Beat a path to the garden of herbal delights

The Chinese medicinal herb at Bristol University’s Botanic Garden is an eye-opener. It challenges preconceptions about garden design and planting – and also our attitude to healthcare.

It is a collaboration between the university and the Register of Chinese . As a dedicated Chinese medicine teaching garden, it is unique in Europe. Created by the Botanic Garden’s Nick Wray, and Tony Harrison from the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, it was opened by the Chinese attaché in 2010.

I meet Tony by the Moon gate, the garden’s circular entrance, which is made of thin strips of bent wood tied with rope. We turn right down a walkway. Tony pauses to show me a vine-like plant clinging to one of the walkway’s supporting timbers. “This is Pueraria lobata,” he explains. “Also known as kudzu root. It’s used for hangovers.”

I’ve seen the tablets in healthfood shops and made the lazy assumption that it’s a faddy cure for minor ailments. I soon get the feeling I’m very wrong. We pause on a viewing platform called the pavilion of horizons to drink in the rooftops of Stoke Bishop and a distant hill, and I notice a Chinese poem translated on a sign. “Where East meets West,” it reads, “a garden unfolds, revealing new horizons.” The poem’s absolutely right. My assumptions are about to be turned upside down.

the moon gateThe Moon gate: marks the starting point of the garden Rebecca Bernstein

Tony leads me into the heart of the garden to explain the principles of Chinese medicine. “The tradition was laid down 3,000 years ago through the close observation of symptoms in different seasons and climates. You can sum up the approach through the ancient symbol of yin and yang. It aims to understand and treat the many ways in which the fundamental balance and harmony between the two may be undermined – the ways in which a person’s qi or vitality may be depleted or blocked.”

To illustrate this point, Tony shows me two plants. One is a small tree, around 12ft in height, with massive leaves that remind me of a gunnera. “This is Tetrapanax papyrifer,” he says. “It’s known as a dampdraining plant and works like a diuretic.” Next to it is a more modest shrub with green leaves like nettle or mint and purple flowers. “Agastache rugosa,” Tony informs me. “Otherwise known as Korean mint. It’s a damp-evaporator.”

We’re in the “drain damp” section of the garden and I begin to understand the purpose of the plants. Every garden area has a raison d’être: Tony points out “cool heat”, “resolve damp heat”, “move blood”, “warm coldness”, “fire poison” and more.

“Chinese herbal medicine has an energetic diagnostic system,” explains Tony. “But it also looks at all variables – recognising that people are complex. It offers infinitely tailored treatment possibilities.” He then expands on his point.

“Think of Western medicine as an ocean-going vessel. It is very powerful and carries many people over deep water. But it’s also very linear, going only from A to B. Chinese herbal medicine, by contrast, is like a small boat which can carry only a few people, but is able to explore much more, travelling up small creeks to reach the river’s source.”

goji berriesBranching out: berries are only a small part of the medicines Rebecca Bernsten

I’ve spent so much time staring down, I’ve forgotten to look up. The garden looks like something you’d encounter under glass at Kew rather than sitting under grey West Country skies. There are palms, ferns and bamboos.

There’s also a sense that plants have been placed for maximum contrast and drama. It’s very beautiful. But when I mention this, Tony puts me right. “No – plants are laid out on the basis of usage, but the pleasing nature of the garden is no accident. The design, based on the Unesco World Heritage Gardens of Suzhou, is supposed to be healing. It draws you in, soothes and puts you in a contemplative state.”

We pass a bed of fledgling plants. “This is a new area,” says Tony. “Part of a project that will use modern science to test traditional concepts. We’re looking at .”

Next stop is the “phlegm” section. Tony shows me a glossy leaved plant. “This is loquat, or pi pa ye,” he explains. “The leaves can be made into tea, and they help expel mucus.”

It’s time to leave. I’m struck by how my knowledge of Chinese herbal medicine has been challenged. Until now, it’s been limited to clichés such as goji berries and ginseng, both of which I’ve seen in the garden. But with Tony’s help, I’ve begun to see this ancient tradition as something much more complex.

As we part ways, he tells me that around 80 per cent of the world’s population uses herbal medicine as its primary healthcare. This beautiful, peaceful place has much to teach us.

Source: The Telegraph

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