Medicinal, botanical gardens hidden URI treasures

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Botanical Gardens
A large pergola circles around some of the plants whose home is in the Botanical Gardens. URI photo by Nora Lewis.

KINGSTON, R.I.- August 8, 2018- The University of Rhode Island Kingston Campus is home to numerous historic buildings, picturesque study spots and some less well-known spaces that make it unique.

Two of those hidden treasures are the medicinal and botanical gardens, each with its own unique beauty and plant species. Both are open to the public, and are enjoyed by students, faculty, staff and those from surrounding communities looking for a break from the frenetic pace of daily life. Depending on the time of year, visitors can enjoy colorful displays of flowering plants.

A meticulously cared for garden located between Woodward and Tyler Halls is framed on the west side by a glass wall that depicts images of cells under a microscope. At night, the wall is illuminated, but when the sun is shining, the focus is on the Heber W. Youngken Jr. Medicinal Plant Garden, a central part of the College of Pharmacy and its Paramaz Avedisian ‘54 Hall.

medicinal garden
The medicinal garden lies between Woodward, Paramaz Avedisian ‘54 and Tyler Halls. URI photo by Nora Lewis.

The garden is used for research and teaching, and it contains more than 200 medicinal plants, 500 ornamental plants, birch trees, sodded areas, walkways and benches shaped like birch leaves. From Salvia officinalis (sage) to Humulus lupulus (whose flowers produce hops) the garden has an impressive range of plants.

Friends of the Heber Youngken Jr. Medicinal Garden are responsible for its maintenance and care. A group of five or six volunteers, directed by J. Peter Morgan, head gardener, work year round to maintain and preserve the garden’s beauty and its role as a research center. Once a plant is deemed to no longer be hearty, like sugar cane in the winter, volunteers harvest and transport that and other plants to a nearby greenhouse.

Heber Youngken Jr. Medicinal Garden
An aerial view of the Heber Youngken Jr. Medicinal Garden in full bloom. URI photo by Nora Lewis.

From its creation decades ago, the garden has played an important role in the College of Pharmacy’s position as a national center for research on natural products. Youngken, the first dean of the College of Pharmacy, was a leader in the application of natural products and plant-based remedies to pharmacy.

Navindra Seeram, professor in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences in the College of Pharmacy, who is internationally renowned for his research into the health benefits of berries and compounds found in pure maple syrup, uses the gardens when teaching general education courses and courses for pharmacy students.

“The garden provides students with the opportunity to familiarize themselves with botanicals they see in current practice. For example, some plants housed in the garden, like garlic or cranberries, are used as botanical dietary supplements to maintain and promote the health of consumers,” said Seeram.

Botanical Gardens
Some of the plants blooming in the Botanical Gardens. URI photo by Nora Lewis.

“Also in the garden, students can see plants that are the source of drugs or plants that usually grow only in tropical environments. The medicinal gardens provide a real life opportunity for students to connect what they are learning in the classroom to the discovery of drugs in nature.”

The medicinal gardens were originally located outside Ranger Hall and made the move to Fogarty Hall, which became the College of Pharmacy’s home in 1964. In 2013 the garden was reopened in its current location thanks in part to an endowment from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.

Up the hill to the east on Greenhouse Road is a 4.5 acre showcase for sustainable plants and landscape practices called the Botanical Gardens. A premier location for photos of big events, from proms to weddings, the gardens have had a home on the Kingston Campus since the 1960s.

They began as a test site where shrubs were evaluated for home, garden and landscape use. Conifers were collected and flower seeds were planted every year. This led to the establishment of the garden as it is today. In 1992, URI Cooperative Extension collaborated with the Rhode Island Nursery Association to create a multi-use garden where landscape architects could bring their clients to visualize what mature landscapes and plants look like.

One of the garden’s features is the outdoor classroom, which was designed and built by 1979 URI graduate John Manchester, a landscape architecture major. Once the weather gets nice, students from the College of the Environment and Lifes Sciences, artists and friends gather in the botanical gardens for learning or relaxing.

The URI Master Gardener Program is a vital supporter of the botanical gardens. Each Monday morning, volunteers and students help maintain the area as a teaching tool.

“Our core group of between five and eight volunteers have been working hard this first year to bring the botanical gardens back to their fullest glory,” explained Thomas Hoagland, URI Master Gardener project leader.

“Although we have been weeding and pruning this first year, we will soon be replanting, labeling the existing plants and restoring the original designs. Hopefully by next year we can resume monthly evening tours, invite the public and accomplish the educational outreach that is vital to the mission of the Master Gardener Program,” said Hoagland. “This year both the URI Master Gardener Program’s annual plant sale and the Volunteer Recognition Event will be held under a tent in the garden so that is a major motivator for the team.”

Additionally, two horticulture students work full time to maintain the beauty that lies within URI’s Botanical Gardens.

Learn more about the botanical and medicinal gardens.

Olivia Ross, an intern in the Marketing and Communications Department at URI and public relations major, wrote this press release.