June 2010 Research Garden Open House and Prairie Walk

KU’s Native Medicinal Plant Research Program periodically offers the community a chance to get closer to nature through garden planting, nature walks and other events. One of those opportunities was on June 19, when more than 30 people gathered at the medicinal plant garden 10 minutes from downtown Lawrence, Kan., for an open house and prairie walk.

The chance to step away from the everyday and into a natural community is more important today than ever before. Our lives are filled with a lot of stuff. We commute to and from work. We watch our favorite TV shows over and over again. We text our friends on our cell phones until we have nothing left to say. And although all of this “stuff” is what fills our time and our days, many of us grow tired of the routine.

I’m what you might consider an average 24-year-old college student. I spend many hours a day on my computer, but I’m still not as productive as I’d like to be (due, in large part, to social media). I play video games; Mario Kart is my favorite. I eat pizza at least once or twice a week. I watch The Bachelorette weekly despite the fact that, deep down, I can’t stand it. Generally, I spend a lot of time wrapped up in this super-sensory world that technology has created for me, and I spend very little time outside in the sun enjoying where it all began.

The open house, led by Kelly Kindscher, was my opportunity to learn more about the research program for which the medicinal plant garden was created. The other visitors and I stood under a blanket of heat and humidity to enjoy a few moments of peace away from the beaten path. Kelly introduced us to the 20 species of plants in the garden, which is intended for show as well as research.

Among the 20 species are white sage, yarrow (historically been used to heal wounds), two species of echinacea, blue wild indigo, purple prairie clover and mint, which we all had the chance to feel and smell. Visitors had an opportunity to ask questions about the research process and share their own experiences and knowledge in gardening.

It’s obvious that the garden is in its early stages, though it has seen significant growth since many of us took part in various planting expeditions in May. I can feel the excitement of all this progress, and the staff members who have spent dozens of hours tending the plot are proud of how well the plants are growing.

After spending about 30 minutes walking through the garden, we hopped in our cars and drove to Rockefeller Prairie, which, like the garden, is part of the University of Kansas Field Station. We stepped through a stand of trees and emerged onto the beautiful open prairie. The sky looked larger than it had in the garden, and everything had a faint calming aroma of mint.

Kelly and Quinn Long, a field botanist for the research program, led us through high prairie grasses to point out specific plants in their natural habitats. This prairie land has never been plowed for agriculture, and 20 percent of the plants within it only grow in prairies. Kelly passed around a handful of slender mountain mint, which seemed to be everywhere we turned.

I found myself amazed that all this beauty had been right in my backyard without my ever knowing it. In the length of time it takes me to drive to the grocery store, I could have been walking through fields of mint and prairie flowers. That closeness to nature began to feel more natural than the rest of my life. The sweat on my back, the bug bites on my ankles and the tan on my shoulders felt real and wonderful. Pizza and video games felt like a far-away memory.

We ended our prairie walk on a lookout from which we could view many miles of Kansas farmland. Dark rain clouds had begun to roll in, and we could hear thunder out on that stretch of land where the rain was already falling, reminding us that it was time to return to our cars and our homes.

The opportunity to escape life, even for an hour or two, isn’t reserved for the group who joined the prairie walk that day. The research garden’s gates are lock-free, and anybody who is interested can stop by to check out the growth and progress. Rockefeller Prairie is open as well, and I encourage anybody who hasn’t to take a moment to visit the area. Your TV and cell phone can wait. Experiences like these are good for the soul.

— Lindsey Siegele
Graduate assistant, communications and outreach

Directions: For directions to the garden and to Rockefeller Prairie, go to the “Our program” tab and find “Medicinal plant garden” in the drop-down menu. If you choose to visit, please be considerate. Do not bring pets, collect flowers or any animals, or disturb garden plants or marked research plots at the prairie. Both the garden and the prairie are valuable research areas that also provide important habitats for rare species of plants and animals, so visitors are asked to have a minimal impact on them and to stay on established trails or pathways. We appreciate your interest!