APOTHECARY IN THE ARBOR
A physician is inherently a gardener.To be in the medical field is to cultivate patience, diligence, understand the impact of environment, have scientific enquiry and rejoice in nature. Ancient literature in every culture describes the “healer” in society as an individual also well versed in the medicinal qualities of plants.
We have three primary sources of ancient botanical information – the Indian, Chinese and Western.The first written record of medicinal plantswas created by Sumeriansof Mesopotamia on clay tablets. TheEbersPapyrus from ancient Egypt circa 1550 BCdescribe garlic, frankincense, aloe, henna.Sushruta Samhita written in 6th century BC mentions 700 medicinal plants, including ashwagandha, turmeric,tulsi. Plants were also referenced in the earlier Charaka Samhitaand Atharva Veda.Chinese medicine lists astragulus, gingko,liqourice, dong quai. The Mayans, Polynesians, Arab, African civilizations were also aware of therapeutic properties – knowledge unfortunately lost with passage of time.
200 years ago, all botanists or “herbalists”, as they were called, were physicians. In early Renaissance all medical schools in Europe were required to have a medicinal garden, cultivation of these being part of the curriculum.Appropriate usage of herbs has been an integral part of Ayurvedic medicine and their action on various “doshas” are described in infinite detail.
Gardening as anendeavor has its benefits on mind and body; increasing physical activity, reducing the risks of strokes and heartattacks, decreasing childhood obesity, providing exposure to Vitamin D, improving mood,combating loneliness, not to mention the edible returns. Twentypercent of VAfacilities have therapeutic horticultural program for treatmentof PTSD.Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of Declaration of Independence, helped found theCollege of Physicians in Philadelphia urged College Fellows to maintain a medicinal garden – his advice finally taken in 1937 with the establishment of the Benjamin Rush Medicinal Garden. Even Kama Sutra describes the ideal wife and exhorts her to maintain a “Vatika,” an indoor garden of fruits, vegetables and herbs.
The compounds found in plants are of manykinds, but the common biochemical classes are alkaloids, glycosides, polyphenols and terpines. In the 19th century, with the advent of chemical analysis, the active substance could be extracted.Commercial extraction from plantsincluding morphine began in 1826 by Merck, Synthesis of substancesfirst isolated in a plant began withsalicylic acid in 1853.
A medicinal herb garden can be a relatively easy and fulfilling enterprise. It can be created on a balcony, terrace, patio, or even indoors in aterrarium. Most medicinal herbs grew in the wild, hence once planted in healthy soil, with a modicum of attention to sunlight,temperature and water, do not need the extraordinary care of say a vegetable garden, and often do surprising well with benign neglect.
Five easy medico- culinary plants would be the Aloe plant- asucculent- the fresh gel like sap from the leaf could be directly applied to cuts and burns and at times consumed as a nutritious drink. It can be grown indoors. A close second is the Tulsi, or the holy basil plant, considered sacred, its leaves and flowers can be simmeredwith tea as a stress reliever. The plant dies off in the winter, but usually self-propagates from seeds in summer.
The fragrant and robust Curry plant acts as a carminative and digestant and isused in almost all Indian cooking along with the universal Cilantroor Coriander a delicate and decorative herb that contains certain antimicrobial properties,therefore good as a raw food accompaniment, its seeds helping to lower blood sugar according to Ayurveda.
Ginger, and the spice that has taken the world by storm -Turmeric- easy rhizomes that can be grown in pots with roots harvested year after year, turmeric showing proven anti- inflammatory properties.
Mint- peppermint, spearmint -good for nausea, nasal congestion and a tasty herb to boot, is prolific in its growth.
An ambitious gardener may venture into creating the Medicinal Wheel of Native Americans. Other medicinal plants providing visual delight would be calendula blooms, the poor man’s saffron – used to make cosmetic and anti-spasmodicformulations, vincas – from whichvincristine and vinblastine were derived, poppy, its beauty belying the relief and ravagewrought by the species, foxglove of digitalis fame.
Neem, the king of medicinal plants, every part of it being usedcommercially like the coconut palm, would be beyond the scope of the casual gardener as would be the Pacific Yew (Taxol), Podophyllum species (Etoposide),Camphotheca- (Topotecan).
Forgive me if I have not mentioned your favorite medicinal plant- they are too numerous to enumerate. In this bruising year of Covid, gardening offers hope that nature will provide us the cure for the novel corona virus; paraphrasing the words of Voltaire in his famous novel Candide- “For now, I shall seek solacein cultivating my garden”.