Petal power

August 11, 2006

Some 200 years after Africa's plants found their way to the UK, Kew is sharing its archives with scientists on the continent and lending its expertise on medicinal plants, says Sanjida O'Connell.

It is Francis Masson, Kew Gardens' first official plant hunter, who we have to thank for the introduction to Britain of strelitzia, the sunset-orange bird-of-paradise flower, the waxy white arum lily and the silky-haired dusky-pink protea. These plants were gathered from South Africa in the late 1700s. Like many botanists from the British Empire, Masson seized specimens from around the world with little recompense to the countries from which they came. Africa now has almost no access to information gathered by former colonists, let alone up-to-date scientific information from contemporary botanical journals.

The Royal Botanic Gardens is trying to rectify this situation in one of its most ambitious projects to date - the digitisation of a large proportion of 7 million herbarium specimens. In addition, a new collaboration is being set up between Kew and the charity Garden Africa to enable traditional herbalists to grow and market plants with medicinal properties. Over the past two and a half years, scientists at Kew have digitised 69,000 African type specimens.

Anna Saltmarsh, the digital collections manager at Kew, explains: "This is the reference specimen, the one that was originally referred to when botanists were describing a new specimen." These African plants are now freely available on the Kew website. If African scientists have access to the internet, they can view them. But even those African universities that do have access often cannot afford subscriptions to scientific journals.

Monique Simmonds, head of biological interactions at Jodrell Laboratory, Kew, says: "If students and staff don't have access to up-to-date information, a paper they submit for publication won't be accepted because they haven't quoted from recent references."

To help African scientists, Kew is also digitising all of its scientific papers and books, as well as the archive amassed that originally belonged to plant collectors. Simmonds explains: "The collectors' notebooks provide us with more information, why they selected those plants, where they collected their material and whether the plants had any properties, whether medicinal or used locally for fencing or for timber."

Next spring, information from Kew's archive, from notebooks to botanical illustrations, will begin to be uploaded on the web. "It's one way to get information back to people whose lives benefit from plants," Simmonds says.

She has already put this into practice: this year an Ethiopian student was the first person to receive digitised information and an image of the plant, a species of Brucea , she was working on.

But Simmonds is going to South Africa in September to help with a more immediate and hands-on way of returning information. Garden Africa is setting up a nursery to grow plants that local herbalists and traditional healers use medicinally. "About 80 per cent of the black South African population use medicinal plants as their primary source of healthcare," says Georgina McAllister, director of programming at Garden Africa.

"Unfortunately, these plants are overused - 93 per cent are harvested unsustainably and 34 species are under immediate threat."

For instance, the plant Warburgia salutaris is used to treat malaria, colds, chest pains, coughs and stomach aches. But it is slow-growing and critically endangered.

The Africulture Centre will be set up in a poor urban area near Grahamstown that has almost no healthcare facilities and only two shops serving 7,000 people. The plan is to propagate plants that healers use so that they can be grown sustainably. "In the past, healers would refuse to grow plants because they said that only wild plants had active medicinal properties,"

McAllister says. "We thought that there was no reason why these plants couldn't be cultivated. But when we ran tests we found that they were right - stressed plants in the wild do develop active properties whereas cultivated ones often don't."

Kew will show centre staff how to stress the plants without killing them and will provide scientific expertise in quality control. "We need to look at how the plants are used - as a tincture, an extract, a poultice - and make sure that the same methodology is used each time to ensure that the same active ingredients are present and that it meets our specifications.

Many plants should be treated with respect, prepared correctly and not used in combination with drugs," Simmonds says.

One in three people in Grahamstown is HIV-positive, and many use plants to treat their symptoms. If more people receive antiretroviral medication, this could interfere with herbal medicines. "If you take a drug for HIV, it needs to be regulated and detoxified by enzymes in the liver, so you don't want to take a plant concoction that could modify that process," Simmonds says.

The Africulture Centre will be on South Africa's Garden Trail and should be a beautiful place, complete with tea room, restaurant and a nature walk through seven key habitats, such as grassland, savanna and succulent karoo planted with herbs from these regions. There will also be a market area so that local people can sell wares, from pottery to hand-dyed textiles. It is hoped that, as well as making medicine, the healers will produce soaps and honey for tourists from the plants they grow. It sounds like a worthwhile place to stop for a cup of tea and some lily soap before heading to the hills to see South Africa's native plant, the protea, growing wild in its natural habitat.

Sanjida O'Connell holds a PhD in psychology and is author of Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World , Virgin Books, £8.99.

African plant specimens: www.kew.org/herbcat ; Garden Africa: www.gardenafrica.org.uk

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