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Pharmacy garden exhibits the roots, shoots and leaves of medicine

September 24, 2015 By David Tenenbaum

Photo: Black cohosh

Black cohosh is under investigation for relieving symptoms of menopause. The plant’s roots and rhizomes have been used for a wide range of purposes in traditional medicine, including sore throat, fatigue, malaria and rheumatism.

Photo: David Tenenbaum

View a pharmacy garden gallery

The garden of traditional medicinal plants at the entrance of Rennebohm Hall on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus shows the deep plant roots of pharmaceuticals, says former Dean Jeanette Roberts, a professor of pharmacy.

Roberts was the driving force behind the garden, which was planted at the front door of the School of Pharmacy in 2013. “The commercialization of medicinal plants is a hobby of mine, and I had been trying get a medicinal plant garden for many years. The garden beautifies the area, and it’s a real teaching tool.”

The historical lesson is clear: Many of the first active drugs originated in plants. The large class of painkillers in the opioid family are derived from the opium poppy — represented in the garden by a close relative.

Photo: Jeanette Roberts

Jeanette Roberts

Each of the two dozen or so plants in the garden carries a label referring to its “traditional” use. Garden valerian, for example, originates in Europe and Asia and is used traditionally as a tranquilizer.

The pharmacy garden was designed by Susanne Payne of Ken Saiki Design in Madison, with inspiration from Sylvia Janicki, a student intern and later employee who had been influenced by a UW–Madison course on the cultural uses of plants.

The present pharmacy garden is not UW–Madison’s first. In 1913, after a unanimous vote, the Wisconsin Legislature funded the first pharmaceutical experiment station in the nation at UW–Madison. As detailed in The Wisconsin Alumni magazine (December 1914), the gardens located at the present site of Eagle Heights apartments would have practical goals. “In accordance with the law, it is one of the prime duties of the station to investigate the problems involved in the cultivation of medicinal plants and the preparation of drugs therefrom.”

Funding for the experimental station ran dry during the Depression and the experimental station closed, but natural products research continues. Evolution is the ultimate reason for looking at nature for drug candidates. Organisms have evolved chemical solutions to some of the same problems that afflict humans, such as inflammation, cancer and infection.

Photo: Garden valerian

Garden valerian, a native of Europe and Asia, is used traditionally as a tranquilizer.

Photo: David Tenenbaum

Interest in the natural world as a promising source of drugs is cyclical, Roberts says. “At first, it was the terrestrial plant world; now it’s the marine world. Soil microbes are another huge field of interest.”

At the School of Pharmacy, Tim Bugni investigates compounds from bacteria living with marine invertebrates; Jason Kwan uses genetic approaches to identify bacteria that are difficult to grow; and Dean Steven Swanson is screening natural substances for anti-cancer activity.

Products isolated from most of the plants in the pharmacy garden have not been evaluated rigorously enough to reach the pharmacy shelves, although many are sold as nutritional supplements.

Traditional plant medicines are regarded by federal law as dietary supplements, “but unfortunately, the law does not do what I think needs to be done: placing responsibility on the dietary supplement industry for testing and for ensuring safety and efficacy,” Roberts says. “We are experimenting on ourselves. There is some good stuff, and some not-so-good stuff, and you have to figure it out yourself.”

In the meantime, Roberts wants to add some plants with solid evidence for efficacy to the collection. A prime example is foxglove, a native of Europe and Asia and the source of digitalis, which has been used to treat heart failure for more than 200 years.

Tags: drugs, plants