A PhD student in the Department of Botany, Georgia Hart, led a group of international ethnobotany researchers on a bioinformatics project focused on medicinal plant use in Ecuador. Plant medicine is widely used across the world. There is concern that introduced plants could be replacing the use of native plants for medicine in various regions of the world. This is a critical time to understand the potential influence of introduced plant use on native plant treatments which could be relevant in treating illnesses worldwide today.

The team included doctoral student, G. Hart, along with two faculty in Botany, David Cameron Duffy and Orou G. Gaoue, as well as seven other faculty and researchers from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Aarhus Universitet in Denmark, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Their work has recently been published in the journal PLOS ONE and concerns the use of introduced, or non-native plants for medicine in Ecuador. The authors used a bioinformatics approach to generate new understanding in ethnobotany by synthesizing information from two large databases. The first database, The Catalogue of Vascular Plants of Ecuador, includes more than 17,000 plant species, while the Catalogue of Useful Plants of Ecuador, which is a compilation of over 40,000 recorded medicinal plants uses for the country, accrued over centuries. Ecuador is one of few megadiverse countries in the world. It is also highly culturally diverse with over 17 ethnic groups and languages spoken. Use of plant medicine is common in Ecuador, including among the mestizo population. This context and these databases therefore provided an ideal repository of information to address questions of interest in ethnobotany: namely, why do people select introduced, or non-native plants for medicine?

In this project, the authors first asked if introduced plants are used for medicine more often than would be predicted by their abundance, then they tested several possible mechanistic explanations for the selection of introduced plants for medicine: Do people select introduced plants because 1) they are more available and accessible to people (e.g. weeds near roads or farms)?, 2) they help to fill therapeutic vacancies (i.e. introduced plants treat an illness that few native plants can treat)? or 3) because these introduced plants are more versatile and therefore useful as medicines? What the authors found was that introduced plants are selected much more often for medicine than would be predicted based on their abundance. Why was this the case? All three tested explanations received some support. The availability of introduced plants was important in their selection, mostly as it relates to cultivation. Introduced plants also tended to treat illnesses that few native plants treat. Finally, introduced plants, on average, treated more conditions than native plants. It therefore appears that introduced plants are sometimes selected in ways that could supplant native plant use. The strong correlation between medicinal use of plants and cultivation suggests human-mediated environments such as home gardens and agroforests should be protected for the valuable human health resources they provide in Ecuador.

Published in PLOS ONE, with the title: “Availability, diversification and versatility explain human selection of introduced plants in Ecuadorian traditional medicine”
Authors and affiliations: G. Hart, Orou G. Gaoue, Lucía de la Torre, Hugo Navarrete, Priscilla Muriel, Manuel J. Macía, Henrik Balslev, Susana León-Yánez, Peter Jørgensen, David Cameron Duffy

Photo caption:
The beautiful frailejón plant (Espeletia pycnophylla Cuatrec., Asteraceae) is shown here in the páramo region of northern Ecuador during a visit by author Georgia Hart. Frailejón is utilized in multiple ways for medicine including in the treatment of arthritis, earache, headache, deafness and prevention of hair loss. Photo credit: Neagha Leonard.