Berkeley Botanical

Feb 21, 2016

Writer

Pharmacopoeia = a stock of medicinal plants.

There are plants and trees and grasses growing in the Berkley Botanical Gardens in interesting ways, in relative peace. Across the waters from San Francisco, the valley site hosts spirals of cacti, avenues of palms, and a grove dedicated entirely to Chinese medicinal plants.

Whoever paired up the Guangzhou College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley is a friend of ours. The patch is a result of six months planning (and planting) back in 1986 that pieced together a colorful puzzle: it remains the only U.S. medicinal garden arranged by function group.

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If you’d been walking along San Francisco’s Embarcadero during the 1880s, you would have seen the wooden boats that nearly half a million Chinese immigrants arrived in lying abandoned in the harbor; most of these boats were broken up and used as building materials by gold prospectors, the rest were scuttled in the Golden Gate.

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The Chinese brought with them a fervent work ethic; they also brought with them an in-depth knowledge of a traditional medicinal practice. Tried and tested on home turf for over three millennia, Chinese herbal medicine remained somewhat margined to the immigrant communities, though recently have been growing in popularity in the West. 

Among the plants outlined as effective in combatting certain ailments: ginger, ginseng, cinnamon, liquorice, salvia and rhubarb. The Native Americans, too, had discovered the healing properties of certain plants, and most modern pharmaceuticals are derived from plant-based compounds.

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And the magic of the garden here in Berkeley: a clear archival system—or library of medicine and mysticism—sorting the plants by specific use. There are beds of purging herbs, plants for warming the interior and eliminating cold, spiritual herbs, herbs for removing congestion... It’s not only a beautiful place to be lost, but it is also a pop-up book outlining some of the most helpful life forms and their uses on our big blue egg.

You can get to the gardens by climbing past the craftsman cottages of the university town, and let a sea of fragrant herbs tingle through your cloud-shaped walk of otherworldly plant-ish wonder. 

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Images by Carlos Chavarria @crls.chavarria

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