School of Anthropology & Conservation

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MSc in Ethnobotany

Fundamentally interdisciplinary: connecting anthropology, botany, natural resource management and environmental history.

Ethnobotany is the study of the interrelationship between people and plants, particularly the way in which plants impact on human culture and practices, and how humans have used and modified plants, and how they represent them in their systems of knowledge. It is fundamentally interdisciplinary: connecting anthropology, botany, natural resource management and environmental history, to mention only the most central of the contributing subjects.

The Kent MSc is an intensive 12 month programme. Students take 6 coursework modules over the first 6 months, and then undertake a project and write a dissertation in the second 6 months.

For the latest news for prospective and current ethnobotany students, please see our June newsletter. You might also enjoy visiting the page about our Ethnobotanical Garden.


2011 Ethnobotany students with Mark Nesbitt at KewEthnobotany at Kent

  • Established since 1998, with over 100 graduates
  • First and only graduate course of its kind in the UK
  • Situated in a combined School of Anthropology and Conservation
  • Largest research group for ethnobotany in Europe
  • Excellent career outcomes
  • Wide geographical expertise of staff
  • Integrates field methods with theoretical perspectives
  • Jointly taught with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
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Programme Structure


Core Modules

  • SE832: Ethnobiological Knowledge Systems
      Weeks 13-24 (Dr. Anna Waldstein and others)
  • SE836: Botanical Foundations of Ethnobotany
      Weeks 4-20 (Dr. Rachel Kaleta, Dr. Dave Roberts and others)
  • SE837: Plant Resources and their Conservation
      Four two-day blocks taught at Kew spread over Weeks 1-24. (Dr. Mark Nesbitt and others)
  • SE802/SE846: Research Methods
      Weeks 1-24 (Dr. Raj Puri, Dr. Helen Newing and others)
  • SE831: Environmental Anthropology
      Weeks 1-12 (Dr. R. Puri)
  • SE840 Contemporary Issues in Ethnobotany
      Weeks 1-7 (Dr. M.N. Alexiades)

It is also possible to take modules from the list available for our MA programmes in Anthropology and from our MSc in Conservation Biology as un-assessed options. The modules available may include foundations of natural science for conservation, social science perspectives on conservation, population and evolutionary biology, nature tourism, principles and practice of ecotourism, integrated species conservation and management, trade, economics, regulation and the environment, conservation and community development, and managing protected areas.

The course will be supplemented with practical work, field visits to local sites of ethnobotanical interest (Blean woodland, national fruit collection at Brogdale, Canterbury Cathedral Library, phytomedical suppliers and practitioners), and through guest speakers involved in research in various parts of the world.

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Aims of the teaching

  • To provide you with a broad range of knowledge in the major aspects of the subject showing how these involve connections between a range of different academic disciplines
  • To provide you with advanced level knowledge of the theoretical and methodological issues relevant to understanding the subject
  • To introduce you to a variety of different approaches to ethnobotanical research, presented in a multi-disciplinary context and at an advanced level
  • To facilitate your educational experience through the provision of appropriate pedagogical opportunities for learning
  • Provide an appropriate training for students preparing MPhil/PhD theses, or for those going on to employment involving the use of ethnobotanical research
  • Make students aware of the range of existing material available, and equip them to evaluate its utility for their research
  • Cover the principles of research design and strategy, including formulating research questions or hypotheses and translating these into practicable research designs
  • Introduce you to the philosophical, theoretical and ethical issues surrounding research and to debates about the relationship between theory and research, about problems of evidence and inference, and about the limits to objectivity
  • Develop skills in searching for and retrieving information, using library and Internet resources in a multi-disciplinary and cross-national context Introduce students to the idea of working with other academic and non-academic agencies, when appropriate, and give them the skills to carry out collaborative research
  • Develop skills in writing, in the preparation of a research proposal, in the presentation of research results and in verbal communication
  • Help students to prepare their research results for wider dissemination, in the form of seminar papers, conference presentations, reports and publications, in a form suitable for a range of different audiences, including academics, policy makers, professionals, service users and the general public
  • To give you an appreciation of the potentialities and problems of ethnobotanical research in local, regional, national and international settings
  • To ensure that the research of the School's staff informs the design of modules, and their content and delivery in ways that can achieve the national benchmarks of the subject in a manner which is efficient and reliable, and enjoyable to students
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Rajindra Puri

Convener of Ethnobotany programme and Director of Centre for Biocultural Diversity: an anthropologist and ethnobiologist who has worked in Indonesia and Malaysia: forestry issues, climate change, applied ethnobiology, methodology.

