Living Grass Irrigation Ditches in Traditional Portuguese Agriculture: Autecology in the study of ethnobotany


  • George F. Estabrook


Over the past decades, increasing numbers of scholarly
works recognize the importance of plant ecology in understanding
human history, culture, and technology. These
works represent a wide variety of disciplines including
ecological history, human geography, ecological agriculture,
economic botany, conservation biology, human ecology,
ecological anthropology, and ethnobotany. I believe
that these disciplines differ among themselves with respect
to the training, traditions, styles, points of view, and
data sources, more than they do with respect to the questions
they seek to answer. Consideration of plant ecology
by each of these disciplines has brought their questions
and the kinds of answers they might consider even closer,
without substantially diminishing other differences among

The goals of this essay are: 1. To present, briefly, an historical
overview of the concepts of the science of ecology,
and to identify the place of autecology in the spectrum of
subfields of modern scientific ecology; 2. to suggest how
the perspective of autecology might enrich ethnobotanical
studies; 3. to illustrate the perspective of autecology with
some of my own work on the traditional agricultural technology
of Portuguese peasants; and 4. to conclude with
four points, made evident by the perspective of autecology
in this illustration: a. The power of an ecological approach
to ethnobotany; b. the legitimacy of plant-human
interactions as a subject of ecological study; c. the utility
of studying traditional cultures that have been invaded
and contaminated by modern practices; and d. the role
of culture in the instruction, practice and preservation of




How to Cite

Estabrook, G. F. (2007). Living Grass Irrigation Ditches in Traditional Portuguese Agriculture: Autecology in the study of ethnobotany. Ethnobotany Research and Applications, 5, 319–330. Retrieved from