'Renaissance Garden' Highlights Medicinal Plants

This summer, the New York Botanical Garden is featuring an exhibit called Wild Medicine: Healing Plants around the World. The most beautiful and interesting part is a small scale recreation of the 16th century Italian Renaissance Garden at Padua, the site of one of the earliest and most important medical schools. (This piece originally aired on Weekend Edition on July 6, 2013.)

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The New York Botanical Garden has a summer exhibit called Wild Medicine: Healing Plants Around The World. It includes a small-scale recreation of the 16th century Italian Renaissance Garden at Padua. NPR's Margot Adler recently got a look, a smell and even a taste.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: The Renaissance Garden overwhelms you with its beauty. There are flowers in multiple colors and fountains and odd plants that many people have never seen like the opium poppy with its unusual seed pods. The garden in Padua was created in 1545 as part of the medical school, one of the earliest and most important medical schools in Europe. I walked around the Renaissance Garden with Gregory Long, president and CEO of the New York Botanical Garden.

GREGORY LONG: The medical school in Padua started in 1222, so the medical school by the middle of the 16th century had developed to the point where they had collected plants, plants had come into Venice from all over the world, and they were interested to study their medical uses and to get it right.

ADLER: Medicinal plants are used by every culture around the world. Long says some 25 percent of our modern medicines are based on compounds that were originally derived from plants, and only about 1 percent of plants have actually been tested for what medicinal properties they may contain. Long says the garden at Padua was really a laboratory.

LONG: To see what would be effective and what would not. And, of course, plants are sometimes poisonous, too, so you have to be very careful. And sometimes a very good plant that's very helpful to you is poisonous if you take too much.

ADLER: You enter the garden through a gate with rules etched in stone. In Padua, they are in Latin. Here, they're in English, like don't pick the flowers, don't stray from the path. Inside, there's Pacific yew, where taxol, used in chemo treatments for cancer originally comes from. There's aloe and foxglove. And looking at some of the maps of the larger exhibit, I notice a place for marijuana. Do you have any here, I ask Long?

LONG: The state of New York didn't mind too much. They thought it was probably be all right, but I think it would have been illegal in the eyes of the federal government. So we didn't want to put our staff in that position.

ADLER: So you can read about it in the wild plants exhibit, but there's none to look at. Visitors to the garden are looking and smelling. Gregory Long asks me to smell some valerian, which was often used as a sedative and sleep aid.

LONG: Have a whiff of that.

ADLER: Mm.

LONG: It's marvelous.

ADLER: Oh, it's very subtle, actually. Mm.

LONG: Valeriana officinalis, it treats insomnia, anxiety, confusion, migraines and depression.

ADLER: We come across an herb ashwagandha. Many Indian visitors who come here bend down to touch the leaves. It supposedly reduces stress.

LONG: Would you like to rub the leaf? It prevents stress from entering your body.

(LAUGHTER)

ADLER: Absolutely. Mm.

LONG: If that doesn't work, we'll give you a cup of valerian tea.

(LAUGHTER)

ADLER: Besides the Renaissance Garden, there are fabulous statues of the four seasons in the style of the Italian Renaissance artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a gallery of Renaissance herbals are there as well as stations where you can sample teas, citrus juices. And here, my favorite, you can see how chocolate is made from cacao.

Mm. Oh, my God, it's just exactly like chocolate. Just no sugar.

FRANCISCA COELHO: Yeah. Yeah. And I mean...

ADLER: It's sort of like, you know, the most bittersweet bits when you get them in the store.

Francisca Coelho designed the installation of the Renaissance Garden here. She says of these plants...

COELHO: You don't even have to take any of them. You can just come and view them and smell them and appreciate them.

ADLER: So just being here in beauty, she says, will relieve stress and give you health benefits. I don't doubt it. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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