|College of Charleston
anthropology professor John Rashford has cultivated a fertile research
expertise in his studies of plants and their significance to the
growth of the modern world. Rashford is an ethnobotanist, an
expert in the plant lore and agricultural customs of a people.
What interests him are the links between people and their natural
biology. "Plants and landscapes, plants and religion,
plants and medicine, plants and poisons, plants and material culture
such as home-building," according to Rashford, are the relationships
that he has studied.
Listening for a short time to this professor, you quickly realize that
plants and the making of the modern world have gone hand-in-hand, or
maybe better put, root-in-hand.
Rashford is a native of Jamaica and came to the
United States when he was 14 years old. He earned his bachelor's
degree at the innovative Friends World College in New York. The
students to take the most urgent human problems as the basis of their
curriculum, and to consider all of humanity as their ultimate loyalty.
Rashford would go on to earn his master's degree and doctorate in
anthropology at the City University of New York. During this time
he was influenced greatly by his doctoral advisor who was an expert in
peasant studies. Rashford would become interested in the roots of
peasantry in his Caribbean homeland and came to realize how the lives
of peasants were closely tied to plants in terms of farms and crops
such as sugar cane, coffee, bananas and coconuts. He involvement
in the Society for Economic Botany and the Society for Ethnobiologists
would spur his interests.
His homeland was an initial and natural research focus, one that proved
to be a microcosm in his study of plants and man. "To understand
the Caribbean, is to understand the development of the modern world,"
he says. "The search for exotic spices would bring the Europeans
to the New World and then the need to cultivate the crops would lead to
Rashford believes ethnobotany provides a perspective
on human life that is fundamental to understanding human
adaptation. Plants, after all, are among the foods we eat to survive.
"Plants are a powerful vantage point, and
they help in explaining various aspects of human life,” Rashford
says. "The survival requirement is essential to who we are as
Rashford has not limited his studies to the Caribbean or to coastal
South Carolina where he notes the popular exotic plants that many
visitors come to see, such as wisteria, azaleas and Japanese
honeysuckle were actually brought here from faraway lands. He has
traveled the world, and in these travels has
gained experience and insights that he gladly shares with his
students. Japan, Brazil and Sweden are among the points on the
globe he has spent time studying the unique bonds between lands and the
people who inhabit them.
For all his travels, Rashford, who has taught at the College of
Charleston since 1982, still finds plenty of plants and vegetation on
and near campus to pique his interests. As he bade us farewell,
he grabbed his camera and a student of his from Brazil, heading off for
a nearby "field study."
(photo courtsey of Frank Edwards)