History and Subdisciplines
The origins of this branch of biology are rooted in human beings’ attempts to improve their lot by raising better food crops around 5000 b.c.e. This practical effort developed into intellectual curiosity about plants in general, and the science of botany was born.
Some of the earliest botanical records are included with the writings of Greek philosophers, who were often physicians and who used plant materials as curative agents. In the second century b.c.e. Aristotle had a botanical garden and an associated library.
As more details became known about plants and their functions, particularly after the discovery of the microscope, a number of subdisciplines arose. Plant anatomy is concerned chiefly with the internal structure of plants. Plant physiology delves into the living functions of plants. Plant taxonomy has as its interest the discovery and systematic classification of plants.
Plant geography, also known as geobotany or phytogeography, deals with the global distribution of plants. Plant ecology studies the interactions between plants and their surroundings. Plant morphology studies the form and structure of plants. Plant genetics attempts to understand and work with the way that plant traits are inherited.
Plant cytology, often called cell biology, is the science of cell structure and function. Economic botany, which traces its interest back to the origins of botany, studies those plants that play important economic roles. These include major crops such as wheat, rice, corn, and cotton.
Ethnobotany is a rapidly developing subarea in which scientists communicate with indigenous peoples to explore the knowledge that exists as a part of their folk medicine. Several new drugs and the promise of others have developed from this search.
At the forefront of botany today is the field of genetic engineering, including the cloning of organisms. New or better crops have long been developed by the technique of crossbreeding, but genetic engineering offers a much more direct course.
Using its techniques, scientists can introduce a gene carrying a desirable trait directly from one organism to another. In this way scientists hope to protect crops from frost damage, to inhibit the growth of weeds, to provide insect repulsion as a part of the plant’s own system, and to increase the yield of food and fiber crops.
The role that plants play in the energy system of the earth (and may someday play in space stations or other closed systems) is also a major area of study. Plants, through photosynthesis, convert sunlight into other useful forms of energy upon which humans have become dependent.
During the same process carbon dioxide is removed from the air, and oxygen is delivered. Optimization of this process and discovering new applications for it are goals for botanists.