“Wild Medicine” at The New York Botanical Garden
Reviewed by Everett Potter
Why do we travel? Among other reasons, to see the world, to escape, to find a perfect place to rest and perhaps adjust our attitudes. But there was a time when one of the noblest pursuits a traveler could have was to seek out and collect living plants or seeds, especially those that were believed to have a healing purpose. US Department of Agriculture inspectors might look askance at such souvenirs these days, but 400 years ago, this was how plant knowledge was transmitted.
Medicinal plants were the raison d’etre of the first botanical gardens, most famously the world’s oldest botanical garden, founded in 1545 in Padua, Italy. It still exists. But short of booking a flight to Italy, you can make a beeline for the Bronx this summer during the run of the the New York Botanical Garden’s Wild Medicine exhibit.
“Medicinal plants are of particular interest at the New York Botanical Garden,” said Gregory Long, CEO and President of the NYBG, at the exhibit’s press preview. “Thanks to the current popularity about farm to table, there is great popular interest in herbal medicine used by various peoples. Botanical gardens originated as places where medicinal plants were exhibited and people needed to look at these plants for identification purposes.”
Todd Forrest, Vice President for Horticulture and Living Collections at NYBG, took the connection between New York and Padua even further.
“When the New York Botanical Gardens were established in 1891,” Forrest said, “they were America’s answer to the great botanical gardens of Europe. They were modeled after Kew Gardens in London, and those gardens in turn were modeled after the gardens in Padua.”
Hence the Italian Renaissance Garden, a recreation of the botanical garden in Padua under the venerable glass ceilings of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. The NYBG is using a changing display of 500 flowers and plants to transport the visitor to Padua, including such well known plants as foxgloves, poppies and Echinacea. Some of these plants are well known, such as aloe, which is great for treating burns. But you might not know that dill is used for digestive disorders, that papaya is good for treating high blood pressure, and that day lilies have properties that include use as a diuretic and a sedative. But this is more than a well curated show of blossoms and foliage. This is, umm, serious medicine.
“There are some 30,000 plants worldwide that have been identified as having some medicinal properties, “ explained Michael J. Balick, vice president for Botanical Science at NYBG and curator of the exhibit, who has spent the better part of 30 years studying the connections between plants and people in the tropics, subtropics and desert environments. “There are also an estimate 4.5 billion people who use plants in some way for healthcare, whether its for skincare, diarrhea or a sore throat. About 25 percent of all drugs are derived from plants.”
The NYBG has set up ways stations in the exhibit to show the connections between plants and healing, sensibly going after some of the better known examples, such as fruit juices, tea and chocolate. Yes, chocolate. Which you can taste in its purest, bitterest form, before moving on to a slightly sweetened version that is considerably more palatable. Mayans thought that it boosted fertility, and used it as an aphrodisiac and to ease labor pains.
If there’s a jaw dropping visual aspect to the show, it’s Four Seasons, a courtyard installation of four sculptures by contemporary American artist Philip Haas. Standing more than 15 feet high and representing Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, the works are an homage to the 16th-century paintings of Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
Then step into the NYBG’s stately LuEsther T. Mertz’s Library, the world’s largest library devoted to botany and horticulture, where a carefully chosen exhibit of rare manuscripts and early printed works are the intelligent heart of the Renaissance Herbal. These are not only among the world’s earliest recorded descriptions of the plant kingdom; with the oldest tome dating to 1275, they are among the oldest known and printed works of any kind in both Western and Eastern civilizations. Among other uses, these books made sense of what explorers brought back from the New World.
One plant that seems especially appropriate for the 21st century is kava, found in the South Pacific. Dr. Balick, who has spent many years in the islands, says that kava is consumed when there is a conflict.
“If there was an issue or conflict, people would pound the kava and serve it in a traditional way, and talk about the problem,” said Dr. Balick, who explained that kava is effectively a sedative, not unlike valium. “You can’t have anger and anxiety under the influence of this.”
Wild Medicine is on display at the New York Botanical Garden from May 18 to September 8, 2013.
The New York Botanical Garden
2900 Southern Boulevard
Bronx, NY 10458-5126