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Exploring Medicinal Plants With a Spot of Croquet in the Gardens

Jason Irving
6 August 2014

This summer members of the MPNS team and 15 other Kew scientists have been working with Angel Exit Theatre Company to develop an interactive installation in the gardens to give visitors a taste of Kew's research into medicinal plants.

Donning flowery aprons and straw hats we have been let out into the gardens to help the croquet playing 'Plant family' (Hyacinth, Lily and Basil) identify a mysterious medicinal plant. Here's a taster of what to expect if you join us on the croquet lawn by the Palm House this summer.

Discover how Kew Scientists explore the properties of medicinal plants

After you have collected your croquet mallet and game card, you begin your journey at the library – rummaging through the drawers to place the unidentified plant in its botanical family. By counting petals and examining leaf structure the plant can be matched to its relatives in one of the six families on display.

The library offers a glimpse of the daily work of Kew's Herbarium where, every year, botanists identify thousands of new specimens of pressed plants from around the world. Many are added to the 7 million specimens that this ‘reference library’ already holds.

Photo of the plant family at plant family croquet for the plantasia festival

Extracting and analysing chemicals from plants

Next up is the kitchen where you get the chance to bash, smash and pulverize our plant samples to get them ready for extraction. Children enjoyed getting their hands on the pestles and mortars, meat tenderisers and graters.

Although the tools of the trade are not the latest technology (the earliest known pestle and mortar is 37,000 years old!) some are still used in Kew's Jodrell Laboratory today.

After the plant samples have been added to three different solvents to extract different classes of chemicals, you can move on to the laboratory to prepare them for chemical analysis and testing for medicinal potential.

Photo of Kew scientist demonstrating plant extraction techniques

Phytochemist Elaine Porter demonstrating plant extraction techniques (Photo: P. Little)

Preparing for the future

The final stop is the potting shed, where you can store the seed of the mysterious plant to preserve it for future generations. Kew's Millenium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place in Sussex, holds seeds from 34,000 wild plant species, around 15% of which are medicinal, and works with local communities around the world to conserve medicinal plants and local knowledge about them.

Along the way you will be entertained by the songs of the Plant family and get to try your hand at croquet. Kew scientists will be on hand to answer your questions about medicinal plants and the research that happens at Kew.

So far it has been a great experience for us as scientists; although it has taken us out of our comfort zones, I can't think of another situation where we would get to sit in the gardens and discuss High Performance Liquid Chromatography with a five year old and her father.

If you would like to join us, come along to the croquet lawn by the Palm House between 11.00 and 4.00 every Wednesday to Sunday until 7 September 2014.

- Jason -

Photo of a visitor storing their seed in the potting shed

Preserving the seed of the medicinal plant for future generations in the potting shed (Photo: P. Little)

 

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