New and Old Gardens of Medicinal Plants

The government’s recent announcement of its intention to replace the Royal Adelaide Hospital on a new site, and make much of the old hospital land available to extend the Adelaide Botanic Garden, renews in a unexpected way an old link between the worlds of botanic gardens and of medical institutions.

Although it is many years away, it is a prospect that we at the gardens relish. In a sense, as the Minister said, we will be getting back some of what we had to give up in the 1950s.

By happy coincidence, we are already at work on a smaller-scale project to emphasise, and add directly to, the long history of links between botany and medicine. The importance of those links is often overlooked, even though you can easily find, in any convenient bookstore, popular histories which would have you believe that the world is as it is today entirely because of opium, or aspirin, or quinine, or coffee – and so on.

Books like this, limited in outlook though they may be, describe different journeys from wild plant to cultivation, and from direct use to sophisticated extraction and purification – but the principle they illustrate is of fundamental importance. It is this: plants provide the majority of the world’s pharmaceuticals – most often as cultivated or wild plants rather than as the extracted drugs characteristic of Western medicine.

In most reference texts, the first botanic gardens are usually considered to be Pisa and Padua, both founded in 1545 and both associated with medical schools in those two Italian cities. This date is a significant jumping-off point, because the renaissance era marks the beginning of what we can recgonise as scientific enquriy into the properties of plants as medicines, but the origins of botanic gardens producing matiera medica associated with medical learning go back much further. Western, Arabic, Chinese, and Ayurvedic cultures all utilised ‘botanical gardens’ long before 1545. Even in Europe, Montpellier had a garden associated with the medical school centuries before the accepted date of the Montpellier Botanic Garden’s establishment in 1593.

Two years ago, I was fortunate to visit Montpellier Botanic Gardens in Languedoc-Roussillin in southern France. Montpellier is an incredibly important botanic garden whose directors include botanical luminaries such as Pierre Magnol (Magnolia) and Augustin de Candolle. However, from my perspective a key part of the fascination of Montpellier beyond the garden itself is the positioning of the botanic garden as part of the medical school for the University of Montpellier – a structure that has remained unchanged since the University received its Papal Bull in 1289. The director of the botanic gardens is also a professor in the medical school and a director in the Montpellier Hospital. The French seem to have found little point in restructuring this administrative model just to fall in line with the rest of the world’s management-theory models.

The centuries-old association of the Montpellier Botanic Garden and the medical school underlines how botanic gardens have changed the world. The first era of btaonic gardens say the systemisation of plants in gardens as both pharmacies and as pharmacopeia associated with medical school sin Renaissance Europe. The impact on medicine was profound, at least in Western medicine. Until then, there had for centuries been limited progress beyond Dioscordies, a Greek physician, botanist, and pharmacologist who practiced in Rome (and with the Roman army) under Nero and published De Materia Medica – the basis for around 500 plant-based medicines. This work remained in circulation throughout the Dark Ages, A significant sign of the pre-eminence of plants in pharmacology is that when the father taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, published his own Materia Medica in 1749 the focus remained botanical although animal and mineral remedies are well represented sources of medicine.

Some connections between plants and drugs are well known – for example, the link between the opium poppy and morphine. Sometimes the connection is less well known – for example, the link between willow bark and aspirin, and foxgloves and digitalis. In developing countries, plants, both wild and cultivated, remain the main source of medicine,. According to the World Health Organisation, as many as 80 per cent of the world’s people rely for their primary health care on traditional medicine, most types of which use remedies made from plants. Despite advances in clinical trials, in purification of medicines and in the range of synthetic drugs, plants still serve as medicines for most of the world;’s population, and perhaps a quarter of Western medicines are still derived from plants.

In Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens, the other epochs of botanic gardens are already explored, but the story of the relationship between plants, people, botanic gardens and medicine.This medicinal garden will be in the area which will also provide the Gardens’ new western entry from Frome Road, just north of the dental hospital. (This new entry will restore the visual connection envisaged by Walter Bagot from the original Barr-Smith Library building in the University of Adelaide eastwards to the gardens, and is really a story in itself).

The garden will, of course, be beautiful, and will explore the role of plants and of botanic gardens in medicine. It will also contribute to our increasing emphasis on gardens in a changing world. It will also reflect the exciting new work going on in bio prospecting to discover new and powerful plant-derived medicines (or, in my cases, rediscover – as many indigenous peoples, including the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains, may observe). But our attention will not be confined to curative medicines. The new garden will also examine the role of plants and gardens in preventative medicine – as positive contributors to well-being, rather than just as pharmacological band-aids when something has gone wrong.

Garden historian, architect and poeticist Richard Aitken and landscape architect Geoffrey Britten are currently working with Gardens staff and pharmacologists to plan the garden which should lead to work on site in late 2008 or early 2009.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 22 June 2007.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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