A Garden of Health, a tranquil showcase for the medicinal plants humans have relied on for centuries, has opened in the Adelaide Botanic Garden. Stephen Forbes, Executive Director of the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, looks at the long history of plants as medicine.
In 1879 the South Australian Government Printer published a book entitled, On the urari: the deadly arrow-poison of the Macusis, an Indian tribe in British Guiana by Richard Schomburgk, Director of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. Schomburgk and his brother had established the plant, Strychnos toxifera, that was the source of a plant toxin used by Amerindians for hunting during a series of expeditions to British Guiana. The toxin is very specific – it disables voluntary muscles, meaning that the prey is unable to run or to breathe but the heart continues to beat. Initially curare was used in treatments for tetanus and strychnine poisoning. By 1942 curare was introduced into anaesthetic practice allowing anaesthetists to separate the management of muscle relaxation and consciousness.
This local example simply underscores the importance of plants in both historical and contemporary medicine. Plants are fundamental to medicine. Eighty percent of the world’s population obtain their medicines directly from plants and even in Western medicine, a majority of drugs have their origins in plants. The use of plants in healing is apparent in the earliest records of ancient civilisations (the Tutankhamun exhibition currently at the Museum of Victoria is worth visiting to understand the focus on medicinal plants in Ancient Egypt). Daniel Boone made more money collecting and selling American ginseng (Panax quinquefolia) than from trapping and selling furs – although picking wildflowers for a living doesn’t really evoke an image of “The rippin’est roarin’est fighten’est man the frontier ever knew“. Modern medicines are still derived from plants including the tamiflu vaccine from star anise, Illicium verum, and cancer drug, taxol from Pacific Yew, Taxus brevzfolia.
Modern botanic gardens began in the Renaissance medical schools.The oldest surviving botanic garden at Padua dates from 1545 and was attached to the University of Padua’s medical school. The botanic garden provided medicinal plants for teaching and healing (as well as providing poisons requested by the Venetian Council). Indeed, the garden was both the pharmacopeia (plants were displayed for study, as in a book) and the pharmacy for Padua.
Plants are more than a source of medicine to facilitate healing. Our visions of paradise, such as the Garden of Eden, are usually identified with gardens, and the role of plants in our environment is accepted as a key element in well-being.
Plants provide an environment that both protects and restores us. While historically the language associated with this relationship is found in the humanities rather than the sciences, evidence is now supporting what makes sense intuitively. Californian journalist Richard Louv has coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the consequences of being deprived of an engagement with nature. Louv has effectively promoted the importance of nature (especially plants) in psychological, physical and spiritual health through his books Last child in the woods: saving our children from Nature-deficit disorder (2005) and The nature principle: human restoration and the end of Nature-deficit disorder (2011).
The new Garden of Health opened in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens in July explores both of these arenas the Garden includes a Garden of Healing, focussed on medicinal plants and a Garden of Contemplation to draw attention to the importance of plants for restoration and well being. The Garden, by designer Geoffrey Britten with assistance from architect and garden historian Richard Aitken, explores Western and Islamic design and medicine, while the plantings also illustrate a range of cultural perspectives such as Aboriginal, Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.
The new Garden and associated new Western entrance for Adelaide Botanic Gardens effectively completes the Gardens’ narrative addressing the historical roles of botanic gardens and how botanic gardens changed the world. In short,
Renaissance botanic gardens provided the foundation for modern medicine, Enlightenment botanic gardens developed a classification and universal language for the natural world (visit the Classground), Age of Empire botanic gardens provided the clearing house for plant material and knowledge to exploit both heritage and novel crops in new colonies (visit the Santos Museum of Economic Botany), Industrial Revolution botanic gardens were responsible for the greatest diaspora of plants the world has seen (visit the Amazon Waterlily Pavilion) while in the 21st century, botanic gardens are at the forefront of conservation and environmental reconciliation (visit the SA Water Mediterranean Garden). The symbolism of the beautiful Ginkgo Gate designed by Hossein and Angela Valamanesh, is important in all of these contexts while the symbolism of the physical connection between the Gardens and the University medical and pharmacology schools resonates with the origins of botanic gardens.
NOTE: A visit to the Gardens will seem much closer to David Jones that ever before if you walk through the University of Adelaide campus
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 August 2011.