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Alexandra Towns

A.M. (Alexandra) Towns, PhD Ethnobotany


Email: alexandra.towns@naturalis.nl
Phone: +31 (0)71 52 73585
Room number: Darwinweg 4, 303


As a medical ethnobotanist working at Naturalis and Leiden University, I study women's knowledge of plants for reproductive health and childcare in Benin and Gabon (western Africa). Under the supervision of Dr. Tinde van Andel, I work on the research project ‘Plant use of the Motherland - Linking West African and Afro-Caribbean Ethnobotany’. 



  • B.A. International Studies (2005), Towson University, Maryland, USA

  • M.S. International Agricultural Development (2010), University of California Davis, California, USA

  • Ph.D. Ethnobotany (2014), Leiden University, the Netherlands 


Scientific Presentations and Invited Lectures

  • Mothers’ medicinal plant knowledge, folk illnesses, and treatment preferences for childcare in two pluralistic healthcare settings. Joint Society Conference Society for Economic Botany & Society of Ethnobiology. 11-14 May 2014. Cherokee, North Carolina, USA.

  • Vaginal and uterine herbal cleanses for sexual and reproductive health in Western Africa.19th World Congress on Controversies in Obstetrics, Gynecology & Infertility (COGI). 20-23 February 2014. Macau, China.

  • The role of secondary vegetation in providing medicinal plants for women's health and childcare in Bénin, West Africa. 26th International Congress for Conservation Biology. 21-25 July 2013. Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Poster Presentation. 

  • Maternal Health through an Ethnobotanical Lens: Comparing Local Perceptions of Women's Reproductive Healthcare with International Health Priorities in Bénin and Gabon. 54th Annual Meeting of the Society for Economic Botany. 28 June- 2 July 2013. Plymouth, UK. 

  • Why African women disagree with the WHO. NWO Bessensap Museon.10 June 2013. Den Haag, Nederland. 

  • Birth in Bénin: An ethnobotanical perspective on traditional fertility management, pregnancy, and childcare. The Catharina Schrader Stichting Foundation. 23 April 2012. Bussum, Nederland. 

  • Plants used in women's health and childcare in Southern Bénin. Tropical Ecology in the Netherlands: Current PhD Research, Institute for Biodiveristy and Ecosystem Dynamics. 21 October 2011. Universiteit van Amsterdam, Nederland. 

  • Plants used in magico-religious practices, women's health, and childcare in Bénin and Gabon. Troisième Colloque de l'UAC des Sciences, Cultures et Technologies. 6-10 June 2011. Akassato, Bénin. Presentation with Diana Quiroz.

  • Ethnoecology and food sovereignty among the Songhai of Niger: species, knowledge, and implications for sustainable  rural development. 51st Annual Meeting of the Society for Economic Botany. 6-10 June 2010. Xalapa, Mexico.

Participation in Professional Societies and Associations

  • Society for Economic Botany (Student Representative 2013-2014)
  • Society for Conservation Biology 
  • Association for International Agricultural and Rural Development
  • Partnership to Cut Hunger and Povery in Africa


Research interest

My broad research interests revolve around the relationship that women have with plants. These interests range from studying medicinal plant practices from a public health perspective to analyzing the use of plants in socio-ecological systems from a theoretical perspective. 


west africa, nutrition, traditional medicine, agroecology, rural development, reproductive health and childcare, wild edibles, ethnobotany

Current research topics

PhD Research Summary

Women’s knowledge of medicinal plants has largely been understudied in the field of ethnobotany. In addition to this gender bias, most ethnobotanical research has focused on the expert knowledge of traditional healers, overlooking the domestic knowledge of women. This is a particular concern for African women’s knowledge of reproductive health and childcare, since gynecological morbidity and infant mortality are among the most severe health problems in African countries.

