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A Spoonful of Science: plant talks at Kew's Plantasia Festival

Jason Irving
16 July 2014

As part of this summer's Plantasia festival Kew scientists are being let out from behind their desks, lab benches and herbarium sheets to discuss their work with visitors, giving bite-sized talks about how plants and fungi keep us healthy. These talks, under the general title 'A Spoonful of Science', are taking place in the Kew Palace dining room every Tuesday and Thursday at 2pm, and last month Dr Sarah Edwards and I gave talks about medicinal plants and how we came to work at Kew.

Researching traditional plant use in an Aboriginal community

For her talk Sarah focused on her PhD research into medicinal plant use among the Wik, Wik-Way and Kugu peoples of Cape York Peninsula, Australia. 

Photo of Dr Sarah Edwards in Kew Palace discussing her PhD research into medicinal plants

Dr Sarah Edwards in Kew Palace discussing her PhD research (Photo: Paul Little)

Sarah was invited by the Elders of the Aurukun community to help them develop a database for use in their community to record traditional uses of plants, both as an educational tool to promote transmission of knowledge between generations, and for use by the Aboriginal Rangers in land and sea management.

As in many areas of the world, traditional knowledge about plants is being eroded due to

  • massive upheaval and social changes since colonisation by Europeans
  • migration
  • loss of access to and damage of land due to mining and farming
  • the impact of invasive species and climate change

All these have led to a sharp decline in local knowledge about the natural world.

Sarah spent a total of 15 months, spread over 3 years, learning about medicinal plants from members of the community, allowing her research focus to develop from local priorities. She felt privileged to be able to work so closely with the community. 'I was invited to attend ceremonies and to go on camping trips with families to remote clan estates where no other Europeans had been before, to eat bush foods, "yarn" by the fire, and sleep under the stars.'

To demonstrate the continued reliance on natural materials in the Aurukun community, Sarah came along to the Kew Palace talk armed with a traditional spear tipped with a stingray barb, as well as bringing some less dangerous items such as a grass skirt and a basket.

Before beginning her PhD Sarah had trained as a botanist and medical anthropologist and had also worked at Kew as a data analyst/computer programmer, which equipped her with the wide range of skills necessary for carrying out her research. She has now come full circle, recently returning to Kew where she works as the data services officer for MPNS. While the Kew IT department is a far cry from the Australian outback, Sarah has encountered similiar problems reconciling local classification systems with the standardised scientific classification of plants when working on both databases. The MPNS portal maps the relationship between local names from around the world and the accepted scientific names for the plants they refer to, which can often be more than one species.

Why Medicinal Plant Names matter

I began my talk by explaining how I came to work at Kew, taking a year out from my BSc in Herbal Medicine to work on a sandwich student placement - a scheme that Kew offers each year to give students valuable experience working in a scientific institution.

Photo of Jason Irving giving a tour of medicinal plants in the Queen's Garden, Kew

Jason Irving giving a tour of medicinal plants in the Queen's Garden (Photo: M. Sedacca)

As it was a particularly sunny day we chose to have the talk outside the palace and then go for a wander round the Queen’s Garden, which provided the ideal setting for discussing the work of MPNS. Recently replanted with around 80 species for the summer festival, it also includes new interpretation boards detailing the history of herbal medicine and research into medicinal plants carried out at Kew.

I began at a board about Linneaus, an 18th century Swedish naturalist widely credited as the father of modern botany. It was his 1753 work Species Plantarum which introduced the binomial system for naming plants, replacing the less standardised system of the past where one plant name could be up to thirty words long (detailing its appearance and habitat).

This naming system and the later conventions that developed from it facilitate clear and precise communication about plants across the world, as explained in a later panel. The use of the correct scientific name enables effective regulation of cross-border trade for conservation and is important for research into medicinal properties of plants.

Scientific plant names are not only important for scientific accuracy, but are a rich source of information about the plant, often pointing to its history of use and appearance. For example, many of the plants in the garden have the species name 'officinalis', which derives from the latin 'officina' for storeroom or shop - this indicates the plant was widely used in pharmacy when it was named. Most of these plants were named by Linnaeus, which is why they include ‘L.’ at the end of the name.

Photo of Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria (L.) Maxim.) flowering in the Queen's garden, Kew

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria (L.) Maxim.) flowering in the Queen's garden (Photo: Jason Irving)

We also had the chance to look closely at some of the plants growing in the garden and discussed their traditional uses and role in drug discovery. The meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria (L.) Maxim.) was in full flower and visitors enjoyed its sweet almond-like scent. I explained how this plant was important in the development of the drug aspirin, which got its name from the older scientific name for meadowsweet Spiraea ulmaria L. Studies on meadowsweet in the 19th century led to the isolation of salicylic acid, which was later developed into aspirin, an important analgesic and anti-inflammatory medicine.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis L.) was also smelling strong thanks to the sun, and I discussed research carried out by scientists from Kew along with five UK universities which demonstrated that lemon balm essential oil improves the sense of wellbeing amongst patients with Alzheimer’s disease. There are plenty of other plants we could have looked at and I am planning to give a similiar talk again during the autumn.

Upcoming talks

Unfortunately, we can’t guarantee good weather for every talk, but if you are visiting the gardens on a Tuesday or Thursday come along to Kew Palace at 2pm. Many interesting talks are lined up for the summer, covering varied topics including 'Know your onions - Food beauty, medicine and the bulbous plant', 'Tales of medicine and poison from the Amazon' and 'Yams - medicines, food and conservation'.

You can find the full programme by following the 'Spoonful of Science' link, below.

Or why not investigate the beta version of the MPNS portal.

- Jason -

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