There is a lot more going on at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew than maintaining a garden and greenhouses of plants from around the world. This became evident when our speaker, who is the Deputy Director of Science, revealed that there are 350 scientists carrying out research into plants and how they can be of benefit to mankind in collaboration with scientists working in over 100 countries around the world, including Madagascar, where Kew has an out-stationed unit. In a presentation that took us from Costa Rica via South Africa to Asia, Professor Simmonds described how some of the chemicals derived from plants have many applications that range from controlling the nematodes that infect our garden plants to medicines used to combat malaria and HIV.
From ancient Egypt to China the medicinal properties of plants have been documented for over two thousand years as plants have been recognised as a source of natural remedies. Current research undertaken by scientists at Kew continues to reveal that they contain pharmacologically active compounds which form the basis of many modern-day medicines that can be synthesised by the pharmaceutical industry.
One example of the research undertaken involves collaboration with the “medicine men” in South Africa where a unit was established to grow and investigate the medicinal properties of plants. As gardeners know, growing plants in the right soil is essential to get the best results and this was no exception in South Africa where it was shown that the type of soil determined the ability of the plant to produce the desired medicinal compounds. Getting the right soil proved to be only part of the solution as working with people of different cultures also demonstrated the need to show respect and an understanding of their beliefs which included a ceremony to bless the soil.
The presentation concluded with the important work also done by Kew to ensure that many of the imported plant derived products sold over the counter with health claiming benefits are safe and unadulterated or not contaminated with injurious toxins. It was a revealing and fascinating presentation that will remind us that plants have much to offer to improve our wellbeing, but that it is only through gaining a proper understanding of the complex chemistry of plants that we ensure they do us more good than harm.