A medicinal plant garden at the University of Kansas (KU) is among the newest of its kind at college and university campuses in the United States and Canada. The garden, installed at the KU School of Pharmacy, introduces and reminds students, as well as faculty and the public, that many of the pharmaceutical drugs used today are based on the medicinal properties of plants.
Historically and presently, there has been and is a need for campus medicinal plant gardens. In 1928, 25 gardens were identified in the Pharmacy Headquarters Bulletin (a national trade publication).1 Today, a number of university gardens are in place, and they range widely in size, scope, and emphasis on research and/or education — and there may be fewer gardens that emphasize medicinal plants than there were nearly 100 years ago. Some medicinal gardens, such as the University of Washington-Seattle Medicinal Herb Garden, established in 1911, have deep histories.*
Medicinal gardens, whatever their size, emphasis, and form, serve as significant resources for any campus. The KU garden focuses particularly on native medicinal plants, as such gardens do the following:
provide physical material for teaching on medicinal plants;
highlight the ongoing need for the study of medicinal plants, particularly those native to the region;
directly promote the value of these plants to human health and thereby lend support to efforts to conserve the plants’ native habitat;
and in some cases, provide examples of how native plants can be integrated or even used as the basis for gardens in conventional settings (reducing the need for high inputs and providing further support for plant and land conservation).
The KU School of Pharmacy garden, inaugurated in 2011, serves as a case study of the establishment of a university medicinal garden on campus — one with a distinct purpose and a strong connection to the historical study of medicinal plants and to an earlier medicinal garden at the same university.
Overview of the Garden
The School of Pharmacy medicinal plant garden is designed for education and highlights the historical uses of about 60 species of plants, most of them native to the Midwest and Great Plains region. It is strategically situated on the sunny south patio just outside the school’s café, where traffic is relatively high and close to ample parking, thus providing an opportunity for the public to see, touch, and smell these medicinal plants.
The pharmacy garden was designed by faculty, staff, undergraduate students, and graduate students of the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program, which studies the medicinal chemistry of plants native to the Midwest and Great Plains. The botany arm of the program is led by coauthor Kelly Kindscher, PhD, a senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey and a professor in the Environmental Studies Program at KU. An additional, larger research and demonstration garden is located on a 5-acre site off campus, just north of the city of Lawrence, Kansas, that is part of the KU Field Station.
“By creating the garden at the School of Pharmacy we can show the importance of native and wild plants as useful for medicine — both historically and for today,” Dr. Kindscher said. “And given that heritage of plants and their uses, it’s also been important to honor the traditional knowledge of Native Americans, who used all of these native species that were listed in the US Pharmacopeia and National Formulary.”
Funding for the establishment and initial care of the garden came from a $20,000, 3-year grant from Heartland Plant Innovations Inc., the primary funder for the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program. This funding covered costs associated with locating sources for and purchasing plant materials, as well as tools, soil amendments, and wages for students who maintain the garden.
An extensive, high-quality signage system includes a main informational panel, measuring approximately 2-by-3 feet, set directly across from the entrance into the café, which describes the purpose and historical basis for the garden. Each of 5 individually themed beds is explained with a smaller panel, and 4-by-6 inch signs provide information on each individual plant. The signage system, which makes the garden a true educational tool, was provided through the Gail Heim Memorial Fund (at KU Endowment, the university’s private foundation) for the School of Pharmacy. In addition to the signage presentation, which was designed with self-guided tours in mind, program faculty and staff have given personal tours of the garden to student and community groups.
“The medicinal garden has been a great addition to the school,” said Ken Audus, PhD, dean of the KU School of Pharmacy. “This outdoor classroom reminds our students of the significant role that nature plays in the study of pharmacy. It also serves as a resource for our researchers as they move to discover natural products that might someday be developed into drugs.”
Rooted in University History
A site for the garden was set aside at the request of Barbara Timmermann, PhD, principal investigator of the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program and chair of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry. The garden was included in the landscape plan of the new pharmacy building, which opened in 2010.
“A medicinal plant garden is an inherent component in schools of pharmacy and medicine in many parts of the world,” Dr. Timmermann said. “The garden complements my classroom teaching about medicinal plants, their biologically active components and their effects on human health. Pharmacy students get exposed to the real plants and learn to recognize them in their natural setting. As the discipline of pharmacognosy is no longer part of pharmacy curricula, I am able to introduce our students to the important role that plants have played in traditional and modern medicine.”
Dr. Timmermann was not the first KU faculty member to ask for a medicinal garden. Her request, and much of the research and other activity carried out through the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program, echoes the work of Lucius Sayre, the first faculty member and first dean of the KU School of Pharmacy.
