Flaxseed, ginkgo, milk thistle–these recognizable names can likely be found at any grocery store. They are herbal supplements or plants that are used for medicinal purposes. Whether their purpose is to treat anxiety or soothe a fever, herbal medicine is nothing new. This practice has been around for ages. The plants that produce these medicines can be found in the backyard of UW-Madison’s School of Pharmacy.
The gleaming rays of the sun illuminate the bright orange Oriental poppy, a flower from western Asia closely related to the opium poppy. This was once the source for pain-relieving opiate drugs. The poppies appear insignificant next to the towering, wild red barberry bush. Between the faded green and purple leaves sit vibrant red berries which have been used as anti-inflammatory agents.
This radiant garden thriving on the edges of Rennebohm Hall, home to the School of Pharmacy, may be small in stature, but what it lacks in size it makes up in herbal healing power. Almost every plant in the garden possesses some element that can be used as an herbal remedy. The root and lavender flower of the tall, thin Joe-Pye weed is used to ease urinary problems, as well as kidney stones, rheumatism, gout and even fevers. Just like this single weed alone, the numerous other species in the garden can be used to treat many illnesses.
The purpose of the garden is to aid in the teaching and research of herbal medicine. “[It’s] a nice and educational little garden,” said Jeanette Roberts, professor of pharmaceutical sciences and former Dean of the School of Pharmacy. In 2013, Roberts was one of the driving forces behind the garden.
“The garden can supplement curricular content about the history of pharmacy, as well as weave into our elective class on herbs, supplements, and the like,” said Roberts, “Students can trace the history of pharmacy as they walk through the garden...” Many of the plants in the garden have been used historically in medicine. Years ago, the opium poppy was a mainstream painkiller.
The garden also highlights significant cultural uses of herbal medicine. Out of the two dozen plants in the garden, most have a label that paints a picture of its traditional use. The postings also give information about the origin of the plant. The different uses give students a deeper insight into world cultures.
According to Roberts, the garden contains “some of the classic plants that gave us medicines that we still use today,” as well as “some of the medicinal plants that have been the sources of popular products on the dietary supplement market.” The wide variety of plants in the garden is useful for the many variations of emerging pharmacy research.
Not only is this garden a teaching tool, but it also serves as a stunning piece of foliage artwork. The garden was designed by Susanne Payne of Ken Saiki Design in Madison. Much of the inspiration came from Sylvia Janicki, an employee influenced by a course at UW-Madison regarding the cultural uses of plants. The curved pathways and raised flower beds provide a serene walk to class for the pharmacy students.
At the core of the garden stands an “R” carved out of stone. This letter resembles the original sign that marked Rennebohm’s Pharmacy. Oscar Rennebohm was the 32nd governor of Wisconsin from 1943 – 1947. He was also a renowned pharmacist and owner of the drugstore chain that holds his namesake. Rennebohm was an advocate of pharmacy research in the state of Wisconsin. The stone logo still stands protruding from a patch of leafy green vine to commemorate Rennebohm and his contributions.
However, this is not the first pharmacy garden to grace the landscape of UW. More than 100 years ago, in 1913, a garden was started at the Wisconsin Pharmaceutical Experiment Station. This was the first pharmacy garden in the nation. The pharmaceutical station still stands today, now called the Zeeh Pharmaceutical Experiment Station, and is currently contributing developed treatments for nosebleeds and similar breakthroughs.
The Zeeh station and the School of Pharmacy are continuously looking for new herbal medicines and additions to the garden. As pharmacy research grows at UW, so will the pharmacy garden in front of Rennebohm Hall.