intended to explain my attitude to the many facets of economic botany. I first became interested in the use of plants following a chance visit as a 14 year-old schoolboy to London's Imperial Institute, alas no more, having long been replaced by the College of Science and Technology. At that age I was not impressed by the serried rows of bottles on display in the Museums at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, just across the river from where I went to school. A regular Saturday visitor to the Imperial Institute, I became hooked by the marvellous displays of dioramas and artefacts and resolved to become a tropical agriculturist. As I have tried to explain in Wickens (1990), economic botany in the United Kingdom was then equated with tropical agriculture and the Empire.
Consequently I read agriculture and botany at Aberystwyth, the latter a subject that my grammar school education had failed to provide. In those halcyon years DNA, computers, rock-and-roll and top of the pops were still unknown However, by 1952, when I first arrived in Africa, it was a generation too late for 'economic botany' to make a meaningful contribution to agriculture as the colonies were already in the process of being handed back to their indigenous inhabitants. Nevertheless, I learnt much through observation and inquiry as I practised my various trades in agriculture, soil and water conservation, ecology, land use, ctc. in what were then known as Northern Nigeria, Northern and Southern Rhodesia and the Sudan. 
Living in a country teaches one more about the significance of plants in the lives of people than it is possible to learn through expeditions. An allergy to tropical grasses hastened my unwilling return to my horne country where I was fortunate enough to obtain employment as a taxonomist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and later to be placed in charge of the Survey of Economic Plants of Arid and Semi-Arid Tropics, thereby leading to my inheritance and belated appreciation of those much despised bottles of my youth! The what, how and why some plants are used continues to fascinate me in my retirement. I can only hope that others will be equally fascinated.
In planning Economic Botany book I have tried to take account of what I now know and, with hindsight, what I should have known. My academic education was based on broad principles, while in the latter half of the 20th century education has tended to be more job specific. Economic botany too has changed from and understanding of the biology, culture and utilisation of plants and plant products to a more detailed understanding of the chemistry and genetics involved. For example, during the pa.t 50 years there have been enormous advances in biotechnology and in the search and development of new phytochemicals for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. Tremendous advances have been made in plant breeding following with the develpment of genetic engineering, advances that in my opinion have too quickly used for profit before fully investigating their possible impart on the environment. The need for certain past usages may have changed to meet the requirements of national economies and developments and new uses found and developed for old crops, such as the growing of flax in the UK with for linseed oil instead of fibre.
Economic Botany book is not intended as a source of detailed information on anyone topic. Instead I have attempted to briefly discuss the major disciplines and topics relating to economic botany and to demonstrate some of the general principles and terminology encountered in the development of major plant products, procedures which, hopefully, may be usefully adapted for improving the utilisation of other economic plants. I have also tried to make each chapter as self-contained as possible and as a result some repetition ha, been necessary.
My own experiences have taught me that taxonomy, the proper identification and naming of a plant, is the indisputable foundation stone of economic botany, that economic botany is a multidisciplinary subject impinging upon a number of other disciplines and that a holistic approach must be followed. Also, it is equally important to understand the full potential of a plant as well as the processes involved in producing the end product.
Finally, economic botany, as I understand it, is an honourable profession concerned with the use of plants by the people for the people. Unfortunatel y many multinationals now misinterpret this by placing emphasis on a monetary interpretation of 'economic', often regardless of the needs of the peoples in the developing countries.
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