Florida Ethnobotany by Daniel F. Austin. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2004. 909 pages, hardcover. ISBN 0-8493-2332-0. $149.95.
Give Dan Austin a few years unleashed from academic duties, and Voila! He’s produced a superb book that would take most mortal botanists decades to finish.
This encyclopedia-like book provides ethnobotanical information about more than 800 species of native Floridian plants (more than a third of the flora). Over 500 species are illustrated, including 64 color photos in an insert at the center of the book (unfortunately the inserted color photo pages of my book are already falling out). The index is excellent and comprehensive (102 pages), as is the reference section (64 pages).
A more appropriate title for this treatise might be “Global Ethnobotany of Plants Native to Florida.” The coverage is extensive because of Dan’s two beliefs described in the introductory chapter: (1) “If people in other places use the plants, then people in Florida used them,” and (2) his sometimes controversial definition that ethnobotany is the “complete and total study of people and plants.” This means that if anyone (not just native Americans), anywhere (not restricted to uses reported within Florida) uses the plant, then it is included in the ethnoflora. Hence, this book is not only Florida ethnobotany but also includes lore from the Caribbean, Central America, Eastern United States and many other areas. Plants are arranged in order alphabetically by genus. A typical entry includes: (a) the scientific name and the meaning of that name; (b) a line illustration; (c) common names in many languages, often with explanations on how those names were derived; (d) taxonomic history and current status (sometimes clarifying years of confusion in the literature); (e) brief habitat and range information; (f) a well-documented description of cross-cultural uses throughout the range of the plant, both historical and current; and (g) related stories. Emphasis is intentionally given to species of tropical origin, so this book takes up where Native American Ethnobotany (D.E. Moerman, Timber Press; 1998) left off. The list of names is extensive and encompasses languages of peoples from throughout much of the Americas and the Caribbean, as well as some European countries. Since all these plant names are included in the index, the book provides an invaluable cross-reference for ethnobotanists from broad areas of interest.
Many of the entries go beyond a list of reported uses, and may include additional information on general ethnobotany, or similar plants with the same use, or plants with the same common name, or knowledge of related species, or personal anecdotes of his encounters with the plants. For example, the Krugiodendron entry provides a list of the many plant species throughout the world known as “ironwood.” The Capsicum section describes the historical importance of the spice trade and Columbus’ discovery of the New World. In the Smilax account, Dan jokes about his memory of early cowboy movies in which Roy Rogers goes into a saloon and orders “sarsaparilla,” then a fight ensues, and the hero outguns a dozen criminals with a gun that holds 6 bullets.
As one would expect from Dan Austin, the book is well written, academically rigorous, thoroughly researched, comprehensive, and up-to-date. Considering the impressive knowledge base of the author, it is interesting to read some of his critical analyses (or “well referenced opinions”) that are interfused within the text, such as his critique on the hesitancy of American physicians to recommend saw palmetto (Serenoa repens [W. Bartram] Small, Arecaceae) herbal preparations. The conversational tone of the book is pleasant. As dense as this book is on reliable information, it is equally enjoyable and entertaining to read. Embedded within the vast amount of information are little gems of humorous insight, wrought by many years of teaching, researching, and interacting with the plants. These are the sorts of informational tidbits that have kept hikers entertained for hours while slogging armpit-deep through the swamp with Dan. My one quip about the book is that the botanical family name is not listed at the beginning of each entry.
This book is very highly recommended to anyone interested in peoples’ uses of plants in Florida or any part of the Americas or Caribbean. It should be found on the bookshelf of every member of the Society for Economic Botany and every member of the Florida Native Plant Society (both of whom can attain the book at a discounted rate). The book is a treasure trove of information for naturalists and should be included in libraries associated with Florida nature centers, botanical gardens, preserves, and parks. Since I can say it no better, I must reiterate Jim Duke’s recommendations in the Foreword for the book: “I can strongly recommend this book to all biologists, botanists, ethnologists, linguists, tropiphiles (those addicted to the tropics like I am), and yes, even health-care professionals, be they allopathic, alternative, herbal, homeopath, naturopath, nurse, nurse practitioner, … and yes, even psychopaths.”
To Dan, I say Bravo! And thanks for putting all this in writing. Through your book I’m rediscovering the richness of my own backyard.
—Maureen Bonness, PhD Naples, Florida