With a little help from its Friends —

The University's Medicinal Herb Garden
is a balm for all seasons

No matter the season, the University of Washington Medicinal Herb Garden delights the senses. Last winter the hellebores (Helleborus foetidus) composed a study in chartreuse under the sweeping gray trunks of the fig tree (Ficus carica). The blackened tips of huilmo (Sisyrinchium striatum) curled peacefully over their stalks like sleeping swans. And, winning first place in the strangeness category, pale green clumps of fuki (Petasites japonicus) resembled curious little cabbages poking out of the ground.

As spring overtakes the garden, all of its prodigious collection—everything from the familiar (Rosmarinus officinalis) to the esoteric (Erysimum scoparium, Canary Island cress)—demand attention. The Medicinal Herb Garden is a display site of over 600 species of herbs, shrubs, and trees associated with medicinal botany. It occupies two acres of the UW campus and is thought to be the largest garden of its type in the Western Hemisphere. Even so, itís one of the better kept secrets among local gardening resources.

Thatís not how it should be, but many people donít realize the Medicinal Herb Garden even exists unless they hear of it word-of-mouth or see the Friendsí booth at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. The "Friends of the University of Washington Medicinal Herb Garden" are volunteers who have taken it upon themselves to restore and maintain this little echo of Eden.

Their effort has been crucial to the survival of the garden, which gets minimal support from public funds. It has the services of the Botany Departmentís greenhouse manager, some work-study attention, and a watering system installed by the University, but much of the seasonal housekeeping is a collective labor of love.

The UW Pharmacy Department established the garden in 1911 as a student laboratory. By the 1940s the "Drug Plant Gardens" covered eight acres and employed 10 gardeners. Its director, Ludwig Metzger, had developed it to resemble the public gardens of Padua, Italy, one of the worldís earliest botanical displays. He even included replicas of that gardenís monkey guardians, a motif borrowed from Hindu tradition. Metzger investigated Native American plant uses, gathered local forest specimens, and expanded the collection with species from Europe and Asia.

Times change. In the era of pharmaceutical laboratories the Pharmacy Departmentís link with botanicals seemed a quaint anachronism. In 1980 they turned the Drug Garden over to the Botany Department and dropped its maintenance staff. The garden fell through one of the funding cracks and might have disappeared under the weeds if it hadnít had a few friends.

The Friends of the Medicinal Herb Garden formed in 1984 "to preserve, maintain, and improve this historical garden for all to visit...." They renovated beds, conducted tours, published a newsletter, and sponsored educational events—leaving them too busy to seek publicity.

Times still change. Ironically, the energetic renewal of interest in medicinal herbs has happened just as the Friends have undergone attrition and burnout. Last winter a marathon series of phone calls yielded enough donations to forestall financial collapse, for the moment. But the tours, classes, and plant labeling and monitoring await renewed support.

As spring growth accelerates, so does the need for maintenance. The Friends organize frequent work parties for weeding, deadheading, and mulching. These, said one volunteer, are "wonderful opportunities to get acquainted with ... herbs and how to tend them. These occasions attract gardeners versed in horticulture, herbalism, and historical lore who share their experiences and knowledge."

New Friends are welcome; there are always beds to renovate and tend. So pay a visit, and get chummy with Marrubium vulgare, Tussilago farfara and Tanacetum parthenium (Horehound, Coltís-foot and Feverfew).

Seattle Tilth newsletter, April 1997 — ©1997 Ruth Pettis

Learn more about:
University of Washington's Medicinal Herb Garden -- Seattle Tilth Association

The Friends of the University of Washington Medicinal Herb Garden can be reached at:
FMHG, c/o Botany Department, University of Washington, Box 355325, Seattle, WA 98195-5325
For a recorded message on upcoming events call: (206) 543-1126

Return to: Resume: Ruth M. Pettis -- Traditional Herbs

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