The director of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and the Arb is explaining the thinking behind Matthaei’s new Medicinal Plant Garden, which opens August 2 (see Events). “People are very curious as to where these different medicines come from,” Grese says. “So I think people will find a very strong interest” in the latest addition to the U-M gardens on Dixboro Rd.

Grese was inspired to create the garden when he saw the popularity of a similar scientific garden at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario. Unlike most medicinal gardens, Matthaei’s includes only plants “clinically proven [effective] with published research results,” explains David Michener, associate curator. But while based on science, the garden is designed to make the connection between plants and medicine applicable for everyone.

Plants are arranged by body system or the type of condition they are used to treat. Just past the entrance, in the wellness section, are tart cherries and blueberries, known to have beneficial antioxidants. Seeds from plantago plants are the basis of psyllium, a dietary fiber helpful in reducing cholesterol (and also used in laxatives). Across from wellness, in the musculoskeletal section, is white willow, whose bark was once harvested for salicylic acid to make aspirin.

Visitors can browse plants used for cancer, dermatology, and cardiovascular health, among many others. A few displays, such as for coca in the dental section and opium poppies in musculoskeletal, have informational placards rather than actual plants to discourage self-diagnosis and self-medicating.

The entrance section pays tribute to U-M history and plants used in the late 1800s to treat local patients. The university’s first botanical garden in 1897 was a medicinal garden; one of its two creators was also inspired by professional travel. A year after attending a pharmaceutical exposition in Austria, botany professor Volney Spalding helped oversee the creation of sixty beds for medicinal plants next to the library. In a letter, he wrote that “the impression which the student gains by studying living examples of medicinal plants will be infinitely more deeply engraved upon his memory than the most detailed description of a textbook.”

Both the 1897 and current gardens exemplified cutting-edge knowledge of medicinal plants. Yet only six plants studied at the U-M in 1900 have been scientifically proven effective and are found in the new garden: deadly nightshade (respiratory), digitalis (cardiovascular), jimsonweed (ophthalmology), mayapple (dermatology), poppy (musculoskeletal), and aloe. The versatile aloe is used not only in dermatology but also for gastrointestinal conditions and infectious disease.

The medicinal garden completes a five-year program at Matthaei. The Gaffield Children’s Garden opened in 2010, and the Bonsai and Penjing Garden and the Great Lakes Garden both opened in 2013.

The Medicinal Plant Garden is the last one planned near the visitor center–not because they’ve run out of ideas, but because they’ve run out of room inside the deer fence.