A Garden in Chicago Growing "Hope"

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On the corner of Wood and Polk Streets in the middle of the University of Illinois at Chicago medicinal center hope grows alongside the periwinkle, aloe and may apple.

Situated next to the College of Pharmacy, the Dorothy Bradley Atkins Medicinal Plant Garden was constructed and is maintained in memory of Dorthy Bradley Atkins, who died in 1995. Dorothy Bradley Atkins was a pharmacist who was interested in medicinal plants. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Illinois College of Pharmacy in 1945.

Today, the Atkins Garden is located below street level making it a quiet location for lunch or place to take a book and read. While you’re in the garden the noise at street level and the roar of the ‘L’ just yards away is barely noticeable. What you do notice is the colors of the flowers around you, the scents, the pollinators buzzing around you and the sound of the fountain in the center of the garden.

The plants grown in this unique urban garden have a history of being used to treat various illnesses that predates modern medicine. Many of the plants are sources of organic chemical compounds that are used to treat a variety of illnesses today. For example; black cohosh, a popular perennial plant, and red clover, a common garden weed, are in studied to treat symptoms of menopause and may apple is the source of the anticancer drugs etoposide and teniposide.

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Left: Hollyhock. Right: Pomegranate

Last summer I stumbled across this garden by accident when my mother was being treated for Cancer. I spent the moments I wasn’t near her bedside in this garden; photographing, examining and researching the plants found there, looking for hope. The hospital where she was being treated is nearby and I spent more time in this garden than I did in my own home and came to feel like it was indeed my home. Sometimes, I felt like I needed to say things out loud and the noise of the water in the fountain afforded me the opportunity to do so without being overheard. Often I’d go there to beg or barter with God for a miracle. In my weaker moments I’d openly curse God for not granting my request. I discovered that nobody could see me cry if I held my Digital Rebel to my face and pretended to take photos before I had to go back and put on a show of strength before doctors, nurses or my mother. On October 20, 2008 after a brave fight, my mother passed away at the hospital surrounded by people who loved her. Afterward the decision was made by my siblings to head home and see to the family and friends who had gathered at the house after hearing the news.

Me, I wanted to go home too. I walked down to the garden to sit and think about what had just happened hours earlier. When I got to the garden a gentleman, a couple of years younger than myself by my estimate, who tends to the garden was pulling up the tender plants getting ready to put the garden to bed for the season. I took this as a sign that it was time to move on and let so much go. One of the things I let go of  that day was hope.

In May of this year I received an Email informing me that the Annual Garden Walk at the Atkins Garden would be held on July 17, 2009. I debated with myself about going right up until the morning of the event. I wasn’t sure I wanted to revisit the garden and all of those emotions again, but I went anyway since I had missed the garden walk the previous year. It was interesting seeing the garden filled with so many people learning about the medicinal properties of many plants and enjoying the festivities. I saw a line forming for free plants and being the plant hoarder that I am, I stood in line to get one for myself and left to photograph the kitchen garden in Grant Park.  

Later that evening while planting my latest plant acquisition and giving it a drink of water it dawned on me that I hadn’t really let go of hope. My belief in it had just laid dormant for a while and one day would be in full bloom like the plant I was adding to the garden. Rather than make me sad, or any of the other complicated emotions I was afraid to encounter, the visit to the garden made me realize how important it is to cultivate hope, in particular when you’re not in need of it.   

Because of these plants, and many others, there are treatments and cures for many illnesses and with each passing day there is hope that a cure for the worst diseases that plague humanity will be found in a garden just like this.

If the average ornamental or vegetable garden aren’t enough to stimulate an interest in gardening perhaps growing medicinal plant themed garden would be more your style. The unique combination of science and history would make a medicinal themed garden a source of conversation and a teaching opportunity. Many of the plants at this medicinal plant garden aren’t very “exotic” and can be found in plant sales and garden centers in Chicago or grown from seed.

Easy-to-find garden plants for your medicinal plant garden include:

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Yarrow, Jacob’s Ladder, Borage. Click for larger view.

Angelica archangelica “Angelica.”
Borago officinalis “Borage.”
Aquilegia canadensis “Columbine.”
Polemonium caeruleum “Jacob’s Ladder.”
Eschscholzia californica “California Poppy.”
Digitalis lanata “Grecian Foxglove.”
Urtica diocia “Stinging Nettle.”
Calendula officinalis “Pot Marigold.”
Platycodon grandiflorus “Balloon Flower.”
Rosmarinus officinalis “Rosemary.”
Polemonium caeruleum “Jacob’s Ladder.”
Achillea millefolium “Yarrow.”
Alcea rosea “Hollyhock.”

Even some fruits and vegetables fall under the medicinal plant garden theme. They would have to be overwintered indoors or grown annually but there is no reason why they can’t be included if you have the space. Tomatoes, papaya trees, hot peppers, pomegranate trees, carrots and soy beans, to name a few. If you have the space consider a weeping willow tree the source of salicylic acid, the precursor to aspirin.

I’m now cultivating hope in my garden, I hope you will too.

This garden is open to the public and easily accessible by public transportation. You can see pictures I took last year, here and pictures and video here.


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  • MBT, your post itself is an occasion for healing. I'm still trying to get over my dad's death from cancer in 2004. He was the one who taught me about gardening, and his love of storytelling inspired me to start a blog. Writing around the "hole" that's left behind helps somehow. And reading about similar experiences does too. What was the freebie plant you acquired and how is it doing now, by the way?

  • In reply to walk2write:

    Hi Walk2Write,

    My mother wasn't much of a gardener. I like to describe her as a "kitchen sink gardener." Any plant that was given to her or that she bought would end up as a single cutting struggling to root in an empty mayonnaise jar. While no Green Thumb, she's responsible in part for me starting the outdoor garden. One day she got two nearly wild rose bushes and some annuals from a friend and I was given the task to plant them. Soon after that my grandfather passed away, he was an rural turned urban farmer before it was cool, and the garden grew larger.

    You're right that it helps to write about it. After she passed I realized I should have been doing it all along instead of keeping things bottled up inside. Wish I had done it earlier, may have helped me and others in the same situation.

    Anyway the freebie was a coneflower and it is doing really good right now.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  • In reply to walk2write:

    Cool! This reminds me that there's a similar garden at Michigan State University that I've been meaning to visit for a few years now...

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    Is there really? I didn't know that. Let me know when you do so I can see the pics.

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