Economic Botany Collection

Porcupine needle box

The Economic Botany Collection is a rich and unique collection of specimens and artifacts from around the world. Together, it illustrates the significant role that plants have played in human culture and development, and is part of the Botanical Museum Collection, including:

  • The Oakes Ames Collection of Economic Botany (2082 specimens)
  • The Economic Botany General Collection (9425 specimens)
  • The Ethnobotanical Collection (about 150 specimens)
  • the Freeman Bean Collection (604 specimens)
  • the Parke-Davis Drug Collection
  • The Economic Herbarium of Oakes Ames (ECON) (about 40,000 specimens, integrated with the A, GH, and NEBC Herbaria).

tapa cloth

In total, there are about 52,000 artifacts and specimens, including type specimens collected by R. E. Schultes, H. V. Pinkley, and E. Palmer. The majority of the specimens were made between 1870 and 1940. Acquisitions were made from all over the world, but collections from Asia, South America, and North America are especially well represented.

The Economic Botany Collection is a repository of plant-related knowledge from both traditional and industrialized societies, and holds invaluable data regarding the changes in cultural uses of plants over time. It is a resource for research in a variety of fields, including ethnobotany, biology, anthropology, archeology, history, pharmacology, folklore, and the arts. Currently, the collections are utilized for educational purposes (at Harvard and at other institutions), for historical research, and for museum exhibits.

There are artifacts and specimens dating back to the mid-19th century that represent humankind's relationship with the plant world and illustrate the many ways plants have been used for food, medicine, construction, and other purposes in diverse cultures worldwide. The collection includes fibers, fruits, flowers, leaves, resins, tubers, bark, and other plant parts, mounted on paper or contained in jars, bags, boxes, cans, or bundles. It also contains manufactured objects that show people's dependence on plants.

Table 1

As more scientists, researchers, and students seek out information on the Internet, having this unique resource available on the Web will allow access without destruction, and facilitate increased research and knowledge. Following the guidelines outlined in the Economic Botany Data Collection Standard by Frances E. M. Cook, artifacts are classified to 2 levels (see Table 1 and Table 2). These classification levels will then be used to sort the large and varied collection, making it searchable to the public.

If you would like to visit the collections, please review our Visitor Policy or write to