Our program

The Native Medicinal Plant Research Program is a collaborative project of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and the Kansas Biological Survey, University of Kansas.

The program began in 2009 as a broad-based search for medicinal compounds in plants native to the U.S. Great Plains. Plants were collected in the field; choices were based on previous research in ethnobotany (cultural use of plants) and input from our program’s medicinal chemists. Plant material was dried and ground, then tested for its chemical makeup.

More than 300 collections have been tested. In addition, we study the conservation of medicinal plants, particularly those species at risk of being overharvested.

Among our program’s successes are:

  • the discovery of new chemical compounds in Physalis longifolia, a plant native to Kansas (see our web page on this: http://nativeplants.ku.edu/research/physalis-research);
  • the granting of a U.S. patent for this discovery;
  • showcasing of this finding at a prestigious research symposium on the East Coast;
  • a significant number of publications;

Our Native Medicinal Plant Research Garden—which has become our program’s public face—is just north of the city of Lawrence, Kansas. It includes a research area with approximately 25 species grown, as well as an Interpretive Garden with six themed medicinal plant beds holding approximately 70 species and educational signage on species uses. The garden is open to the public year-round, dawn to dusk. Frequent public and private tours are attended by classes, garden clubs, student groups, families, and other community organizations. In addition to serving as an educational site, the research garden serves several potential research functions:

  • production of plants for chemical testing;
  • comparison of chemical makeup in the same species grown at the garden site and in a native setting;
  • as a site for growing particular species of interest under a variety of conditions and testing for differences in the potency of their medicinal compounds (in 2011, Physalis longifolia was grown using four treatments for such testing);
  • and as a site for generating additional seed and plant material, as needed, for plants of particular interest.

We also developed and maintain the KU School of Pharmacy Medicinal Plant Garden specifically for the education of pharmacy students and the public. The garden includes about 60 species. Comprehensive, informative signage makes this garden ideal for self-guided tours.

In addition, we are building an extensive Prairie Ethnobotany Database by researching, compiling, and synthesizing data from existing ethnobotanical information on Native Medicinal Plants of Kansas, the Great Plains and adjacent areas. The database now contains nearly 1,500 species, about two-thirds of which occur in Kansas. These have served as our preliminary target list for collections.

The Native Medicinal Plant Research Program is led by Barbara Timmermann and Kelly Kindscher at the University of Kansas. Timmermann is a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry. Kindscher is one of the region’s leading ethnobotanists, a senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey and a KU professor in the Environmental Studies Program.

Support for program activities has come from the Kingsbury Family Foundation of Virginia, United Plant Savers, the American Herbal Products Association, the Rio Grande National Forest, and Heartland Plant Innovations Inc., a Kansas company that received startup support from the Kansas Bioscience Authority. Heartland provided the initial and primary funding that made possible the development of our program.