Science Update with Guido Masé: Human Rituals Around Sacred Plants and Sacred Places: Insight Into Ecological Conservation

The Baishuitai is a unique land-form, made of terraces of limestone and other minerals built up over millennia, that covers the hillsides in a particular valley in Yunnan, China. This province borders Tibet to the northwest, Myanmar to the south and west, and Laos to the southeast. It is a fabled corner of the world: here we find not only some of the most delicate and prized tea plantations, where Camellia sinensis trees are lovingly tended among native forest plants, but also the homeland of important medicinal herbs like dong quai (Angelica sinensis.)1 The inhabitants of this special piece of Yunnan province, known as the Naxi, have developed an elaborate cultural and ritual framework (the Dongba culture), which includes a complex ritual script, seasonal celebrations, and a cosmology that assigns a consciousness to everything in nature. In this cosmology trees, plants, homes, tools, and sacred sites like the Baishuitai house their own spirits, and these spirits are responsible for coordinating all of nature, including the harmonious movement of the seasons, the growth and harvest of crops, and the evolution of family lineages. The Dongba culture presents us with an animist spirituality: one in which every plant and stone, hill and valley holds its own spirit and soul. Researchers from the Institute of Botany in Kumning (capital of Yunnan province) documented how the interface between the Dongba culture and the Baishuitai leads, over time, to a sustainable network of human-plant-place interactions, with important ecological consequences.2

Naxi families consider plants to hold some of the most important and sacred spirits in all of nature. While it is necessary to harvest and process plants for food, part of the Dongba culture’s animist perspective demands that the spirits of the plants and land, who have sacrificed of themselves to provide sustenance for the human community, be thanked with appropriate rituals. These rituals include talismans made from small amounts of herbs, and incense blends made from local resins and dried plants. At defined times throughout the year, families travel to the Baishuitai where a sacred grove has been tended for centuries. Each family has one or more ancestral trees where offerings to the plant spirits and to the Baishuitai itself are left as tokens of gratitude. No plant material can be harvested from this forest: rather, it serves as a perennial reminder of generations of human-plant relationship, a place apart from the everyday landscape, where connection to nature and the spirits that inhabit it can be renewed periodically. The Naxi treat food crops, wild herbal medicines, and ritual plants like they treat their own human ancestors: all are thanked and each receives offerings at the sacred grove. The spirits of the plants are honored in much the same way as the departed soul of a beloved relative.

This practice is not unique to Yunnan. From the Himalayas (close by),3 to the rest of the Indian subcontinent,4 through Indonesia and into Africa5 and the Americas, the approach is remarkably similar: rooted in a belief that souls inhabit all of nature (including plants and places), we see rituals that honor the flora of that bioregion.6 These rituals are embedded in seasonal celebrations marking common, essential pieces of life: hunting, the harvest, and milestones of individual and cultural growth. Through these rituals, the bond between human and nature, culture and ecology, is constantly renewed and invigorated. We’ve seen how this can impact human health and well-being, in the physical but also in the emotional and spiritual spheres. But what might be less obvious is the ecological impact of this work: as it turns out, herbalist rituals improve the resilience and vitality of the ecology, too – in every region where this question has been studied. Traditional knowledge, encoded into story and science by indigenous cultures around the world, sits well-ensconced in a traditional cosmology populated by wildly diverse life-forces, each deserving acknowledgement and respect. When this happens, we see ecological benefit: biodiversity, sustainability, and environmental resilience all increase alongside human well-being in the affected communities.7

There may be economic benefit to these communities as well (a crucial factor when discussing the preservation of traditional knowledge.)8 As an example, consider the research of Dr. Selena Ahmed, who works at the Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems Program at the University of Montana.9 She has documented how forest-grown tea (often from areas of the world like Yunnan) can command higher prices10 and better survive climate extremes when compared to full-sun, terrace-grown tea plantations.11 In the groves where she conducts her research, industrial monocropping of tea is replaced with a diverse, thriving ecology, and subsistence farmers, often exploited by global market forces, are replaced with a community of agriculturalists who have the sustainability of their lives, families, and ecologies as a chief priority.12 This translates into a better cup of tea: while the yields may be lower, the improved flavor profile, quality, and stable supply means the bottom line is more dollars flow into the community for this hand-tended, specialty product. At the same time, the local ecology sees more life and richness, too.13

