Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The importance of cultural factors in the distribution of medicinal plant knowledge: A case study in four Basque regions

Volume 161, 23 February 2015, Pages 116–127
Research Paper

The importance of cultural factors in the distribution of medicinal plant knowledge: A case study in four Basque regions


Ethnobotanical relevance

Previous research suggests that the use of medicinal plants by a given group is mainly driven by biological variables such as the chemical composition or the ecological distribution of plants. However, other studies highlight the importance of cultural aspects such as the curative meaning given to a plant, beliefs, religion or the historical context. Such aspects could play an important role in the use, diffusion or even in the effectiveness of a plant remedy.

Materials and methods

Fieldwork consisted of 233 orally consented semi-structured interviews with 178 informants about medicinal uses of plants. Interviews were conducted in four historically and geographycally delimited regions of Alava and Biscay with similar environmental conditions but different sociolinguistic backgrounds: two regions were Basque- and two Spanish-speaking. Data were structured in use-reports. A Between Class Analysis was conducted to assess the intercultural and intracultural variability of medicinal plants knowledge.


The results show the existence of four clearly different medicinal ethnofloras. While the four ethnofloras share remedies widely distributed through the territory, each of them also includes remedies that are only shared among closely related communities. The ecological availability and chemical composition of the plants may explain why there are widely used plant remedies. On the contrary, the distribution of the locally shared remedies matches up with the cultural heterogeneity of the territory, so cultural factors, such as, language, social networks or the meaning response of the plants seem to explain the use of many traditional plant remedies. In Addition, we also found that Basque speaking territories show higher knowledge levels than Spanish speaking territories. In this sense, the development and reinforcement of Basque identity by Basque nationalism seems to have contributed to maintain the traditional knowledge in the Basque speaking regions.


Despite the fact that pharmacological effectiveness and ecological availability are usually considered as the main variables that shape the traditional use of medicinal plants, our results suggest that cultural factors can be at least as important as ecological and chemical factors. In fact, differences in language, in the cultural meaning of the plants, in the context related to cultural identities, and in social networks seem to play a fundamental role in the use and diffusion and maintenance or erosion of traditional knowledge about medicinal plants in the study area.

Graphical abstract

Full-size image (26 K)


  • Basque nationalism;
  • Cross-cultural studies;
  • Ethnobotany;
  • Folk medicine;
  • Herbal remedies;
  • Traditional knowledge