Garden Visit: The U.S. National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

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The National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

A stroll through the secluded campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland is an otherworldly experience. First, there’s the security, then there are the imposing, mainly windowless limestone buildings towering hundreds of feet in the air. I stopped by NIH late last week to visit a little known but remarkable garden. Located directly across the parking lot from the world’s largest biomedical library, it is known as the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) Herb Garden was established in 1976 as part of NIH’s Bicentennial celebration. Initially composed of low borders of boxwood, lavender and thyme, the garden has since grown to include over 100 flowering herbs. Meticulously arranged in symmetrical rows and beds, the plants bear silent testament to the healing power of nature and the integral role it has played in the development of modern medicine over time.

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View of the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

The first thing you notice upon entering the space is a large Indian totem pole located at the far end of the garden. A part of the NLM’s new Native Voices exhibit, it was carved by Jewell Praying Wolf James of the Lummi Nation from western red cedar found in Washington State. The totem, which symbolizes and promotes good health and healing, is the main focal point of the garden . Its colors also have deep meaning.

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Totem pole is focal point at the NIH Herb Garden

Flanking the totem pole are two ‘story-telling’ benches, also carved from western red cedar. The bench on the right side of the totem depicts the Salish traditional story of the Bear and the Steelhead, which teaches respect for nature and the natural cycles of life.

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NLM Native American sculpture ‘The Bear and the Steelhead’

The bench on the left side of the totem depicts the Salish traditional story of the Raven and the Sun. The story tells of how at great pain, the Raven delivered the sun, moon, stars and fire to humanity and how we humans should treasure them as essential to our survival.

NLM bench 'The Raven and the Sun'

NLM Native American sculpture ‘The Raven and the Sun’

Nicholas Culpeper’s World-Famous Herbal Guide To Radiant Health (see jacket, below)

Among the nearly 20 million books, journals, manuscripts, audiovisuals, and other forms of medical information on its library shelves, the NLM considers Culpepers’s Complete Herbal  to be a primary source for information on herbs and herbal medicine. Written over 350 years ago by Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54), the guide contains a wealth of pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge, including a listing of herbs and their properties, many of which can be found in the garden.

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Culpeper’s master work, The Complete Herbal

Culpeper was a 17th century physician and herbalist who spent much of his life outdoors gathering and cataloguing medicinal herbs. Although he studied medicine at Cambridge, he abandoned a traditional practice in order to provide low-cost health services to the poor.  He believed that no man should have to ‘starve’ to pay a physician.

Mikania micrantha growing wild in the forest 

Culpeper saw plenty of suffering around him. So, he sourced his medicines from the surrounding countryside, which enabled him to offer the bulk of his services for free.

He wrote,

This not being pleasing, and less profitable to me, I consulted with my two brothers, Dr. Reason and Dr. Experience, and took a voyage to visit my mother Nature, by whose advice, together with the help of Dr. Diligence, I at last obtained my desire; and, being warned by Mr. Honesty, a stranger in our days, to publish it to the world, I have done it.”

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Considered a radical in his time, Culpeper’s  herbal medicine practice and writings on the subject proved to be a thorn in the side of his fellow physicians. Moreover, Culpeper believed that expensive fees and the use of Latin by doctors kept power and freedom from the general public.  He shocked the establishment by publishing the Complete Herbal and other works in vernacular English so that everyone could read them.

Today, it is widely believed that Culpeper’s systemization of the use of herbals was a key development in the evolution of modern pharmaceuticals.

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Up close in the NIH Herb Garden with Verbena bonariensis in the background

A sample of some of Culpeper’s cures using various plants and flowers can be found on the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden website. Readers are cautioned, however, from attempting any of the remedies at home since they have not been officially proven to work. Following are just a few plants whose curative properties caught my eye in the garden.

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)  USES:  Diaphoretic, immunostimulant and tonic.

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Boneset

Cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans)   USES: To reduce inflammation and treat sore mouths and ulcers. It also can be applied to painful joints.

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Cinquefoil

Goldenrod (Solidago Canadensis)   USES: Mild diuretic and treatment for urinary tract inflammation and kidney stones.

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Goldenrod

African Blue Basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum x O. basilicum ‘Dark Opal’)  USES: Reduces fever and treats skin infections.

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African Blue Basil

Comfrey, Knitbone (Symphytum Officionale)  USES:  A healing plant for broken bones, wounds and ulcers.

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Comfrey, also known as Knitbone

Here was a surprise. Although I am aware that Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis, can be somewhat toxic, I didn’t know it can also kill rats.

Lenten Rose

Finally, I certainly didn’t know that Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) can be used topically for wounds, cuts and abrasions and is also good for allergic mucus problems including hay fever. I may try it out!

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Yarrow

These are just a very few of the many interesting and beautiful flowering herbs to be found at the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden. The garden is maintained by the Montgomery County Master Gardeners and the Potomac Chapter of the Herb Society of America. For more information on the garden and how to get there, click here for the website.

 

2 thoughts on “Garden Visit: The U.S. National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

  1. I love this. I am one of the master gardeners that works the garden every Monday morning. Your appreciation is rewarding. Dee

    • Hi Dee, I’m so glad you like the article. I loved the garden and only wish more people knew about it. Such a quiet oasis in a busy city. And a rich history to boot! Best, Carole

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