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Spring brings out the best in a tiny and carefully tilled garden at Nova Southeastern University. Flowers blossom, insects flit about, the air smells sweet and rich. Just nine miles from downtown Fort Lauderdale, its two intersecting sidewalks and picnic tables provide the cozy feeling of an urban oasis.
To enter this hidden gem, you must pass the austere Parker Building, then a spray of purple bougainvillea at the entrance. Once inside you can often spot curator David McLean pacing the 100-by-200¯foot confines, wearing thick gloves and a well-worn utility belt like one that might belong to a horticultural superhero. McLean is 66 years old and bears a striking resemblance to Richard Attenborough's character in Jurassic Park.He has the same white hair, beard, glasses, and thick, sturdy arms, which have been developed by 40 years as a landscaper. "This month and the next one are really the best," he says, contemplating a collection of some 400 shrubs, herbs, and other flora. "The plants blossom, the butterflies come out, and the scents in the foliage begin to intensify."
The medicinal garden at Nova Southeastern includes greenery that has served at various times in various cultures for treating ailments ranging from toothaches to anthrax. Started with just four plants in February 1999, it has become an educational tool for hundreds of students and researchers that is unique in Florida.
The garden, brainchild of former university president Ovid Lewis, was developed by a committee that included McLean. The garden's curator is a South Florida native who has had a lifelong interest in plants. His first memory, he says, is of standing in his grandmother's garden and watching her pick a fresh radish, then pop it into his mouth.
Since taking the job, he has thrown himself into the study of medicinal plants and herbs. He has visited several medicinal gardens in the United States and Europe. "I'm one of those people who plunge into something," he says. "I go nuts about it." Indeed among the plants that grow on this fragrant chunk of land, he explains, is copperleaf, a collection of green shoots and shockingly red, teardrop-shape leaves that natives of Fiji have employed for centuries to treat swollen testes.
"I think what makes [medicinal plants] most fascinating... is their connection to people," he says. "It's not just a matter of "Oh, I like this one, it's pretty.' It's more like, "This one can take the skin off your nose and this one can stop the bleeding.'"
As he talks McLean passes one of the first indications that this is an unusual place, a small blue sign near the entrance that states: "Please do not touch the plants. Some of them are poisonous."
McLean moves quickly from plant to plant like a child who can't figure out which Christmas present to open first. With an excited look on his face, he sidles up to the spiderwort, a tall, broad grass with three-petaled, bluish-purple flowers. It, he explains matter-of-factly, was used to prolong male erections by Native Americans in North Florida.
Next he moves to the gotu kola, a tiny green plant with leaves in the shape of a pie with a piece missing. It can be processed into pill form and is sold as a memory stimulant.
Then he proceeds to the tilio, a delicate green plant with triangular leaves that South Africans brew into a potent sedative tea. "Take three cups of it, and you are out," McLean says.
Don't forget the melaleuca, he adds. The Australian species, which was introduced to South Florida in 1906 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has a bad local reputation because it has spread into the Everglades, where ecologists fear it soaks up too much water. Back in its land of origin, folks have used its leaves in baths to reduce fevers.
Each plant is labeled with its common and scientific names, native region, and potential benefits and side effects. Diarrhea tops the list of ailments that can be treated; more than 20 entries help relieve that unfortunate condition. Close runners-up include coughs and colds (15), constipation (9), and venereal disease (8). A dozen of the plants are rumored to have an aphrodisiac effect. Among them is kava kava, a leafy green shrub from the Pacific Islands that reportedly, and conveniently, acts as both a love potion and a cure for sexually transmitted infirmities.
Though the collection is lovely, McLean estimates that 50 percent of it is poisonous if taken the wrong way. One example is tropical milkwood, which helps cure toothaches and intestinal parasites but also acts as a terrific rat killer. McLean advises anyone who wants to use an herbal or a botanical supplement to do some homework. "They have to research it intensely and have to talk to their doctor," he says, "and not all doctors are up on this subject."
McLean believes the facility has, since its inception, helped people better understand herbal products, both by showing the plants in their native environment and by acting as a living history. Some of its contents have been commonly used to treat a problem, then debunked. Dumiana, for instance, was popular a century ago as an aphrodisiac and cure for impotence. Millions of dollars were made selling it. "It was the hottest thing in the world as an aphrodisiac, and nothing has ever been proven," McLean says.