In 2022 I learned about a medicinal garden in Indianapolis where plants with medicinal uses are grown as part of the content of the Indiana Medical History Museum. The garden is just now waking up for spring, and as I prepare to visit I’ve become intrigued by the published Guide to the Medicinal Plant Garden. This essay considers the guide’s emphasis on connecting garden plants to contemporary pharmaceutical treatments and the stakes of emphasizing these relationships for readers and visitors. The guide aims to instill an environmental ethic by connecting living garden plants to contemporary pharmaceuticals whose plant-derived compounds are not always widely known.
The Indiana Medical History Museum operates on the grounds of what was formerly the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane and, prior to that, the Indiana Hospital for the Insane. The museum campus includes a medicinal plant garden which opened in 2003 and is maintained by the Purdue Master Gardeners of Marion County; Kathleen Hull, MD, published a guide to the garden’s plants and their uses in 2021 which is available through the museum’s website. The guide begins with a disclaimer that its purpose is for “Demonstration – Not Prescription,” and the author notes the toxicity of many plants in the garden: this is not an herbal catalog recommending particular uses, though the text records many applications for the garden’s plants. The alphabetically-organized guide describes the demonstrative plant specimens chosen for this garden, which includes plants from many geographic regions. The text following each plant’s name includes information about its origins, cultural significance, historical uses, and contemporary uses.
In some entries the guide connects garden plants like European meadowsweet (pictured in the image above) and compounds in medicines like aspirin. I’m fascinated by the concise history of medicine offered in the entry for European meadowsweet, which begins by reaching back to Hippocrates’ recommendation of “powdered willow bark for relief of pain and fever.” While readers and visitors may not associate a flowering plant like European meadowsweet with willow trees, the entry explains that these plants contain the same effective substance and have similar medicinal uses.
The guide’s text describes the extraction of salacin from plant sources in 1828 and its conversion “into salicylic acid,” which was “used to treat colds, malaria, and arthritis.” A French chemist produced the less irritating substance acetyl-salicylic acid in 1853. In 1897, “[a] chemist at Friedrich Bayer & Co. in Germany came up with a new process for that acetylation” and patented it. As the entry further explains, “Bayer’s acetyl-salicylic acid was named Aspirin: ‘A’ for acetyl, ‘spirin’ for the European meadowsweet that was used as the source of salicin, honoring the plant’s scientific genus name, which at the time was Spirea.” This concise description contextualizes aspirin as the product of a live garden plant, inviting readers of this guide and visitors to the garden to imagine aspirin, or something akin to it, growing in the garden.
Of course, what is growing in the garden is not aspirin. It is the plant from which a component of aspirin was derived. But the connection between the plant and the pill encourages readers and visitors to see European meadowsweet anew and to imagine a familiar medicine emerging from an environmental context rather than a lab.
Historicizing contemporary pharmaceuticals like aspirin in relationship to garden plants might be interesting for those who already understand the vegetal histories of these compounds. Such an approach might be equally engaging for visitors who don’t yet know about the connection between substances like acetyl-salicylic acid and plants like meadowsweet, or the links between European meadowsweet and willow trees. As a reader of the guide who has not visited the garden, the text helps me anticipate seeing and differently valuing this particular plant species. Indeed, the guide’s introduction openly aims to lead readers to encounter the garden’s plants differently and to thereby develop a stronger sense of attachment to the environment more generally. I intend to visit the medicinal garden this spring. I wonder how the firsthand experience of its plants will impact my ideas about the guide’s content and this garden’s relationship to environmental ethics, colonial botany, seasonal patterns of growth and maturation in medical history, and ongoing medicinal practices. Stay tuned for the growing season.
Hull, Kathleen, MD. Guide to the Medicinal Plant Garden at the Indiana Medical History Museum. 2021. PDF published at imhm.org/garden.
Ryan Hodnett. Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) in Oslo, Norway. Wikimedia Commons.