Some flowers, like the Madagascar periwinkle, can be used to treat childhood leukemia rather in addition to their aesthetic appeal.
At the University of Rhode Island, students not only get to learn about flowers but learn how to use them first hand.
The College of Pharmacy’s medical garden was grown both as an art project to go along with the new building and to help pharmacy students get hands-on experience with plants that play a role in the medicinal field. It was also created to focus on the role of nature in healing and in wellness.
The garden itself, endowed by the Youngkin family, was a $1 million project funded by the Rhode Island Arts Council. The university, as well as the state of Rhode Island, also contributed financially to the garden. It is now home to over 200 medicinal plants, 500 ornamental plants and nine birch trees.
Peter Morgan, the senior gardener, said half the garden is made up of medicinal plants grown by the College of Pharmacy and the rest are ornamental plants chosen by the Rhode Island Arts Council. As a professional gardener, Morgan has been focused on taking care of medical plants.
“They choose what to plant each year and we take care of it,” Morgan said. “We get to decide how the medicinal plants are laid out and where they go. We have important ones that are still used today, but most of them aren’t used anymore. They were popular back in colonial days. Like a lot of the herbs were brought over in the 1600s and 1700s for medicinal reasons but now we use them in cooking.”
The garden grows herbs such as ginger, basil, mint and turmeric and also grows pineapple, lemon grass, banana, coneflower and aloe. It also holds plants that help in medicine and in other aspects of everyday life including hops, a plant used in the making of beer that shares many similarities with marijuana plants. Ginkgo is also grown in the garden and can be used in the treatment of dementia.
“Having front-door access to a world-class medicinal garden is an exceptional privilege given that there are only a handful of university-affiliated medicinal gardens remaining in the U.S.,” said Dr. Navindra Seeram, an associate professor in the department of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences. “Thus, URI students, both within and outside of the Pharmacy College, have a competitive advantage in this aspect of their studies.”
“They see it and hold it in their hands,” Morgan said. “We want them to really know how to ID. To know everything about it, they’ll know the chemistry, but we want to show them what it looks like.”
Senior Robert Hall, a pharmacy major who is interested in drug development, is in a class called Medical Plants, in which he and his classmates go out into the garden and study the different plants in person. “The advantage of having a fresh garden on campus is huge,” he said “We learn the normal plant terms like the common names and the Latin names, but we also study the compounds in the plant and how the plants are used in medicine”
“They get so good at it,” Morgan said, “You could bring something into them and say what it is and ask if you can use it as an herb and they’ll say ‘No, that’s very dangerous.’”
Morgan takes care of the gardens, along with volunteers and Seeram, the professor in charge of the gardens. Though Morgan also assists in helping the classes that interact with the gardens. “With the pharmacy students I don’t even mention much with the compounds because they’ll know that,” Morgan said.
With the shape that the gardens are in, it is easy to tell that Morgan takes pride in his work. One-third of the plants are currently being moved into the greenhouse located at the top of campus. Since most of them are not native to this area, they cannot withstand the harsh weather changes New England goes through. However, Morgan and the volunteers stay busy taking care of the plants in the greenhouse and greening up the pharmacy building.
“It’s a great place to work,” Morgan said with a nod towards the garden. “No one really bothers me. They expect and they know, from my pride, I like to maintain everything nicely. So they don’t have to worry about it. I always tell them that, you don’t have to worry about it; I’ll take care of it. It’s a good college to work for.”
Come spring, people will see Morgan and the volunteers re-planting and the pharmacy students furthering their studies and understandings of the natural healing world.