History of Botanical Studies in OM

(Adapted from an article “Student Gardens Leaf Out” published in the Fall 2003 issue of The Forum, the newsletter of the AOM Alliance.)

Botanical Studies in Oriental Medicine is the new, improved name for the Student Gardens program established by High Falls Gardens in 2001. Now at least fifteen of the U.S. colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine have gardens in various stages of development, each one with its own unique character but most growing the same Asian medicinal plants.


The central goal of the program is to give every student of Oriental Medicine the opportunity for hands-on contact with the medicinal plants they are learning to combine into formulas and dispense to patients. In that learning process, their questions lead into important, related subjects: the need for worldwide conservation, cultivation and sustainability, and the economic and social aspects of how plants are recognized and valued for their healing properties.


The roots of Student Gardens go back to 1987, when the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco and the University of California Botanical Garden collaborated to arrange an exchange program. In the previous year the UCBG curator, Jim Affolter, had traveled to China to visit hospitals and herb gardens. In reciprocation, a professor from the Guangzhou College of TCM came to Berkeley and worked for six months to establish a medicinal herb garden. Professor Xu Hong-hua brought his own plants and seeds with him.

Elaine Sedlack, for several years now the curator of the Chinese Herb Garden at the UCBG, would pick up Professor Xu at his apartment and drive him to the site. He laid out the garden in eighteen functional groups corresponding to treatment approaches, plus an anti-cancer section made up of plants from other groups. Since then Elaine has made other acquisitions and installed attractive new signage, but the garden is maintained substantially according to Professor Xu’s design.

Soon after Professor Xu returned to China, Robert Newman, then a student at ACTCM, began collecting seeds. He worked with Elaine and other conservators around the world to acquire many hundreds of Asian medicinal plant species. Since Robert had no funding whatsoever, regular trips across the Bay were an obstacle, and by the early 1990s his collection, maintained mostly in pots at ACTCM, was by far the largest in North America. He left the College in 1997 after having distributed many species to eight conservators around the U.S., including High Falls Gardens. Robert’s dedication left its mark on ACTCM, however, which at present supports the most senior and developed of the Student Gardens.

Shoots, 2006-2009

Student initiative is still the driving force for the program, but we have learned that consistent administrative support is needed to insure transition between successive generations of students. While funding is scarce, human energy and attention provide the most important nourishment for the Gardens. In 2004 students, practitioners and friends of Oriental Medicine began to pledge annual donations for Botanical Studies. In late 2005, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation awarded a $200,000 grant toward an estimated $500,000, three-year budget to upgrade the garden programs and associated educational activities. Fifteen sites were designated, but all the colleges expected to benefit from the program. The Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine voted unanimously to endorse the Botanical Studies program at their meeting in May of 2005.

Land is a problem, as most of the Colleges are located in urban areas where space for a garden is short to non-existent. Solutions to the space squeeze are part of the creative work. ACTCM integrates medicinal plants into their landscape, including terraces on the steep gullies of their hillside location. New England School of Acupuncture collaborated with Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum to publish a Chinese medicinal plant tour guide to the Arboretum’s collection.

The Yo San University program in Los Angeles collaborated with Venice High School, located on a 29-acre site. They took a community gardens approach, involved David Crow, acupuncturist and author, got more grants and generated a lot of activity. Even so, they had to fight back an attempt by the local school district to erect temporary classrooms in their space.

Transplanted Medicine?

Years ago when I began my Asian medicinal plant research, a few experienced Chinese-born people told me the plants “would never be the same” if grown in America. They perhaps assumed, not without cause, that we intended to use the conventional modern approach of dumping seeds in the ground along with plenty of artificial, soil-killing inputs and over-irrigation, forcing them to grow according to our own limited expectations.

Fortunately, the leading edge in agriculture has abandoned the mechanistic worldview with even more aplomb than has the profession of Oriental medicine. Those of us who work with the plants know them as intelligent beings, with a much slower time frame than ours but with a group soul, characteristic behaviors and an amazing ability to communicate on several levels. Our mission is to enter a dialog that allows the plants to show us where they prefer to grow, and the conditions in which they express the healing qualities we so value. What better way to carry out this conversation than to distribute plant material to eager students of Oriental Medicine in various climates and bioregions?

The Soul of Our Work

Dr. Robert Ornduff, a University of California botanist, saw the very beginnings of Student Gardens and understood its potential. He headed a private foundation, the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. I began a series of phone conversations with Bob around the time Robert Newman went to China to curate the medicinal plant garden at the Nanjing Institute of Botany. We debated the question of whether the ACTCM-UCBG collaboration with Professor Xu was an isolated experience, or if other colleges of A&OM also would commit to working with the Asian medicinal plants.

By 2000, Robert Newman had returned to the U.S. Two students, Mary Lynn Morales at ACTCM and Naomi Alson at NESA, were actively involved in student garden work, and we received other inquiries. Bob Ornduff and I discussed the situation again and, when I ventured to guess that the time was right, he encouraged me to submit a proposal to the Trust. We received a grant in early 2001, and that was the kickoff for the Student Gardens program for the colleges of A&OM. Elizabeth Goldblatt and the Council of Colleges helped us arrange a competition for eight $1500 stipends, and we were thrilled to receive twelve proposals, breath-taking in their ingenuity and variety.

But when I tried to thank Dr. Ornduff, I was dismayed to learn he had died of cancer. Later, in 2002 when I visited the Chinese Herb Garden at UCBG for the first time and was privileged to meet Elaine in person, staff member Janet Williams described to me how Bob had pushed himself to get out those final grant approvals in the last few days before he died. “He said it was important,” she told me. We just stood there, amid the shimmering colors of that glorious garden, tears running down our faces. How ephemeral and mysterious are our connections to each other!

While Student Gardens has many meanings, certainly the program is part of Bob Ornduff’s legacy. Change occurs at last, whether or not angels walk the earth, through many individual responses to the same call. To me, the Gardens are a miracle that arose from the vision, faith and dedication of disparate people, each deciding the time is right, and each doing their part. Sometimes we never meet. On other occasions, we find ourselves in distant gardens amid familiar plants, and embrace each other in joy.