My dissertation sought to unravel the relationship between women and plants by assessing women’s medicinal plant knowledge and plant use practices for reproductive health and childcare in Bénin, West Africa and Gabon, Central Africa. Through the use of ethnobotanical questionnaires, botanical specimen collection, and herbal market surveys this study assesses (1) which types of vegetation women harvest for medicinal plants, (2) how closely women’s health perspectives, plant knowledge, and plant use practices reflect the statistical causes of maternal mortality (3) which infant illnesses mothers know how to treat with medicinal plants and for which illnesses they seek biomedical care or traditional healers, and (4) which species, volume, and value of medicinal plant products are sold on herbal markets in Gabon

With an international team of students and researchers, we conducted ethnobotanical questionaires, collected over 1400 plants, and documented their collection, preparation and administration. We interviewed biomedical healthcare providers at national hospitals and local clinics in order to understand the relationship between traditional and modern healthcare systems. We also conducted two (Bénin 2011 and Gabon 2012) nationwide herbal market surveys in order to quantify the commercial trade and identify priority species for conservation. Outcomes from this study can (1) help healthcare professionals design culturally appropriate education programs, (2) contribute to the process of integrating traditional and modern healthcare in West Africa, and (3) support the conservation of these plants via local and regional environmental resource organizations.

This dissertation, entitled Fertility and fontanels: women’s knowledge of medicinal plants for reproductive health and childcare in western Africa is available through the Leiden University Respository: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/28942





Plant Families of the Tropics

Available student projects



Journals SCI, peer-reviewed

Towns A., Andel T. van 2016. Wild plants, pregnancy, and the food-medicine continuum in the southern regions of Ghana and Benin. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 179: 375-382.
Go to website (URI)


Journals SCI, peer-reviewed

Andel T.R. van, Croft S., Loon E.E. van, Quiroz D., Towns A.M., Raes N. 2015. Prioritizing West African medicinal plants for conservation and sustainable extraction studies based on market surveys and species distribution models. Biological Conservation 181: 173-181.
Go to website (DOI)

Andel T.R. van, Onselen S. van, Myren B., Towns A.M., Quiroz D. 2015. “The medicine from behind”. The frequent use of enemas in western African traditional medicine. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 174: 637–643.
Go to website (URI)

Chapters in books

Andel T.R. van, Boer H.J. de, Towns A.M. 2015. Gynaecological, Andrological and Urological Problems:. An Ethnopharmacological Perspective. Postgraduate Pharmacy Series 199-212: WIley, Chichester.
Go to website (URI)


Journals SCI, peer-reviewed

Towns A.M., Andel T.R. van 2014. Comparing local perspectives on women's health with statistics on maternal mortality: an ethnobotanical study in Bénin and Gabon. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 14: 113.
Go to website (DOI)

Quiroz D., Towns A.M., Legba S.I., Swier J., Brière S., Sosef M., Andel T.R. van 2014. Quantifying the domestic market in herbal medicine in Benin, West Africa. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 151: 1100-1108.
Go to website (DOI)

Vossen T., Towns A., Ruysschaert S., Quiroz D., Andel T. van 2014. Consequences of the trans-Atlantic slave trade on medicinal plant selection: Plant use for cultural bound syndromes affecting children in Suriname and western Africa. PLOS ONE 9: e112345.
Go to website (URI)

Andel T.R. van, Klooster C.I.E.A. van 't, Quiroz D., Towns A.M., Ruysschaert S., Berg M. van den 2014. Local plant names reveal that enslaved Africans recognized substantial parts of the New World flora. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111: E5346-53.
Go to website (URI)

Towns A.M., Quiroz D., Guinee L., Boer H. de, Andel T. van 2014. Volume, value and floristic diversity of Gabon's medicinal plant markets. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 155: 1184-1193.
Go to website (DOI)

Towns A.M., Ruysschaert S., Vliet E. van, Andel T. van 2014. Evidence in support of the role of disturbance vegetation for women's health and childcare in Western Africa. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 10: 42.
Go to website (URI)

Towns A.M., Eyi S.M., Andel T. van 2014. Traditional medicine and childcare in Western Africa: Mothers' knowledge, folk illnesses, and patterns of healthcare-seeking behavior. PLOS ONE 9: e105972.
Go to website (URI)


Journals non-SCI, peer-reviewed

Towns A.M., Potter D., Idrissa S. 2013. Cultivated, caught, and collected: defining culturally appropriate foods in Talle, Niger. Development in Practice 23: 169-183.
Go to website (URI)