Roy Ellen

Professor of Anthropology and Human Ecology: an anthropologist and ethnobiologist who has worked largely in Indonesia: ethnobiological classification, food plants, homegardens, cognitive anthropology.

Anna Waldstein

Medical anthropologist specializing in medicinal plant use who has worked in Mexico and amongst migrants in North America and Europe: self-medication with herbal remedies, cultural aspects of the use of psychoactive plants, ethnopharmacology.

Miguel Alexiades

Ethnobotanist and Honorary Research Fellow. Ethnoecologist with special interest in Amazonia, historical and political ecology, indigenous rights and environmental justice.

Mark Nesbitt

Ethnobotanist and economic botanist on Kew staff, with special responsibility for Kew MSc coordination. He is curator of Kew's Economic Botany Collection, and is interested in the intersection between botany, empire and exploration in the 19th century. Other research interests include wild foods, grasses and domestication.

Monique Simmonds

Deputy Head of the Jodrell Laboratory and head of Kew's Sustainable Uses of Plants Group: medicinal plants, phytochemistry and ethnopharmacology.

Patricia Griggs

MSc contact point at Kew.

Dave Roberts

Botanist and Lecturer in Biodiversity Conservation at DICE; until 2009 Senior Scientific Officer at Kew. Main interests are in species detectability and extinction, and orchid ecology.

Rachel Kaleta

Trained in ethnobotany (MSc and PhD).

Patricia Howard

Sociologist with special interest in gender issues in relation to plant knowledge and agricultural systems: Latin America, Ethiopia. On staff of Wageningen University, currently attached to Kent.

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Application Procedure

MSc applicants should normally meet one of the following requirements:

  • A good honours degree (or equivalent) in anthropology, botany, environmental studies or a related discipline.
  • A good honours degree (or equivalent) in other subjects together with relevant experience.

Please note that although the programme can be offered part-time, this is only by special arrangement, and you should contact our admissions office for further advice. The programme is very intensive and teaching is timetabled for most days of the week, especially in the first term. Moreover, to accommodate Kew and other specialist teaching, the timetable will vary from one week to the next. You will be provided with a detailed timetable upon arrival.

Applications should be made online.

Applications may be submitted at any time of year, but preferably by 30 June for entry in September of the same year.

Applicants should provide evidence of their academic qualifications, evidence of their ability in English (if relevant) and contact details for two academic refernces during the application procedure.

Apply now!


Preparation for the course

Prospective students who have little knowledge of botany will find it useful (but not essential) to attend relevant courses before starting the MSc. Suitable short courses are offered in some countries, and include:

Field Studies Council (UK) ( - many weekend courses.

Botanical Garden, University of Cambridge (UK) ( – one week course in July, usually oversubscribed.

International Course on Economic Botany, Leiden (Netherlands) ( – two week course, September.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh (

More advice: Botanical Society of the British Isles ( or your local botanical or natural history society.

Students are also advised to join the Society for Economic Botany (, the professional association for ethnobotanists. Student membership costs $30 and includes online access to the past 60 years of the Society's journal, Economic Botany. Recent articles in the journal offer a good overview of trends in the subject. SEB has a European Chapter with an active student group.

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Fees for postgraduate programmes are reviewed annually by the University. Go to

For home students, the School is recognised by the ESRC for taught course 1+3 quota awards and by NERC and ESRC for full-time Mode A recognition for research degrees, including CASE awards. Ethnobotany has ESRC research training status and home students may apply for competitive awards. We also have a number of small fees-only bursaries at our disposal. For details of awards available through the School visit our Scholarships page. See also

Overseas students have in the past been funded from a variety of sources, including British government Chevening awards, and the Overseas Research Scholarship. Go to

Once at Kent, both home and overseas students may, and often successfully, apply for various awards to support their project work, including the John Ray Trust, the Gen Foundation and the Royal Geographical Society.

