A healing garden

Program to research medicinal potential of Kansas plants

hands holding rose seeds

A handful of rose seeds will become part of a garden that sheds new light on the healing properties of native plants.

Students, faculty, staff and volunteers gathered late last month at a west campus greenhouse in a rite of spring, planting seeds that will grow and bloom as the season turns to summer. The seeds will grow into a garden that not only is aesthetically beautiful, but one that adds to the store of knowledge about the healing potential of Kansas plants.

Kelly Kindscher and Rachel Craft in greenhouse

Kelly Kindscher, right, senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey, and Rachel Craft, a graduate student in sociology, talk about plantings in a west campus greenhouse. The plants soon will be transplanted into a new research garden as part of a program to explore the healing and commercial potential of Kansas plants.

KU’s Native Medicinal Plant Research Program will study the plants from the garden and across Kansas and the plains for their potential in botanical remedies, dietary supplements, cosmetic products and pharmaceutical or veterinary products. The program is funded by a five-year, $5 million grant from Heartland Plant Innovations, an organization supported by the Kansas Bioscience Authority.

The program has two focuses: medicinal chemistry and botany. Barbara Timmermann, University Distinguished Professor and chair of medicinal chemistry, is principal investigator for the grant. Kelly Kindscher, senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey, is co-principal investigator.

Kindscher, an ethnobotanist, has spent his career researching cultural uses of plants in Kansas and the plains. The program will promote public understanding of medicinal uses of native plants and provide scientific validation of traditional ecological knowledge.

echinacea distribution in kansas and surrounding area

This map shows native populations of echinacea in Kansas and the region. The Native Medicinal Plants Research Program will use satellite imagery to locate and document populations of plants in the state.

“These are all native Kansas plants,” Kindscher said of seeds planted in a greenhouse on west campus. “They all have a history of medicinal use, and people will recognize them, but there is a lot we can still learn about them.”

The plants, such as echinacea, butterfly milkweed, prairie rose and bee balm, will be transplanted in a five-acre research and demonstration garden on land owned by KU Endowment near the Lawrence airport. When they are mature, the plants will be collected and dried.

Program staff will also gather plants from across the state, primarily western Kansas. They will be analyzed at KU’s High Throughput Screening Laboratory for compounds that may potentially be used in natural products. More wild Echinacea has been harvested from Kansas than any other state, and researchers believe it and other plants not only have potential for commercial use, but also can lead to markets for Kansas products and job opportunities.

“We feel that there are great opportunities for some regional businesses to start up,” Kindscher said.

Using satellite images and aerial photography, program staff will map locations of native plants in Kansas and throughout the region. The information will be stored in an extensive research database with information about the plants’ location, growth cycle data and chemical makeup. The program will also focus on conservation of native plants.

Barbara Timmermann

Barbara Timmermann

Plants will be gathered primarily from the wild, but material also will come from the research garden. Timmermann, Kindscher and colleagues will be able to compare data from plants gathered from various locations and study the effects of factors such as drought strain and fertilization on the plants’ chemical compounds.

The program is seeking volunteers for the first planting at its research garden May 23, when 2,000 plants from 40 different species will go into the ground. Anyone interested in volunteering should contact Kirsten Bosnak, communications and outreach coordinator, at moonfarm@ku.edu or 864-6267. For more information on the program, visit the program’s Web site or Facebook page.