On a sunny, fall day in Wisconsin, the “Psychedelic Pasts, Presents, and Futures” Borghesi-Mellon working group teamed up with the Allen Centennial Gardens to host an event where participants were exposed to the role of plants as the basis of psychoactives and medicines. Specifically, those who attended were given the opportunity to learn about and interact with tobacco, poppies, catnip, cannabis, salvia, morning glory, castor bean, wormwood, and numerous medicinal plants in the Hmong Garden. The event was facilitated by Dr. Lucas Richert, Amanda Pratt, and Reba Luiken, and each specific plant was overseen by a faculty member, staff member, or graduate student who offered educational information on the plant, including Reba Luiken (Allen Centennial Gardens), Ryan Dostal (Horticulture), Shelby Ellison (Horticulture), Lucas Richert (Pharmacy), JJ Strange (History), and Isaac Zaman (Horticulture).
The event continued a long tradition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in which members of the School of Pharmacy visited gardens to better understand the role of plants in pharmaceutical manufacturing. For instance, Dr. Edward Kremers, past director of the UW-Madison Department of Pharmacy, started a collaborative project in 1895 with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to research drugs of plant origins. In 1909, a medicinal plant garden was established on UW-Madison’s campus in the exact spot that Camp Randall, the football stadium, stands today. The project was so successful that by 1913 the Wisconsin Pharmaceutical Experiment Station was established by state statute. The Borghesi-Mellon event at the Allen Centennial Garden was an opportunity to continue some of the tradition stretching back to Dr. Kremers and to share knowledge about plants as psychoactives and medicines.
One of my main takeaways from this event was how cultural and societal perceptions of plants affect whether they are framed as a medicine or a drug. Education about plants, in this way, can help break taboos around plants as medicines and can help better contextualize how and why certain plants are defined as “dangerous drugs” in one period and then “magic bullets” in another. Cannabis, for instance, was used as a medicine throughout antiquity in a number of areas but underwent periods of demonization and stigmatization later on, such as the “reefer madness” propaganda of the 1920s in the United States, and yet cannabis was still medicalized and even legalized or decriminalized in certain areas of the United States almost 100 years after reefer madness. Cannabis crossed legal and medicinal boundaries throughout history based on the cultural and societal perception of the plant. By interacting with these plants and hearing their histories, contemporary drug researchers, students, and community members were given the opportunity to consider how culture and society impact whether a specific plant is seen as a medicine or a drug.
Below are some images we’d like to share from the event.
Photos taken by the author at the Allen Centennial Gardens, 2022.