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Further Information


Dissertation and Fieldwork

Students undertake intensive coursework between September and the end of March each academic year. Towards the end of this period they develop a concept for a project and write a proposal, as part of their assessed work. The second six months of the programme consists entirely of project and dissertation work under the direction of an appropriate supervisor. The supervisor can be from either Kent or Kew and you are encouraged to work on subjects where staff have particular expertise, while pursuing a research theme in a geographical area in which you have a particular interest. Students may select projects that are library, museum or lab-based, but many wish to undertake fieldwork (usually of six weeks duration), and we try to facilitate this. Some students come to the programme with developed ideas about their projects, others may chose topics that relate to current work at Kew or Kent. For example, in recent years we have been able to provide modest financial support for projects related to our Leverhulme-funded British Homegardens Project, a linguistic diversity erosion project in Cameroon and through the Global Diversity Foundation.

MSc Dissertation titles

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Since 1998 we have trained nearly 100 students through our MSc Programme. Most of these have moved on to undertake research degrees in some area of ethnobotany (e.g. Oxford, Kent, Vienna, Florida, McGill), or have taken-up positions which utilize their training and knowledge, for example in NGOs such as the Global Diversity Foundation, at the Harvard Museum of Economic Botany, conservation education (e.g. Dublin Botanic Gardens and the Eden Project) and in the pharmaceutical industry.

  • 'If you are passionate about plants and people and wish to further your career, this course will provide a fascinating opportunity for both broad and focused study' (Lisa Fenton, graduated 2008)
  • 'My Msc in Ethnobotany was the most stimulating, fascinating and challenging year of my working life' (Liz Gladin, graduated 2007)

Destinations of former students

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This programme draws on the combined strengths of three academic centres. At the University of Kent, the Centre for Biocultural Diversity has pioneered research and teaching in ethnobotany and human ecology; it has been rated excellent for Teaching, and its work in anthropological approaches to the environment flagged for excellence in the most recent HEFCE Research Assessment Exercise. The Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology (DICE) is known internationally for its work in the study and practical implementation of biodiversity management around the world. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew has unrivalled plant collections and botanical expertise, as well as long-standing global involvement with economic botany. All three partners are involved in major funded projects which have resulted in substantial published output.

The School of Anthropology and Conservation has a large and diverse staff, with particular expertise in ethnobiological classification, historical ecology, gender, computing applications, indigenous knowledge, ethnographic (including quantitative) research methods, the human ecology of tropical subsistence systems, wildlife conservation, biodiversity management, agricultural change, sustainable development, economic botany and plant taxonomy. Regionally, we have relevant research experience in Europe, the Mediterranean, South East Asia, the Pacific, the Himalayas, tropical South America, Mesoamerica, and sub-Saharan Africa.

The programme is based at the University of Kent, while students benefit from the wealth of collections, particularly the economic botany collections and specialist expertise on plants, their uses and importance available at Kew. At Kent there is an equipped Ethnobiology Laboratory, the expertise of DICE and the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing. The School is housed in a refurbished spacious building with dedicated DNA, small organism, ethnobiology and biological anthropology laboratories.

The Templeman Library has strong holdings in anthropology, area studies and ethnobotany; and good and expanding core holdings in plant science.

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The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is the world's leading research institute for plant diversity science. It has been a partner in teaching the University of Kent's Ethnobotany M.Sc. since it was first offered in 1998. Kew is also famous for its historic and beautiful gardens and buildings in west London; most of the Kew module is taught here.

A long tradition of research in useful plants continues in the work of the Sustainable Uses Group, and is also reflected in Kew's work in implementing the ethical and legal framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Kew's involvement with the M.Sc. is wide-ranging, and includes both the formal Plant Resources module, taught at Kew over 8 days (four 2-day blocks), and by informal contact at Kew, in Canterbury and by email.


