Medicinal Plants with Magical Properties

The outdoor medicinal garden at St. Thomas has plants to treat just about every disease you can name: Madagascar periwinkle and evening primrose for diabetes; coneflower for the cold and flu; and lovage to improve digestion. Many of them have strong herbal scents, like harvested chamomile.  

Dr. Amy Verhoeven and Catherine Grant pose in the greenhouse next to coneflowers (left) and other herbs. (ThreeSixty/Christine Nguyen)

On a September day, Dr. Amy Verhoeven and Catherine Grant ran through the list of plants in the garden. Sitting at a picnic table, Verhoeven and Grant stopped to pick some leaves from the four flower beds of about 70 varieties of plants, as a warm rain fell. 

Here plants aren’t only for decoration. The garden is an educational space on campus that serves to inspire students’ interests in plants’ medicinal properties. Recently, a group of 75 students came through for a visit. 

“They came out here, and they wanted to smell everything,” said Grant, the greenhouse manager. “But a lot of them were just genuinely interested in how ( they) can work with plants. It warms my heart.”  

Grant is in charge of upkeep in every season. She orders plants and knows every single one of them individually. The garden is organized by categories: Native American medicinal plants, modern pharmaceutical plants, modern herbal supplements and traditional medicinal plants. Grant said a majority of the plants in the garden have proven medicinal properties.  

Verhoeven studied biochemistry as an undergrad at the University of Iowa because she liked chemistry and biology. She got interested in medicinal plants because they combine both of those disciplines. She wanted to build the garden in 2016 for her Plants, Food and Medicine class. Students, she said, frequently want to be in the medical field, but are quick to dismiss the healing powers of plants. She said the class and Medicinal Garden are good ways to make students realize plants are important for your dietary health and not only as medicine. 

And, for some, it’s a calming hobby to have. 

“I have a professor who (teaches) computer science. He’ll text me or email me and say, ‘Do you need anybody to help?’” Verhoeven said. “He just says, ‘This is just so peaceful for me and it makes me feel good. I’ll go back to my computer now.’ 

“And I think it’s like that for a lot of the students.” 

Students get interested in plants in different ways. Students who were inspired by research papers about how opium synthesizes morphine came down to the Medicinal Garden to learn more about the poppies. That’s what the Medicinal Garden is intended to be — a resource for those seeking to learn more about plants. 

They also have mandrakes, which were referenced in the Harry Potter books and movies.  

No, they don’t actually scream when you pull them out of the pot, as seen in the movies, but their roots are big. Some grow to be as big as a baby. Europeans used to believe these roots were special because of their shape. They were traditionally used for anxiety and sleep problems. 

Greenhouse Manager Catherine Grant shows some different plant varieties to students Austin Kuo and Jacqueline Martinez. (Courtesy Christine Nguyen)

All these plants have a history of being used as medicine. Grant said in the traditional medicinal plant bed, they have many flowers with European origins. Verhoeven pointed out how many of the plants originally had officinalis in their scientific Latin names because in medieval Europe monastery-run pharmacies, called officinaes, used these particular plants for their strong medicinal properties. Examples of officinalis plants include sage, lavender and oregano. 

There are many things to learn in the Medicinal Garden, but it’s still an outdoor garden. The public can hang out in the garden on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m 

They also face the same problems as normal gardens 

“Rabbits,” Grant said with a smile. “That’s why there’s this elaborate block on the rabbit entry.”  

She paused: “Seems like it hasn’t worked.”