These rituals and techniques are not modern technology. They are an outgrowth of a traditional, indigenous worldview and fall under the umbrella, broadly speaking, of “traditional knowledge”. This is a well-defined term, used by non-governmental entities like the World Intellectual Property Organization, to describe systems and practices, often orally transmitted, found in traditional and indigenous cultures.14 In many cases, traditional knowledge presents us with very useful technologies which have the potential, when properly documented with full credit to their sources, to address some of the shortcomings of modern military-capital-industrial technologies. In the case of the Dongba culture, for example, we may see practices which could help rewild urban centers and suburban developments: a sort of “eco-spiritual urban planning” that can take place lot by lot, neighborhood by neighborhood.15 This idea seems like it might be a useful tool.  But just because a ritual practice or technology is traditional does not somehow mean it is inherently worth adopting: there are numerous applications of traditional knowledge that have resulted in oppressive outcomes.16 As we come to understand that cultural resilience does not require the oppression of others (human or otherwise), we can – and should – attempt to separate out those technologies that build resilience by enhancing diversity from those that build power by marginalizing or exploiting. Another important issue is the effective transmission of traditional knowledge to future generations: young people are less and less interested, unfortunately, in the practices on which their ancestors relied. If this trend continues, we run the risk of losing rituals and techniques that might hold valuable tools for managing some of the issues the world is facing.17 Just as habitat loss and the loss of botanical diversity has followed the spread of Western culture, so too we are starting to see a loss of traditional knowledge, language, and practice at a time when we may need these tools the most.

Identifying and honoring “sacred” places in our lives, and bringing plants into the ritual of celebration, is a traditional tool that builds life and resilience wherever it is employed, helping to protect endangered botanical species and preserve sensitive ecologies.

But for us, this practice can create a place (in both space and time) that provides re-invigoration and solace, a renewal in the midst of the whirlwind. While the authors who reviewed these rituals in the Dongba culture suggest preserving them for the sake of tourism and ecological preservation (both admirable goals), there may be more to it than just these immediately-visible results. When we, as individuals, get to know a special place (this can be anywhere – nature is in every nook and cranny) and visit it regularly bearing small gifts, we start to become part of that place and our thought patterns begin to change. The world around us becomes less of a resource to be exploited, and more of a partner and ally – a member of the family. So when families in Bali walk out in the morning, plates of offerings loaded with jasmine flowers and rice in hand, they touch steps, stones, paths and hollows that hold their own personalities and speak old stories. The offerings are left, sometimes in huge piles, only to later be swept away. But the physical flowers are just a stand-in for the real thing: people and place are kin, and often, plants are the go-between. The ritual renews this very real bond, with practical implications. It revitalizes the ecology, but it restores our vitality, too – and isn’t this something we all need from time to time? Isn’t it part of what we all long for?



1. Xu, Jianchu, et al. "Integrating sacred knowledge for conservation: cultures and landscapes in southwest China." Ecology and Society 10.2 (2005).

2. Geng, Yanfei, et al. "The implications of ritual practices and ritual plant uses on nature conservation: a case study among the Naxi in Yunnan Province, Southwest China." Journal of ethnobiology and ethnomedicine 13.1 (2017): 58. 

3. Sharma, Subrat, Hem C. Rikhari, and Lok Man S. Palni. "Conservation of natural resources through religion: a case study from central Himalaya." Society & Natural Resources12.6 (1999): 599-612.

4. Daniels, RJ Ranjit, MD Subash Chandran, and Madhav Gadgil. "A strategy for conserving the biodiversity of the Uttara Kannada district in South India." Environmental conservation20.2 (1993): 131-138.

5. Schoffeleers, Jan-Mathijs, ed. Guardians of the land: essays on Central African territorial cults. Kachere Series, 1979.

6. Anyinam, Charles. "Ecology and ethnomedicine: exploring links between current environmental crisis and indigenous medical practices." Social Science & Medicine 40.3 (1995): 321-329.

7. Dudley, Nigel, L. I. Z. A. HIGGINS‐ZOGIB, and Stephanie Mansourian. "The links between protected areas, faiths, and sacred natural sites." Conservation Biology 23.3 (2009): 568-577.

8. Bhagwat, Shonil A., and Claudia Rutte. "Sacred groves: potential for biodiversity management."  Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4.10 (2006): 519-524.

9. Ahmed, Selena. Biodiversity and ethnography of tea management systems in Yunnan, China. City University of New York, 2011.

10. Ahmed, Selena, et al. "Increased market integration, value, and ecological knowledge of tea agroforests in the akha highlands of southwest china." Ecology and Society 15.4 (2010).

11. Ahmed, Selena, and John Richard Stepp. "Beyond yields: Climate change effects on specialty crop quality and agroecological management." Elem Sci Anth 4 (2016).

12. Ahmed, Selena, et al. "Biodiversity and phytochemical quality in indigenous and state‐supported tea management systems of Yunnan, China." Conservation Letters 6.1 (2013): 28-36.

13. Belcher, Brian, et al. "The socioeconomic conditions determining the development, persistence, and decline of forest garden systems." Economic Botany 59.3 (2005): 245-253.


15. Gross, Matthias, and Holger Hoffmann-Riem. "Ecological restoration as a real-world experiment: designing robust implementation strategies in an urban environment." Public Understanding of Science 14.3 (2005): 269-284.

16. Lane, Sandra D., and Robert A. Rubinstein. "Judging the other: Responding to traditional female genital surgeries." Hastings Center Report 26.3 (1996): 31-40

17. Ramirez, Carlos R. "Ethnobotany and the loss of traditional knowledge in the 21st century." Ethnobotany Research and Applications 5 (2007): 245-247.

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