SE837: Plant Resources and their Conservation

This module aims to enhance students' understanding of plant classification and the botany of important plant families, the importance of botany in carrying out ethnobotany, and selected aspects of ethnobotany. Seminars are not intended as comprehensive overviews of each subject, but are rather an opportunity to explore practical techniques and key issues, with plenty of time for discussion and questions. Teaching is very hands-on, drawing on collections held at Kew's herbarium, library and Economic Botany Collection. Students will also gain a good insight into the range of work and facilities at a botanical garden.

Basic botany is covered through a full-day introduction to plant taxonomy and a half-day hand-on session on family characteristics, designed to provide a basic orientation in concepts of plant classification. A practical session covers plant collecting of difficult plants. The module does not cover elementary botany (this is taught as part of the course in Canterbury). A session on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Convention on Biological Diversity aims both to introduce Kew's own work in these areas, and to give students sufficient grasp of basic concepts and terminology that they can confidently explore these topics further, in print and on the Internet.

Plant family surveys cover Fabaceae (Leguminosae), Poaceae (Gramineae), Palmae (Arecaceae), Lamiales, Yams (Dioscoreaceae etc) and Rubiaceae, chosen because of their importance as useful plants, and because of research strengths at Kew. Students will be introduced to the range of diversity in each family, and the plant properties that make these families important to humans.

Ethnobotany is covered through case studies of work carried out at Kew, work on Chinese medicinal plants, and fieldwork in Brazil. As well as being introductions to the subjects, these seminars also introduce students to some of the ethical and practical issues associated with doing ethnobotany. A tour of the Economic Botany Collection emphasises the importance of preserving and documenting material culture, and of understanding the historical background to modern-day ethnobotany.

Timetabling allows time before and after seminars for exploration of the Gardens, and use of Library facilities. Module content assumes no previous botanical knowledge.

Module content varies from year to year, depending on staff availability and the annual evaluation of course content and student feedback.

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Informal Teaching and Support

Outside of the formal module, Kent ethnobotany students are warmly encouraged to draw on Kew's resources, whether by coming to use the libraries and other collections, meeting Kew staff for specialist advice, and discussing course papers, careers, dissertation projects or sourcing ethnobotanical literature with the academic co-ordinator. Kew staff sometimes visit Canterbury to attend or give seminars, and email allows easy contact.

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Dissertation Projects

Each year one or more students undertake a dissertation project based at or supervised by Kew staff. Typical projects include natural products research in the Jodrell Laboratory, use of the libraries for a literature-based project, and use of the Herbarium and Economic Botany Collection for specimen-based projects.

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Ethnobotany MSc. students have access to a wide range of collections. The Library contains comprehensive collections of taxonomic and floristic literature (Main Library) and an exceptional and multidiscplinary collection of books on the uses of plants and fungi (Jodrell Library). The Library also holds large art collections. The Herbarium contains 7 million pressed plants, and the Economic Botany Collection is the world's largest collection of plant raw materials and ethnographic artefacts made from plants.

Seminars are taught in a number of buildings including the Herbarium and Museum No. 1; the Jodrell Laboratory is the base for students during their visits, with its Library, tea-room and computing facilities.

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Initial queries regarding the Ethnobotany M.Sc. should be made to the University of Kent, who can advise on course content, and admission matters. The academic co-ordinator at Kew is happy to meet prospective students interested in the Kew component, and to answer specific queries:

Dr Mark Nesbitt:

Kew Gardens link:

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Annual Distinguished Ethnobotanist Lecture

On Tuesday 14th October, Professor Doyle B. McKey from the University of Montpellier delivered his lecture on Evolutionary Ecology as a Driver of New Questions in Ethnobotany.


Dr Rajindra Puri


Tel (44-) (0) 1227 823148

Fax (44-) (0)1227 827289

School of Anthropology and Conservation - © University of Kent

School of Anthropology and Conservation, Marlowe Building, The University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NR, T: +44 (0)1227 827056

Last Updated: 08/01/2015