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Department ofBotany

Tuba Receiving Gourd “Balcita”

The vast body of knowledge contained in Palmer's collection serves as the "cornerstone of modern ethnobotanical research in North America".

Edward Palmer
Edward Palmer, ca. 1864, Kansas City

Edward Palmer (1831-1911), often regarded as “the father of ethnobotany,” gathered extensive natural history collections in North and South America during the late nineteenth century and established standards for plant collecting and reporting, particularly for plants useful to people. His scientific framework is still used today. This website provides a window into the Palmer Collection to communities where Palmer originally collected, as well as to scientists and the general public. Community-based scholars are encouraged to explore the materials and discover information that will help them continue to sustain their cultural and linguistic heritage.

Ethnobotany forms part of ethnobiology, the study of cultural perceptions and management of the earth’s biodiversity, including both cultural-linguistic and biological diversity.   The practice of ethnobotany includes recording local common names for plants, plant parts used, native methods for collecting and preparing plants,  plant flavors and nutritional values, the cultural importance of plants to communities, plant morphology, and voucher specimen collection (used to establish scientific identifications). The vast body of knowledge contained in Palmer’s collection has been called the “cornerstone of modern ethnobotanical research in North America”.

Six of the more than thirty Indigenous societies with whom Palmer worked are featured here, including the Iviatim (Cahuilla), Xawil Kunyavaei (Cocopa), Akimel O’odham (Pima), Aha Macave (Mohave), Kumeyaay, Ipai, and Tipai (Diegueño), and Rarámuri (Tarahumara).

Often obsessive in his collecting, eager to please the luminaries with whom he worked, and emotionally invested in contributing to science and perpetuating knowledge, Palmer lived the adventurous yet nomadic life of a collector. After one particularly grueling journey across isolated desert terrain, he writes “Will science reward me for this?” The answer was ultimately “Yes,” and he continued to collect for several decades.

Palmer’s first biographer, William Safford (a botanist with the Department of Agriculture) describes Palmer as “. . . filled with ambition to be something more than a gatherer of curiosities and novelties; [Palmer] hoped to be the source of introducing into cultivation fruits, vegetables, and herbs, which might prove to be of real value to the civilized world, and perhaps bring into general use food-staples, fiber-plants, and medicinal remedies beneficial to his fellow-man”.

Palmer’s Collections
Palmer entered plant collecting without formal training in botany or anthropology. In fact, he initially worked as a surgeon contracted with U.S. Army posts in remote parts of the Southwest. Palmer’s botanical collections (numbering over 100,000) are mostly pressed and dried and reside at research institutions around the world. These institutions include the Smithsonian Institution, Harvard University, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the New York Botanical Garden, Royal Botanic Garden Kew, the British Museum, and many others. The Palmer botanical collection in the U.S. National Herbarium at the Smithsonian Institution remains the largest, containing over 16,000 specimens collected over sixty years. This mass of work includes specimens collected while Palmer worked as a Smithsonian field representative, a scientist at the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology and as a collector and “expert” at the Department of Agriculture.

Palmer’s botanical collections from Mexico remain extremely valuable, in particular, because they include plants that were new to science at the time. Palmer’s intrepid soul was his greatest strength; he followed the emerging railroad lines into areas of Mexico not previously explored by naturalists or scientists. His observations in these areas illuminated cultural changes taking place in Indigenous communities throughout Mexico and in the North American Southwest. The cultural changes Palmer observed were catalyzed by the expansion of ranchers, miners, and others into previously Indigenous territories.

Performing inventories and analyses of ethnobotanical collections such as Palmer’s are crucial to understanding historical changes in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico; a wealth of cultural and linguistic data is associated with Palmer’s collection. Reversing the loss of biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity in this region is a major priority for conservation biologists, anthropologists, and linguists. Biological and cultural diversity are severely threatened by the loss of local languages and the knowledge they preserve. Although the ethnobotany of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico is, perhaps, the best studied in the world, few comparative studies and regional syntheses exist.  This website is a step toward synthesis.

Palmer’s Collections at the Smithsonian
The enormity of the Smithsonian’s Palmer Collection makes it of great scientific and cultural significance but also presents great challenges. Collected concurrently, Palmer’s biological specimens and anthropological objects were divided amongst different research departments upon arriving at the museum 150 years ago. During these transactions, the links between the materials were broken and the wealth of information contained in these links was dispersed.  Only recently have researchers come to recognize the wealth of Indigenous knowledge available through Edward Palmer’s Collections. Now, with generous support from the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives, these connections are being restored, allowing the biological, cultural, and linguistic information associated with them to be recovered and shared.

Ethnobotany in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico
As many as 7,000 different plant species are currently used by Indigenous people in Mexico. However, the commercial exploitation of the natural resources of rural areas, as well as development projects, often linked to tourism and population growth, undermine the control local communities have traditionally maintained over their environments. At the same time, traditional ecological knowledge of these environments is disappearing; knowledge crucial to documenting, understanding, and conserving the earth’s biological diversity. This loss diminishes peoples’ ability to manage local ecosystems and to sustain insights into the proper relationship between humans and the natural world.

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