Understanding the Medicinal Garden

The Science of Plant-Based Medicines:

Botany and Pharmacy Meet in Biochemistry

All cultures have found plants to be sources of therapeutic materials. Through the millennia, cultures differ in how they understand the presence and effectiveness of these plant products. Our contemporary Western perspective is no exception: the fields of botany and pharmacy have been deeply intertwined since the first medicinal garden was established by Pope Nicholas V in 1447. University studies certainly began by 1544-5 at Pisa and Padua (both in Italy), and at Oxford (England) by 1621, where a founding objective of the university garden was “the glorification of God.”

An eco-evolutionary perspective from modern botany, ecology, and biochemistry frames plant products as compounds that evolved to evoke avoidance by—or kill—the plant’s pests (insect, fungal, bacterial, or grazing animals). That some of these also affect human health is a fortunate consequence of the shared biochemistry of living organisms. Modern human and veterinary pharmacy includes discovering and understanding the subtle metabolic differences among organisms and how these can be therapeutically exploited with natural and synthetic compounds. Consequently, biochemically precise plant extracts remain important starting-points for theoretical and clinical pharmaceutical research.

Botanical garden of Pisa, Italy

Orto botanico di Pisa: operated by the University of Pisa: The first botanic garden established in 1544 under botanist Luca Ghini, it was relocated in 1563 and again in 1591. Photo courtesy Daderot.