Sayre came to the university in 1885 from Philadelphia. He studied the medicinal chemistry of plants, including Echinacea angustifolia (Asteraceae)2 and Ipomoea leptophylla (Convolvulaceae),3 native to the Great Plains. His study of Echinacea helped provide background and historical information for later research on E. angustifolia in the Kindscher lab, including study of its population structure4 and the sustainability of wild harvest in Kansas.5 Beginning in 1913, Sayre campaigned for the domestic commercial production of medicinal plants, particularly those suited to particular regional climates, to reduce US dependence on Europe for medicinal plants and other medicines:
“When we consider the many tons of these plants consumed in the United States in making preparations such as tinctures, fluid extracts and medicated plasters, it becomes evident that the supply, if furnished by our own country, would not only be a profitable undertaking, but would put us in an independent position.”6
Sayre also worked vigorously for the addition of a medicinal plant garden on campus and was turned down repeatedly.7 After visiting numerous pharmacy school medicinal plant gardens (including those in Philadelphia, Montana, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis) he noted how pleased he was to visit the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis medicinal plant garden because of its size and adjoining greenhouse.8 However, he expressed disappointment that KU would not allow the concept for a medicinal plant garden to come before the university legislature. As a result, the school would remain “… very backward in this most worthy enterprise.”7
The earliest known documentation in KU records of its first campus medicinal plant garden is from the March 1927 issue of the Graduate Magazine (forerunner of KU’s Kansas Alumni magazine9). The garden, known as the KU Drug Garden, was featured in a photograph with a caption listing the plants included. Sayre had died 2 years earlier; it is not known whether any garden was established during his lifetime.
Planning the Garden
Space for the current pharmacy garden, set aside in 2010 as part of the overall landscape for the new School of Pharmacy building, comprised three 5-by-10 foot beds. The botany staff who designed the garden requested additional space, consisting of a 3-foot-deep area along about 50 feet of the patio sidewalk. This made it possible to develop a scheme of 5 distinct beds with different themes.
The group believed it was important to feature plants with at least one of 2 key attributes: (1) those that would be of particular interest to pharmacy students and faculty, and (2) medicinal plants native to the region. Sourcing plants also was a factor in choosing species. Some were grown in the university greenhouse from seed that was collected from the wild or purchased from specialty suppliers. Others were transplanted from the program’s research garden or other parts of the KU Field Station. Some of the more traditional medicinal plants and those better known as culinary herbs were purchased.
Quinn Long, a botanist and ecologist with the Missouri Botanical Garden, worked with the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program for a year just after he completed his doctoral degree at KU. He was responsible for sourcing most of the plant material for the garden.
“While some of the species in the garden could be acquired readily from most neighborhood garden centers, others were much more difficult to track down,” Long said. “We received mature plant material from sources from Oregon to Ontario and many points in between. With some species, we could not find mature plant material anywhere despite our efforts, so we propagated these species from seed, much of which we harvested.”
Because the garden’s location is so prominent, the university expected the garden as a whole to be attractive immediately. This meant that most of the plants needed to be large enough to make a visual impact right away. But many native prairie plants spend their first year building root systems, and the plants themselves are not very full until at least their second growing season. Therefore, the botany staff had to consider both immediate visual impact and long-term educational value; ultimately, they chose to include some important prairie species, even if they knew those plants would be quite small in their first year.
Many themes were considered for the gardens, but the staff narrowed them to five because of limited space. To preserve the significant historical connection to Lucius Sayre’s work, 1 bed was dedicated to plants that had been included in the KU Drug Garden. However, due to legal issues, 2 important medicinal plants of Sayre’s time, namely opium poppies (Papaver somniferum, Papaveraceae) and Cannabis (Cannabis sativa, Cannabaceae), are not included in the new bed. Because of the garden’s connection to the School of Pharmacy, another bed is made up of native Midwest and Great Plains plants that have been included in the US Pharmacopeia and the National Formulary. A third bed is made up of tea (tisanes) and scented medicinal plants, many of which are better known as culinary herbs; three of the 14 species in this bed are mints (Lamiaceae) native to the Midwest and Great Plains. Finally, 2 beds are devoted to species in the genera Echinacea (purple coneflowers, Asteraceae) and Asclepias (milkweeds, Asclepiadaceae), respectively. Echinacea was selected because, historically and currently, it is the most important medicinal plant in Kansas and the region. Asclepias, on the other hand, was chosen because new medicinal plant compounds have been discovered in several species by the Timmermann laboratory.10,11 In addition, the bed is close to the butterfly garden maintained by Monarch Watch — another KU research program — which also emphasizes milkweeds because monarch caterpillars depend on their leaves for food.
Several students working with the medicinal plant program, including Kim Scherman, a senior in English and journalism at KU, were involved with the garden from its earliest design stages.
“It’s been inspiring and educational for me to see the pharmacy garden mature from an idea into the garden it is today,” Scherman said. “As a student assistant with the program, I have had a part in its development and maintenance — and I’ve seen just how many people it has affected. Students, faculty, staff, and community members were present for the public planting. To see their engagement and excitement about these plants made me proud of what we had created.”
