“Save Yourself a Trip to the Rainforest”
It was a classic “Urban Herbs” moment. A student was jogging behind the Research Building at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC), talking into her cell — and then she just stops. “It’s a hummingbird, a hummingbird!” she yells with glee into the phone. “I have never seen one in person!”
Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, looked up from tending the garden from which flowers, herbs, and trees sprout like a modern day Garden of Eden, graced by chirping birds, and a few visiting monarch butterflies floating among fat bees and other busy pollinators. “A lot of people wax rhapsodic, and want to chat about the beauty of the place,” says Fugh-Berman, an associate professor of pharmacology. “But it can be a problem for me because I have to keep weeding.”
The truth is that Fugh-Berman couldn’t be more pleased. Four years ago, she asked Mike Pontti, the head of landscaping at GUMC, if she could plant a 3 foot-wide by 140-foot long strip of infertile ground and dead weeds behind the Research Building. Fugh-Berman, a condo dweller who is an avid gardener and an expert in medicinal herbs, admits she itches to take over people’s neglected yards and public spaces.
Fugh-Berman had surveyed the space and understood that many things could thrive there — just not DC plants. The plot has incredibly adverse conditions: it is south-facing, surrounded by heat-reflecting concrete and blacktop, across from the helicopter pad, and next to heating vents. Her thermometer practically exploded when she tried to gauge the summertime temp. “At 120 degrees, this microclimate was closer to Texas than DC,” she says.
So she planted a “desert” garden in the hot and dry plot closest to the heating vents and a meadow-like “prairie” garden on the cooler, somewhat shadier section that is closer to Rock Creek Park. “I did a lot of experimentation and killed a lot of plants,” Fugh-Berman says.
No one would guess so. Her land grab has resulted in “Urban Herbs,” a glorious cornucopia of dozens and dozens of medicinal and culinary herbs, wildflowers, and unusual ornamentals, ranging from amaranth to yellow sweet clover, a common “weed” that provided the basis for the widely-used anticoagulant warfarin. “One-fourth of all drugs come from drug models in plants,” says Fugh-Berman, who lectures to medical students on natural products and who has long taught courses in the Complementary and Alternative Medicine master program on herbs and dietary supplements. She has just launched a new graduate course called Medicinal Plants and Pharmacognosy (the pharmacology of natural products) and is planning a program on natural products. Fugh-Berman likes to say that a jaunt behind the Research Building will save observers a trip to the rainforest.
Many plants found on Georgetown’s campus are photographed and monographed at http://www8.georgetown.edu/departments/physiology/cam/urbanherbs/urban1.htm, courtesy of Dr. Fugh-Berman’s devoted students. The delights include such plants with such interesting names as chaste tree, passionflower, lamb’s quarters, Mexican hat, and mugwort. There are pomegranates, caper bushes, citrus trees as well as a southern fig tree growing next to the heating vent that has survived two D.C. winters — but shouldn’t have.
Fugh-Berman recently planted a second garden in the rooftop podium area in front of the Med-Dent Building. This was also a challenge as the soil is only 18-inches deep. Now it is posh with hibiscus, painted daisies (which yield a potent pesticide), echinacea, yarrow, and edibles including blueberries, bush cherries, strawberries, parsley, and rosemary. Where once the statues in this space were ignored, now people picnic on the grass and nurses bring patients from the hospital. “It is incredible how people are drawn to the area. Gardens are a wonderful way to connect to people and to the natural world,” she says.
"Urban Herbs" is a project of the Georgetown University Medical Center Department of Pharmacology and Physiology, and it is supported by the Pharmacology Department, by the GU Center for the Environment led by biology professor Ed Barrows, and the University’s landscaping department. Fugh-Berman also takes money out of her own pocket to keep it running. “It’s worth it,” she says. “These gardens demonstrate low-maintenance, water-thrifty, organic gardening techniques, and we aim to encourage small-space, pollinator-friendly gardening in urban areas, and to educate people about the useful and beautiful plants that surround them,” Fugh-Berman says.
It’s true that “Urban Herbs” has had a therapeutic effect on a community level, Fugh-Berman says, but she admits, “I planted these gardens for me.”
By Renee Twombly, GUMC Communications