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Mike's Blog - Day 160

Only 1 pic today, but 2 plants in the greenhouse.

The flowers are of Madagascan periwinkle, Vinca rosea, but it might be renamed now as Catharanthus roseus.

It’s a pretty plant to grow and there are lots of colour variations available, but its important attribute is that two key cancer treating drugs are obtained from it, Vincristine and Vinblastine. Both of these drugs are listed by the World Health Organization as Essential Drugs. These plants save lives.

The other plant, “the big old potato in the pot with 2 fern like leaves” is a plant we were given form Newcastle Botanic Garden when they closed a few years ago, Stangeria eriopus. On its label it says it germinated in 1968 from seed sent from Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden in South Africa. It’s on the “red list” as vulnerable in the wild, largely due to habitat loss but also it is used extensively as a medicinal plant by the Xhosa and Zulu people which adds to the threat as it is often sold in markets. There are records saying some years have seen over 3,000 of the tubers - over 2 tons - for sale in medicinal plant markets.

It’s a type of Cycad. Cycads are very primitive plants and have been around since the Jurassic period I think, so dinosaur food!

It seems to have survived well since then, I suppose. As it becomes harder to find in the wild, if there is a need for it, people will start to farm and cultivate it. So although success as a medicinal plant is adding to its threat of survival, it might be that its medicinal use might one day save it.

Plants and medicine have a huge history. At one time, knowledge was all and a great deal of secrecy surrounded plants. This led to myths sometimes as knowledge wasn’t as forthcoming as it is today (public libraries, internet). It led to misunderstanding, misuse and sometimes even the fact that it was all nonsense, even when some of the plants used had very powerful effects. Witches and wizards were the doctors of the medieval age.

As plants became more understood, they were grown and cultivated. It made sense to grow them in some sort of order or grouping, much as you would lay out drugs and potions on an Apothecary's shelf. These medicinal plant collections where in effect the start of Botanic Gardens. Padua Botanic garden, just north of Venice, was the first botanic garden. It was created in 1545. We have come a long way since 1545, but I think we are still on that journey of discovery and there is much to understand.