“I’ve also had the pleasure of documenting this garden, taking pictures, and helping to develop the signage for each bed. It’s been a multimedia experience for me, and it has given me real-world experience in creating a garden from the ground up.”
While the prominent site of the garden adds to its visibility, it also presented challenges due to the heavy, sticky clay soils left behind from the pharmacy building construction project. Furthermore, the extremely high southern sun exposure is made even more intense by the reflective surfaces of the building itself and the concrete patio. As it happened, the first season, 2011, also was extremely hot and dry, but a heavy layer of mulch and vigilant watering by student assistants in the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program allowed most of the plants to make it through the first year safely.
Into Year Two
Even after only 1 year, the pharmacy garden has attracted the interest of students, the public, and the media, bringing positive attention to the School of Pharmacy and the university. Staff of the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program continue to receive requests for tours.
With regard to the maintenance of the garden, several of the plants in the bed honoring Lucius Sayre are annuals, such as cotton (Gossypium hirsutum, Malvaceae; likely included in the 1920s KU Drug Garden because of the use of cotton balls in the pharmaceutical profession). These annuals must be replaced each year and can be germinated from seed in the KU greenhouse. Mints, highly important medicinal plants in this garden, but also highly aggressive, naturally get out of bounds if not contained. Several species, such as E. angustifolia — the Great Plains plant most widely used for medicinal purposes by Native American tribes — tend to struggle in the clay soils of this new building site as they are just outside their native range, and therefore must be watched carefully. Overall, the plants are thriving in their second year and becoming well established. So far, there has been no vandalism.
Looking forward, members of the program plan to include a few additional species of particular interest, specifically those found to have medicinal value as revealed by new research findings in the program’s own chemistry research labs. The garden has been established as a permanent part of the campus landscape and will serve as an important tool for teaching about medicines and about university history for many years to come.
Kirsten Bosnak, MFA, MS, is communications coordinator for the Kansas Biological Survey and has made her living as a writer and editor for more than 20 years. A lifelong gardener and former public school teacher, she oversees the work of the students who care for the medicinal gardens at the School of Pharmacy and the KU Field Station.
Kelly Kindscher, PhD, is a senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey and a professor in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Kansas. He is an ethnobotanist, plant ecologist, and author of 2 books on prairie plants, as well as a passionate advocate for native plants and native landscapes.
Rachel Craft, MA, is a research assistant at the Kansas Biological Survey and a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Kansas. Her research interests include medical and environmental sociology, culture, media, and globalization.
Barbara N. Timmermann, PhD, joined the University of Kansas faculty in August 2005 as a University distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry in the School of Pharmacy following an academic career of almost 25 years at the University of Arizona. Since 2006, she has served as director of the NIH-funded Center for Cancer Experimental Therapeutics, a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence. She is the author or co-author of over 170 publications in peer-reviewed scientific literature and numerous research reviews, a co-editor of 2 proceedings volumes and 22 book chapters, and the co-author of the book Sesquiterpene Lactones: Chemistry, NMR and Distribution.
* Editor’s note: The first medicinal university plant garden still extant in its original location is the garden at the University of Padua in Italy, established in 1545. HerbalGram article available at: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue77/article3212.html
- Pharmacy Headquarters Bulletin: College of Pharmacy Edition. 1928;10.
- Sayre LE. Echinacea Roots. The Kansas Academy of Science. 1903;19:209-213.
- Sayre LE. Cucurbita foetidissima and Ipomea leptophylla. American Pharmaceutical Association Proceedings. 1985;43:299-302.
- Hurlburt DP. Population Ecology and Economic Botany of Echinacea angustifolia, a Native Prairie Medicinal Plant [dissertation]. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas; 1999.
- Price DH, Kindscher K. One hundred years of Echinacea angustifolia harvest in the Smoky Hills of Kansas, USA. Economic Botany. 2007;61:86-95.
- Sayre LE. Cultivation of medicinal plants in the United States: to meet the emergency caused by the European conflict. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. 1914;27:110-113.
- Sayre LE. The Cultivation of Medicinal Plants in the United States. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. 1916;28:133-136.
- Recalling the medicinal plant garden at the University of Minnesota News website. Available at: www1.umn.edu/news/features/2007/UR_130792_REGION1.html.
- The Pharmics Have a Garden. Graduate Magazine. 1927;(25):14.
- Araya JJ, Binns F, Kindscher K, Timmermann BN. Verticillosides A-M: polyoxygenated pregnane glycosides from Asclepias verticillata L. Phytochemistry. 2012;75:400-407.
- Araya JJ, Kindscher K, Timmermann BN. Cytotoxic Cardiac Glycosides and other compounds from Asclepias syriaca. J. Nat. Prod. 2012; 75(30):400-407.