An Ethnobotany of Darwin’s Gardens


  • Nina L. Etkin Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai'i


Darwin, Insect-Trapping Plants, Primula, Opuntia, Cochineal, Linum


This article puts a unique spin on Charles Darwin’s work by looking at the plants that he studied through the lens of ethnobotany. I employ this biocultural perspective to explore a handful of species to understand how their cultural constructions intersect their physical appearance, biochemistry, and behavior. While Darwin’s natural history studies contemplated variation, sexual reproduction, speciation, and a myriad of other biological themes, I look at the conjunction of ethnography and the biology of therapeutic and other actions to describe how diverse cultures use those species for medicine, food, and other applications, and how their tangible qualities both impact health and contribute to meaning. I briefly introduce Darwin and his theory of natural selection and his impact on science and society. Following, I problematize two groups of his plants to which I apply the same theoretical perspective – what many (but not Darwin) regard to be “prosaic” garden species, and the striking insect-trapping plants.

Author Biography

Nina L. Etkin, Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai'i

Professor and Graduate Chair

Department of Anthropology




How to Cite

Etkin, N. L. (2008). An Ethnobotany of Darwin’s Gardens. Ethnobotany Research and Applications, 6, 325–334. Retrieved from