KU medicinal research garden comes to life
- on June 17, 2011
Neat rows of mint, echinacea and sage are among about 70 plant species that fill a large garden plot just east of the Lawrence Municipal Airport.
The Kansas University Native Medicinal Plant Research Garden is just a year old. Last spring, the land lay freshly tilled and barren as crews worked to install an irrigation system.
Today, it is blooming with life.
The plants - all native to Kansas - have been selected for their healing powers with the hope that they will someday find new uses as herbal products and compounds for pharmaceuticals, pet medicine or cosmetics.
"We believe native plants of Kansas and the Great Plains have an important role to play in terms of human health," said Kelly Kindscher, a senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey and head of the botany side of the research program.
The garden has sparked the interest of all ages, from toddlers to those in their 90s.
"It is a beautiful place. It is a living place. We are seeing more animal life out here than we did last year," said Kirsten Bosnak, who is the project coordinator for the medicinal plant research program.
The research garden has spawned other projects on the cultivated one-acre piece of land.
A student community garden of vegetables, herbs and fruit trees is thriving. Westar Energy provided reclaimed lumber for a shade structure, and an art student planted a dye garden.
The student group Engineers Without Borders is working on a solar composting toilet, and an educational garden has even been planted for the children next door at Prairie Moon Waldorf School.
"By starting on this, we've had a lot of things that are spin-offs," Kindscher said.
But the primary purpose of the garden is for research. About 20 of the 70 plant species in the research garden are being grown in large enough quantities so they can be studied in chemistry labs, which requires about 20 pounds of the plant.
If needed, the program has another four acres for expansion.
"Our plan is if we find things that are interesting, then we will need to grow out more of that," Kindscher said.
Many of the plants that grow in the research garden were collected from the wild and are largely a mystery to modern day science. But technology has made them easier to study.
"They haven't been looked out for their chemistry. And now our chemistry techniques are so much better. We can screen a hundred plants at once for all sorts of different things," Kindscher said.
The plants are also steeped in Native American tradition. For instance, one of the mint varieties has been burned to provide relief on hot summer days, and sage is often used in sweat lodges to purify the body.
Those historical uses provide leads for researchers, Kindscher said.
The success of the garden is partially due to the students, both those from KU and Haskell Indian Nations University, who have spent many hours tending to it. This summer, Lauren Service, a senior in environmental studies, scored a grant to work at the garden.
"This kind of contributes to a lot of what I believe in," Service said. "Plants aren't just here for visual reasons or chemical reasons. But plants are for people, too, so that we can use them for medicine and food. And that humans are part of nature."
The public is invited to tour the KU Native Medicinal Plant Research Garden at 10 a.m. Saturday. The garden is located on Douglas County East 1600 Road, which is just north of U.S. Highway 40 and next to the Lawrence Municipal Airport.