Sacred Seeds, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the William L. Brown Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden and NewChapter, Inc., is preserving plant species and knowledge in gardens across the world. Collaborating with local experts and medicinal plant and herb enthusiasts, Sacred Seeds helps research and plan gardens featuring useful medicinal plants native to each garden’s respective area.1
“[We] keep these plants around by keeping them with the people that use them,” said Ashley Glenn, program manager of Sacred Seeds (oral communication, July 13, 2011). “[It’s] a living museum.”
The first Sacred Seeds garden was established at Finca Luna Nueva, an eco-lodge and organic farm nestled in the Costa Rican rainforest. The Sacred Seeds Sanctuary, or Santuario Semillas Sagradas as it is known, consists of more than 300 species of tropical medicinal plants, making it one of the largest collections of such plants in the new world. The mission of the Sacred Seeds Sanctuary is to protect Costa Rican biodiversity and celebrate the cultural significance of endangered plant species.2
“Think of the garden as a living encyclopedia of ethnobotany, growing larger every day when grandmothers come and tell us how they, in their village, work with these healing botanicals,” wrote Steven Farrell, president of Finca Luna Nueva, in the preface of Plants of Semillas Sagradas: An Ethnomedicinal Garden in Costa Rica.3
Ellen Zimmerman, founder of the Austin School of Herbal Studies, relates personally to Sacred Seeds’ mission. “I have a philosophy of using what is grown in our own environment, what grows native, or what we can cultivate ourselves,” she said (oral and e-mail communication, July 18-24, 2011). “My choice is to use the medicine from the source, from the plant itself.”
Zimmerman, who recently visited the Sacred Seeds Sanctuary in Costa Rica, described it as a magical experience. Ten gardens later, Sacred Seeds is continuing to inspire garden visitors and protect biodiversity in ecosystems around the world, from the grasslands of Madagascar to the Appalachian oak-pine forests of Vermont.
The American Botanical Council (ABC) is in the early stages of planning what will become Sacred Seeds’ 12th foundational garden. As with previous foundational gardens, the focus of ABC’s garden will be on local plants with medicinal value, in this case, plants native or naturalized to the Austin, Texas area.4
“What we want to do with the ABC garden is, not only express how Mexican-Americancommunities have adapted their traditions … but [to choose] … plants [that] remind them of home,” said Glenn. “Plants are a huge part of their identity. It is with every culture. People who visit ABC can see a living piece of Mexican-American culture.”
Although the garden is still in the research phase, a preliminary list of plants to be included in the ABC garden has been created.5 The garden will likely include prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica, Cactaceae), a plant native to Texas and the American Southwest. The edible leaves of the hardy prickly pear have blood sugar-regulating properties, and the fruit has been shown to reduce cholesterol.6 Mullein (Verbascum thapsus, Scrophulariaceae), used folklorically for respiratory relief, and plaintain (Plantago major, Plantaginaceae), an edible plant with some topical benefits, are also on the list of possible plants.7 Both plants were naturalized from European sources, but they grow well in the Texas climate.
Armando Gonzalez-Stuart, PhD, coordinator of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Research at the University of Texas at El Paso College of Health Sciences, says that genuinely native plants can be difficult to identify. “Right now in the Mexican traditional flora, it’s about 50% native plants and 50% [naturalized plants],” he said (oral communication, July 8, 2011). An even smaller percentage of these plants have been scientifically studied. “Unfortunately, probably [only] 2-3% of Mexican flora has been researched for its medicinal properties,” he said.
Despite limited research, approximately two-thirds of the world’s population rely on plants as their primary source of medicine.3 To help convey the importance of local medicinal plants to its member gardens, Sacred Seeds offers training in botanical science and conservation. The organization also offers assistance in plant documentation and publishing, if requested, as well as international visibility through its network of gardens.8 More information and pictures of the foundational gardens are available at Sacred Seeds’ recently-launched website, www.sacredseedssanctuary.org.
Besides creating a source of useful local medicinals, Sacred Seeds is dedicated to passing on its collective knowledge. “How do we involve school children, colleges, high schools to carry this on and participate in it?” Glenn asked. “[T]he next generation is a really a big concern in getting these kinds of things happening, not just now, but in future years.”
Education is especially important to Zimmerman, who believes younger generations are losing touch with their food. “We need to maintain our plants. We have to have something to pass down to future generations,” she said. “They can’t believe all that our medicine and food comes from the supermarkets. They need to learn that it comes from the ground.”
Zimmerman offers educational talks and tours of the botanical gardens at her Austin School of Herbal Studies. Tour topics include “The Medicinal Herbs in our Central Texas Gardens,” “Herbs for Common Ailments,” and “Herbal First Aid.”9 She is passionate about the possibilities of educational gardens such as the ones created by Sacred Seeds. “I like to encourage people to learn from the plants by growing them. I think they’re our best teachers,” she said.
Foundational gardens are just the starting point for Sacred Seeds. One of the organization’s main goals is to have gardens in as many unique ecosystems as possible. Although the goal is ambitious, the organization is growing steadily, and more gardens are already in the planning process.
“We’re starting with what really needs to be done and then expanding piece by piece,” said Glenn. “What we hope to roll out in the next couple of years is to have community gardens or even individual family gardens all over the world that are looking to us for examples.”
Glenn hopes the foundational garden at ABC will inspire others to create locally focused gardens. “Maybe in Texas, people will come to the ABC garden and see what [they’re] doing and learn from what [they’re] doing and then bring that into their backyard.”
Mission statement. Sacred Seeds Sanctuary website. Available at: http://sacred seedssanctuary.org/program-info/mission.
Sacred Seeds Sanctuary. Finca Luna Nueva website. Available at: http://fincaluna nuevalodge.com/sacred-seeds-sanctuary.html.
Ocampo R, Balick MJ. Preface. In: Goldstein R and Herrera K, eds. Plants of Semillas Sagradas: An Ethnomedicinal Garden in Costa Rica. Costa Rica: Finca Luna Nueva Extractos de Costa Rica, S.A.; 2009: 10-11. Available at: http://fincaluna nuevalodge.com/sacred-seeds/semillas-sagradas.pdf. Accessed July 21, 2011.
ABC foundational garden profile. Sacred Seeds Sanctuary website. Available at: http://sacredseedssanctuary.org/gardens/american-botanical-council.
ABC Special Projects Director provides list of approved plants. (G. Engles personal communication, July 8, 2011).
Knishinsky R. Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press; 2004.
Moore M. Los Remedios: Traditional Herbal Remedies of the Southwest. Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books; 1990.
Management. Sacred Seeds Sanctuary website. Available at: http://sacredseedssanctuary.org/program-info/management.
A Garden Talk and Tour. Austin School of Herbal Studies website. Available at: http://www.ezherbs.net/a_garden_tour_and_talk.htm.