“Hippies were never much good as plantsmen”

Scopolia carniolica. A source of scopolamine, used as a premedication prior to surgery, comes from the golden-flowered Hladnik’s scopolia, Scopolia carniolica var. brevifolia which also commemorates the physician Dr. Giovanni Anton Scopoli (1723-1788). Photo and caption derived from the Royal College of Physicians Garden site. Click photo to go to source.

Just a quick referral for readers to a charming article I came across online in the Financial Times. Gardening correspondent Robin Lane Fox, an historian and Oxford Garden Fellow, writes on spending time with Henry Oakeley, a retired psychiatrist and Garden Fellow at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

The two have a chat and walk around the physician’s garden containing 1,280 plants of relevance in medical history. Oakeley’s quote and title of the article, “Herbal medicine is rubbish,” reflects that a large number of plants were disappointing as medicines:

We pause by good clumps of echinacea and evening primrose, two darlings of amateur healers. “They are both useless,” Oakeley informs me curtly, as they have proved ineffective in clinical trials. Big Chief Sitting Bull turns out to have been sitting on drugs that could be helpful in principle to the pains of childbirth but were present at such strength in herbs that their side-effects were often lethal for the infants being born. As for the perennial Lobelia siphilitica, it was bartered to early colonists in America but was absolutely useless for the disease it commemorates.

As for the quote I selected for the title here, however, Oakeley lets on to other treasures in the garden:

Nonetheless, when we reach the bed of poppies the Garden Fellow suddenly takes a sharp penknife out of his pocket. He shows me with expert ease how to cut lines into poppy seedheads and extract codeine for a “high”. Other plants known to him in the garden are ready sources of narcotic pleasure, too, but nobody has yet picked on them. Hippies were never much good as plantsmen, despite the publicity.

For readers fortunate to be in London, Oakeley will be giving tours of the garden on 14th August from 10 am to 5 pm. It sounds like an outstanding tour. Cox says that the garden, “makes the ‘medicinal’ sections of our big botanical gardens look fifth rate.”

Lane Fox, Robin. Herbal medicine is rubbish. Financial Times 5 August 2011.

Royal College of Physicians, Museum and Garden Page.

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3 Responses to “Hippies were never much good as plantsmen”

  1. Cindy Salo says:


    Thanks for posting this; it’s fascinating. I’m delighted that Arundo donax, a non-native plant that clogs riparian areas in the western U.S. with flammable cane thickets, may have some redeeming value.

    Wolofs, the major ethnic group in Senegal, recognize the source of medicine in their language: “garab” means both tree and medicine. I suspect that at least some of the healing power of boiled bark from the forest is the touching act of someone walking several miles to collect it for you. And the thin strip of inner bark you tie around your waist? That reminds you to boil up a pot of the stuff and drink it twice a day.


  2. David Kroll says:

    Cindy, you continually amaze me with the breadth of your knowledge!

    I really like the reminder of the bark around your waist – kind of like the “rubber band on the wrist” trick.

    And yes, we’d really be in business if we could find good uses for non-native, invasive species. Here in the South, folks have been working on medicinal properties of kudzu for both alcoholism prevention and antioxidant supplements.

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