Medicinal Botanicals: Plants, medicine and a history of Botanic Gardens

Plants, medicine and our well being are inextricably connected, write Tony Kanellos and Trish Hansen, and the Medicinal Botanicals Project will seek to explore that connection through art.

Our understanding of useful plants underpins our health and wellbeing. From the earliest times our need for food, fibre and medicine was based on the plant world.

This enquiry into plants was formalised by Theophrastus, known as “the father of botany” and Aristotle’s successor at the Lyceum. The peripatetic school of philosophy was also equipped with a library, gymnasium, a zoo and a garden.

Gardens, and the term is used loosely here, for the cultivation of plants were independently established in Egypt, Assyria and China before the Greeks. Subsequently gardens were established in Mexico at the same time as that of the Old World. However, these gardens are distinct from the notion of the modern botanic garden.

Botanic Gardens as we know them today have their origins in the gardens established at monasteries during the Middle Ages. The Monks utilised these gardens for food and medicine and their knowledge in horticulture, botany and drugs helped maintain their health and wellbeing.

These monastic gardens were the precursor to the Physic Gardens of Renaissance Italy. These gardens were created for the academic enquiry into plants and for teaching physicians about plant-based medicine. The first botanic gardens were those of Pisa, Padua and Florence. Pisa was the first Botanic Garden established in 1544 while Padua is the oldest botanic garden (on its original site) established in 1545 by the Most Serene Republic of Venice. The years that followed saw the establishment of medicinal gardens spread to universities and apothecaries throughout Western Europe. The role of the institutions of Botanic Gardens and the Universities was to further the work of the likes of Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Hippocrates.

Similarly, the important role played by the understanding of plants in establishing the colony of South Australia is more than suggested by Colonel William Light’s 1837 plan of Adelaide which clearly shows a Botanic Garden (albeit at a different location from the current site). The only other institutions identified on the plan were the government domain, barracks, hospital and cemetery – epitomising some of the fundamentals of life; law, order, life and death.

Adelaide Botanic Garden’s Museum of Economic Botany (Photo: Grant Hancock)

The location of the Adelaide Botanic Garden (est. 1855) between the Adelaide Hospital (est. 1856) and the Lunatic Asylum (est. 1852) suggests an understanding of the connection between plants and gardens and their therapeutic benefits to healing and wellbeing. The early iteration of this Botanic Garden included a classground (or systematic garden) and an experimental garden.

In more recent times the Botanic Gardens established a Garden of Health to remind us of the connections between people, plants and wellbeing. This garden stands as an acknowledgement of the important role of Botanic Gardens in the development of modern medicine. The story of medicine is much richer than western medicine and the Garden of Health illustrates the medicinal knowledge (practiced for thousands of years) of many cultures across the globe. As one would expect, the Garden of Health highlights the stories of the traditional medicinal practices of Aboriginal people of the Kaurna lands and beyond. This story continues on a journey through the New World (North and South America), Africa, India, China and the Middle East.

As a result, the Garden of Health features more than 2,000 plants, many planted for the first time, focussing on the specific but rich themes of medicine and healing. Some of the species planted in the Garden of Health have been used by humans since the Stone Age, and others are still used in modern medicine. We soon realise that all cultures have used plants for healing, treating illness and injury and promoting wellbeing – reminding us of our dependence on the plant world.

Enter the Medicinal Botanicals Project

From this rich past we come to the present and the future and this brings us to the Medicinal Botanicals Project – a wide collaboration between The Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium of South Australia, Guildhouse, The Royal Adelaide Hospital Centre for Creative Health, Flinders Medical Centre Arts in Health Program, Women’s and Children’s Hospital Foundation Arts in Health Program, Urban Mind and Buddle Design.

As healthcare hurtles into the digital future, the need to reflect and respect the cultural, traditional and botanical beginnings of contemporary medicine becomes increasingly important.

Health, pharmacology and medical science are developing at an increasingly rapid pace, yet the health benefits of nature’s bounty have a deep-rooted story.

Aboriginal knowledge and pharmacopoeia extend some 60,000 years as rich oral lore and is deeply embedded in the daily lives of many first Australians today. The protection and nurturing of Australia’s natural environments by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander custodians enable all of us to live in one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet. Most of our plant species and many of our animal species are found nowhere else, and close to 75% of living species are yet to be scientifically described and documented.

Specimens of bark from which quinine, a medication used to treat malaria, is derived (Photo: Grant Hancock)

We have a richness of natural resources in our geographically, climatically and biologically diverse environment, which are the source of yet to be discovered unique and novel therapeutic compounds. Yet since colonisation, Australia’s biodiversity has been increasingly threatened.

Climate change and other environmental factors, such as the fragmentation and degradation of habitats, as well as the unsustainable use of natural resources and pollution, all contribute to the vulnerability of Australia’s biodiversity.

Health and biomedical research remains a primary pillar of South Australia’s contemporary economy – Adelaide’s biomedical precinct is after all one of the largest health and life sciences clusters in the southern hemisphere.

To celebrate the important connection between plants, people and medicine the Medicinal Botanicals Project will bring together artists with botanists and pharmacologists over the next eighteen months, to develop a series of art works and events that celebrate the important connection between humans, medicine and plants.

The Medicinal Botanicals project amplifies the value of plants in the development of pharmaceuticals and celebrates our biodiversity as a sustainable resource for our future prosperity as well as bringing culture and meaning to contemporary healthcare.

One of the Medicinal Botanicals Project’s initiatives is a public symposium on and will focus on the Ethics of Plant-based Medicines on Tuesday, September 11 2018 at the Adelaide Botanic Garden, hosted by ABC’s Sonya Feldhoff.

Speakers include:

  • Dr Lucy Sutherland, Director, Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium
  • Dr Brad Simpson, Lecturer, School of Pharmacy & Medical Sciences, University of South Australia; Research Fellow, NICM Health Research Institute, University Western Sydney; Scientist, The Australian Bioactive Compounds Centre, University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia.

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