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Senior Tony Kurian, a biology major and president of the
USF Botanical Gardens Club, works on building the medicinal
plant garden, located at the USF Botanical Gardens. LAURIE

Medicinal plant garden takes root

TAMPA, Fla. -- Among its 3,000 species of plants, diverse habitats and shady paths, something new is taking root at the USF Botanical Gardens.

Thanks to University of South Florida senior Tony Kurian, a biology major and president of the USF Botanical Gardens Club, there’s a 160-foot square patch of land in the southeast corner of the 10-acre property dedicated to a medicinal plant garden.

For the time being, the garden consists of about two dozen neatly packed beds of soil and compost surrounded by borders of fresh-cut 2x4s. But in time, the small plants and seeds that will be carefully cultivated in the beds will grow. Nurtured by future physicians, pharmacists and pharmacologists, as well as current researchers, scientists and botanists, these seedlings could lead to innovative discoveries such as new treatments for cancer, malaria and other diseases. Laurie Walker, director of the USF Botanical Gardens, said medicinal plant collections hold exciting potential for enhancing teaching and research on drug discovery.

“While the thousands of visitors who come to the gardens each year will certainly enjoy this new area of interest, for the university, a medicinal plant garden can become a rich resource for educational and research activities,” Walker said. “It offers incredible opportunity to bring together faculty and students from diverse colleges and disciplines -- medicine, pharmacy, arts and sciences -- to collaborate and innovate in a ‘living laboratory.’”

It’s a vision that Walker and Kim Hutton, the gardens’ botanist, have had for a long time -- and something Kurian wanted to become part of the legacy he leaves the university when he graduates next spring.

Fledging Club Cultivates New Garden
As a sophomore, Kurian saw the botanical gardens as a place where he could make an impact. So he gathered some close friends, and they began rolling up their sleeves to help weed, mulch, prune and water on a regular basis. Eventually, he founded the Botanical Gardens Club.

“I wanted to leave something to the university after I graduate -- a legacy,” he said. The club also bridges the gap between the gardens and students, who can help with maintenance, as well as special events and large projects such as the medicinal plant garden.

Kurian’s interest in medicinal plants originated with his honors thesis. Encouraged by his adviser and chemistry professor, Bill Baker, Kurian decided to investigate the anti-malarial qualities of the Caribbean Princewood tree. Found in Florida only in the Keys, he travelled to Key Largo to locate and harvest samples for his research and for propagation in the botanical gardens.

He then reached out to the director of one of the South’s most well-established medicinal plant gardens, Aruna Weerasooriya at the University of Mississippi, who personally delivered more than 50 species of plants and seeds to jumpstart USF’s medicinal garden.

Finally, after enlisting the efforts of several dozen club members, friends, and faculty members, Kurian led the ground-breaking effort on a perfect Saturday in November.

Fertile Ground for Interdisciplinary Research
“This is a huge undertaking,” said Hutton, who has worked in the gardens for 15 years and, as its resident botanist, designed the new garden. “It’s going to be a tremendous resource for research for the new College of Pharmacy, the College of Medicine and the chemistry and biology departments in Arts and Sciences.”

According to Shufeng Zhou, professor and chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences in USF’s College of Pharmacy, plants play an important role in pharmaceutical science research and drug discovery.

“Many drugs in current clinical use are directly from or derived from herbal plants such as placlitaxel, aspirin and irinotecan,” he said.

Zhou, who helped set up a medicinal garden at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, knows first-hand of its research and teaching benefits. He was eager to get in on the ground floor of USF’s garden assisting with design and construction.

“Having a medicinal plant garden on campus will facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration in the study of herbal plants and research projects such as herbal farming, fresh herbal sampling and active compound isolation,” he said. “It can assist in the teaching of pharmacognosy and the on-site showing of natural products.”

Baker says scientists look to plants and other living organisms as sources of new chemical substances, not only as disease treatments, but as stimulus to understand their ecological, evolution and chemistry basis.

“Clearly, having an active garden to observe, grow and manipulate the source organisms can provide inspiration and motivation to many of us in the College of Arts and Sciences,” Baker said.

Baker also believes the garden will provide a physical resource for undertaking studies that might previously have been difficult to do.

Room to Grow
As weather permits, the plants donated by Ole Miss will be moved from their temporary shelter in the shade house to the awaiting beds. These will include: titan arum (Amorphophallus titanium), one of the world’s largest flowers whose “fragrance” resembles rotting meat; devil’s dung (Ferula assa-foetida), which rivals titan arum in malodorous offensiveness but may contain flu-fighting properties; and the popular goji berry (Lycium barbarum), a fruit high in healthful antioxidants. Once in the ground, the plants will continue to be tended by future members of USF’s Botanical Gardens, Kurian said.

All part of his plan to leave a ‘living’ legacy to his alma mater.


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Botanical Gardens Student Success   
Author: Mary Beth Erskine