Medicinal Garden Sees Through ‘Plant Blindness’

The sweet aroma of a medicinal garden easily overpowers that known feeling of stepping into a bakery. 

The Medicinal Garden is nestled outside a greenhouse on the University of St. Thomas campus in St. Paul. Run by biochemistry professor Dr. Amy Verhoeven and greenhouse manager Catherine Grant, the garden features more than 70 plant species. ThreeSixty tagged along on a tour of their classroom-sized outdoor herbal garden.  

The purpose of the garden is to raise awareness about improved botanical gardening in the community and the benefits of the many herbs grown there. 

St. Thomas greenhouse manager Catherine Grant sniffs an herb growing in a garden plot. (ThreeSixty/Christine Nguyen)

“We’re really divorced from where everything comes from, where our clothing comes from, where our food comes from and where our medicines come from,” Grant said. “So the garden (addresses) the sort of plant blindness that we have.”  

The Medicinal Garden exists not just for actual research, but also for the immersion experience. It offers college students the chance to be more open to the usage of plants in their day-to-day life. 

“I’ve noticed among my students that many of them use herbal supplements when they didn’t used to,” Grant said. She noted, however, that these days people can  be labeled a “wacko” if they talk about using herbs and essential oils. Grant believes having more medicinal gardens will help younger generations understand the link between plants and medicines. 

The garden is split into four plots: 

  • Native American, including herbs such as tobacco, coneflower and bloodroot 
  • Modern Pharmaceutical, such as the opium poppy and the highly toxic foxglove flower
  • Traditional Herbal, such as jasmine and lemon balm  
  • Modern Herbal Supplements, including St. John’s wort and marshmallow 
Dr. Amy Verhoeven shows off a sprig of lemon balm. (Courtesy Jacqueline Martinez)

According to Verhoeven, a diet rich in plant material prevents a lot of health disorders that modern medicine tries to solve. 

As the cost of modern medicines, including insulin, consistently increase, Grant said it can be beneficial for Americans to start changing their habits. For example, according to the Health Care Cost Institute, the average daily price of insulin increased from $7.80 in 2012 to $15 in 2016. By planting or helping communities with gardens, people can experience a healthier lifestyle and possibly limit the use of expensive medications. 

“There’s a lot of links between diet and disease,” Grant said. “You know, the increasing amount of diabetes, cardiovascular disease — even things like cancer and inflammatory diseases — are tied to poor diets.” 

But the garden isn’t just about promoting a healthy lifestyle. Verhoeven is a strong supporter of biophilia, the belief that humans have a special connection to nature. She said people have been separated from plants, but not in a literal sense. People spend their daily lives surrounded by flowers, trees and grasses, yet seldom acknowledge the vegetation that keeps them alive.  

Verhoeven said medicinal gardens offer an opportunity to bring back the appreciation of nature before it’s lost in the future. 

“There’s a long tradition in nature writing to think that you have to go to Yosemite or Yellowstone or really seek wilderness,” Verhoeven said. “But you can actually find that connection to nature in very simple ways. In this little tiny garden, you do find a connection with nature.” 

Verhoeven said that in the end, botanical gardening should be about kicking back and having fun.