Medicinal Plants News

07.12.05 10:47 Age: 13 yrs

Nature’s Pharmacy: The Healing Power of Plants


An Exhibit at the Conservatory of Flowers, San Francisco

(From 2005)

Interview with Lisa Van Cleef, Curator of Education

Flora Delaterre: Congratulations on a fantastic exhibit about medicinal plants. Why did the Conservatory of Flowers choose medicinal plants to focus on?

Lisa Van Cleef: We’re interested in exhibits that get people to see their connection with plants, and see the value of them. Medicinals are plants people are aware of--their power to heal. After all, so much of the world still uses plants for medicine. We were interested in helping people reestablish a connection and a sense of respect for the power of plants.

Flora: Can you describe the exhibit, for someone who hasn’t been there yet?

LVC: We divided our exhibit space into four outdoor marketplaces–markets in Africa, Asia, North America, and South America. There are stalls with awnings, and you can even hear the sounds of the markets. Each has displays of pharmaceuticals derived from plants, soaps, beauty products, bowls of the actual herbs. . . . In Africa, for example, you’ll find yohimbe, and a big display about aloe vera. In the Asia and Pacific Islands marketplace, there’s information about Happy Tree [Camptotheca], Dong Quai, Astragalus, and Ginger. There’s a big rubberized model, about 5 feet by 7 feet, of Camptotheca. And a living tree next to it. Some of the other living plants on display include Camphor and Noni.

Flora: You have several of these large models of plant parts in the exhibit. They look cool. What’s the idea behind them?

LVC: Yes, we chose several important and interesting plants for the models: Happy Tree, Pepper [Capsicum], Calabar, and Devils Club. The models are visually stimulating and draw people’s attention.

Flora: Who made them?

LVC: Museum fabricators we use in Seattle.

Flora: Why the marketplace metaphor?

LVC: It was a way to present the topic in a way people relate to. After all, it’s how these products are actually sold in most of the world. And look at us now in the U.S. We’re actually going back more and more to outdoor markets.

Flora: There’s also information in the exhibit about how some of the plants are actually processed?

LVC: Yes. For example, there’s a graphic display of aloe and how it’s processed. The exhibit on opium also shows that, and yew, or taxol. Like, with yew, they’re able to get the same compounds they need now from needle clippings, as opposed to cutting down the whole tree.

Flora: I know. That’s so great. What has the response been so far to the exhibit?

LVC: Really exciting. People get it, they make the connections. Traffic to the Conservatory of Flowers has increased tremendously. It’s summer now, and we’re seeing a lot of summer camp kids and just people in general.

Flora: You yourself have been taking some people through the exhibit, correct? All different kinds of folks. Do you hear stories of people’s own families and medicinal uses of plants within them?

LVC: Oh yeah. You know, we have such a multicultural area. The Asian kids point at familiar stuff. Mexican kids say, No, aloe isn’t African. It’s Mexican. [Aloe’s indigenous to southern Africa, but now it grows all over the world.] Everyone has a personal connection, a healing story.

Also, they’re surprised by the pharmaceuticals–some of them very familiar products. They’re surprised that plants are in those, too.

Flora: Are you suggesting to people who see the exhibit anything they can do about conservation?

LVC: Yes. That’s part of our mission. One thing we’re suggesting is to be a conscious consumer. For example, use shade-grown coffee. Be conscious about your use of oil and gas, and plastics. The rainforest is being torn up for consumer products. There’s a display about these kinds of things as people leave the exhibit.

Flora: I’m really impressed that the exhibit embraces the complexities of medicinal plants. I mean, calabar can kill as well as heal. The double-edged sword of opium. The way we almost used yew up, till we found alternative sources. You also include many lesser known plants, like devils club and dong quai. Did a panel of phytomedicinal experts put the show together?

LVC: No, just our staff and the design team, with consultation from people in the area, including doctors.

Flora: That’s great. Did it take a long time to plan it out?

LVC: About 6 months. That’s shorter than a lot of the exhibits we do.

Flora: I was also impressed by the glossary you have for people to take with them as they go through the exhibit. How does that work?

LVC: There are so many medical and health terms that you have to use when you’re talking about medicinal plants. We wanted to make sure that people don’t walk away from the exhibit without knowing the information, just because they didn’t understand certain terms. So we collected them onto these 11"x17" laminated cards. There are a couple dozen available for people to use while they’re there.

Flora: When you were designing the exhibit, it seems you gave a lot of thought to visitor participation--how to actually get people involved.

LVC: Yes we did, because it always helps to get people engaged–especially kids. So for example, you can pull a lever and see calabar’s effect on glaucoma. In the pepper exhibit, there’s a way for visitors to judge the impact of hot peppers.

Flora: Now, you’ve had some lectures, too, associated with the exhibit?

LVC: We had Mark Plotkin. People gave him a standing ovation. And Denise Hsu, talking about seasonal allergies and Chinese medicine. Also, Karyn Sanders; she does the radio show The Herbal Highway, about California herbs and healing. And the herbalist and author Michael Tierra . . . .

We also had four hands-on workshops, where people actually made medicines. One was called “Kitchen Cosmetics,” cosmetics you can make yourself. In another they made cough syrup and a remedy for headache. We also had “Herbal First Aid” and another workshop on healing with tropical plants–after all, that’s our specialty [the Conservatory of Flowers], tropical plants. All of the workshops sold out. They were great. We cleared out space in some of our greenhouses and had them there.

Flora: Tell us about the Conservatory of Flowers. It’s an old museum, right?

LVC: Yes, 125 years old, to be exact. Actually, though, we just reopened 20 months ago after our roof got blown down in 1996. For 8 years we were closed.

Flora: Well congratulations on reopening–and on the good work you all did in “Nature’s Pharmacy.” It’s a great way to help medicinal plants.

LVC: Thanks.

Images above (all by Kevin J. Frest) from "Nature's Pharmacy" exhibit. Plant model pictured: Capsicum.