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Nature's Pharmacy: The Healing Power of Plants

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New exhibition at San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers

(January 5, 2005:San Francisco) -- Wormwood, bitterleaf, spiny devil's club - no, this isn't the latest menu on Fear Factor. These are just some of the many thousands of plants that make their way from the world's forests, fields and deserts into your medicine cabinet and onto the shelves of your local vitamin store. Plants and other natural products are included in the health care of eight out of 10 people alive today. Do they all work? Are they safe to use? Are we losing undiscovered medical miracles to world-wide deforestation?

In the new exhibition "Nature's Pharmacy: The Healing Power of Plants" on view February 25 through October 16, 2005, the Conservatory of Flowers takes v isitors on a virtual journey to Africa, Asia, South and North America to learn about medicinal plants, their many uses and the issues that surround them.

Visitors enter the exhibition and are instantly immersed in the sights, sounds and scents of four culturally themed marketplaces. Here, amongst the stalls, they will be able to view living specimens of many healing plants and learn how some are cultivated and processed into medicines. Glossary cards are available to take on the "trip" to facilitate an understanding of the scientific terms used in the exhibition. An introductory video and four giant interactive models of important plants also help to create an intriguing and information-rich environment.

First stop Africa, where visitors learn about Barbados aloe (also known as aloe vera), a plant whose medicinal properties were recognized at least 3,500 years ago by the ancient Egyptians. The gel extracted from its pulpy leaves is now used world wide as a topical treatment for burns and skin disorders as well as a health drink. Visitors can also take a close up look at an over-sized calabar bean pod. The calabar bean is the source of physostigmine, which relieves the symptoms of glaucoma. It's also being studied for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. But one man's medicine is another man's poison. This helpful plant was traditionally used as a deadly test of guilt or innocence in Nigeria. The accused was forced to drink a poison made from the beans. If he survived, he was proven innocent. If not, well…the punishment was obviously built into the test.

Next, visitors cross the Atlantic to North America to learn a lesson in sustainability with the story of the Pacific yew tree. The cancer-fighting drug paclitaxel (Taxol®) was originally isolated in the bark of this tree, but harvesting it meant killing the whole tree, and the supply couldn't meet the demand for the drug. Researchers quickly found an alternative, extracting a similar chemical from the leaves and twigs of living European yews. Recently, more advances have been made as drug manufacturers have begun producing plant cell cultures from which they can extract the paclitaxel, saving native habitat and significantly reducing waste. Visitors are also introduced to some of the many plants Native Americans have used medicinally for hundreds of years including spiny devil's club. A large model shows the parts of this beneficial plant in detail and illustrates how remedies were derived from each for such things as colds, coughs and bronchitis.

Then it's on to Asia where herbal medicines have been the mainstay of treatment for thousands of years. In China, more than 1 billion people rely on such things as ginkgo to delay mental deterioration and dong quai for balancing the female hormone system. Cultivating some plants, however, can reap a bushel of trouble too. Asia is the source of most of the world's legal and illicit supply of opium. Sap from opium poppies is processed into important painkillers such as morphine, codeine and noscapine. But the poppy fields of Afghanistan are the source for 75% of the illegal opium from which heroin is derived.

Back across the Pacific, visitors enter South America where the destruction of the rain forest is endangering more than parrots and jaguars. Less than twenty percent of the 250,000 known plant species have been investigated medicinally. As the forest is cleared, we could be losing the cure for diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS or other diseases. One such revolutionary cure in the past was quinine, derived from the bark of cinchona. This important alkaloid became one of the most important treatments for malaria worldwide. Visitors also learn the benefits of the common chili pepper, used traditionally to soothe upset stomachs and even as a salve for arthritis. Working with models of four common peppers, visitors rank their heat according to the amount of the capsaicin compound in each.

To complement the exhibition, the Conservatory of Flowers will offer a series of lectures in spring 2005 by some of the nation's leading researchers of medicinal plants including Mark Plotkin, a renowned ethnobotanist hailed by Time Magazine in 1999 as an environmental "Hero for the Planet" and Karyn Sanders, herbalist and host of KPFA's "Herbal Highway". For more information about "Nature's Pharmacy: The Healing Power of Plants," related public programs and the Conservatory of Flowers itself, the public should visit or call (415) 666-7001.

The Conservatory of Flowers is a spectacular living museum of rare and beautiful tropical plants under glass. From Borneo to Bolivia, the 1,500 species of plants at the Conservatory represent unusual flora from more than 50 countries around the world. Immersive displays in five galleries include the lowland tropics, highland tropics, aquatic plants, potted plants and special exhibits. Opened in 1879, the wood and glass greenhouse is the oldest existing conservatory in North America and has attracted millions of visitors to Golden Gate Park since it first opened its doors. It is designated as a city, state and national historic landmark and was one of the 100 most endangered sites of the World Monuments Fund.