A virtual tour through the officinal plants collection of the Brera Botanical Garden
The Brera Botanical Garden is temporarily closed to complete extraordinary maintenance works that will make it even more welcoming for his visitors.
On the occasion of the XVII Summer Solstice Festival – this year dedicated to the theme “Feel good with plants” – the Brera Botanical Garden proposes a virtual tour through a selection of over 300 species that make up the collection of medicinal plants.
An experience exploring between centuries-old traditions and current scientific knowledge on the virtues, uses and curiosities of these plants.
The Summer Solstice Festival is an initiative that every year proposes the Rete degli Orti Botanici della Lombardia (the Lombardy Botanical Garden Network) of which the Brera Botanical Garden is also part.
A few historical notes
The Brera Botanical Garden was founded in 1774-1775 for mainly educational purposes.
A place where the students, being trained in pharmacy and medicine, could observe and study many medicinal plants on the field, grown in the flowerbeds of the Botanical Garden and which can still be explored here today.
Interestingly, the dedication to medicinal plants has roots that go even further in history. In the sixteenth century the garden grounds had been used by the Jesuits for meditation and to cultivate plants to supply their ancient pharmacy.
In respect to its history and role in medicinal education, the Brera Botanical Garden still offers visitors a rich collection of medicinal plants, evidencing a close relationship between officinal plants and human history, since ever. A relationship that, from the sixteenth century onwards, gave rise to the foundation of many botanical gardens as “orti dei semplici”, that is, gardens dedicated to the cultivation and study of medicinal plants.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)
Echinacea purpurea is a perennial medicinal plant of the Asteraceae family and is often used in gardens for its showy and abundant summer flowering. The Indians of North America, its place of origin, used its root to cure snake bites, fevers and wounds difficult to heal. The first settlers of the American continent who observed these uses, adopted the plant as a remedy for colds and flu. In recent years, echinacea is appreciated for its immune stimulating action and therefore its use has been wide spread for the stimulating and strengthening action of the body’s defenses against infections.
The Asteraceae family is one of the richest and most numerous on Earth. It includes around 25,000 species, spread from the polar areas to the Equator, from the plains to the highest mountains. This is also why the Brera Botanical Garden dedicates eight flower beds to this family which includes many species frequently used to adorn houses, such as gerberas or asters, but which also includes important food plants and medicinal plants also used in traditional medicine (chamomile, artichoke, helichrysum, milk thistle, dandelion).
Mountain pine (Pinus mugo)
Mountain pine (Pinus mugo) it is a shrub of the Pinaceae family, widespread in Italian Alps, where it grows spontaneously even at high altitudes. From the young branches and buds, the “mugolio” is extracted through distillation. It’s a precious essential oil having a beneficial action on the respiratory system against cough and bronchitis; it is also used for the preparation of candies with a soothing function. In cosmetics it is used in cleansers for its deodorizing and purifying effect on the skin. In addition, it is an important ingredient in liqueurs and grappa with a digestive action.
Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)
Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is an annual plant belonging to the Papaveraceae family. The part used for medicinal purposes is the immature fruit from which opium is extracted, a milky liquid secreted by special excretory cells. Opium has analgesic and narcotic properties, such as morphine, its main and most abundant active component. The seeds, which lose their toxicity when ripe, are commonly used to obtain an edible oil. The species is often cultivated also for ornamental purposes, in different cultivars.
Marigold (Calendula officinalis)
De viribus herbarum, by Macer Floridus, is an ancient herbarium used by the Salerno medical school in which the properties of some medicinal herbs are described; it recommends to look at the flower of Calendula officinalis (Asteraceae family) in order to improve eyesight, purify the mind and stimulate cheerfulness. A joyful flower, whose petals also contain many therapeutic properties, including anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, emollient and healing properties.
Of uncertain origin, it was introduced to Italy for ornamental purposes and later became wild in almost all regions, in uncultivated meadows, on the edges of sunny roads and in olive groves.
Gumweed (Grindelia robusta)
Grindelia robusta is part of the Asteraceae family. When they are still closed, their flowers (flower heads), are covered by an abundant rubbery-resinous secretion, hence the name gumweed, literally rubber grass. It is precisely in the resin where you can find the active principles useful in the treatment of respiratory tract disorders: asthma, bronchitis, and cough. Its use dates back to the time of the California Indians, the land of origin of the plant. Then, the Jesuits and the first settlers favored their entry into official medicine.
Oleandro (Nerium oleander)
Nerium oleander is a shrub native to the Mediterranean regions and Asia and belongs to the Apocynaceae family. Oleander is a plant widely used for ornamental purpose, whose charm is however clouded by the well-known strong toxicity of some of its compounds. In ancient times, it was believed to have its origin in the land of Colchis, considered as homeland of magic, and it was considered one of the plants of Medea, an ambiguous figure endowed with extraordinary magical powers. From the glycosides (among the organic compounds with a biological therapeutic effect) contained in the leaves, pharmaceutical preparations with a cardioactive action are obtained, i.e. preparations that act on the heart by stimulating it.
St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)
Hypericum perforatum is a perennial plant of the Hypericaceae family. For a long time it has been considered to be a magical plant and its common name is St John’s wort as its use has long been linked to the St John’s night (June 24) for the alleged ability to hunt evil spirits, witches and demons. Numerous preparations are obtained from the flowers to treat depressive states. According to popular tradition, hypericum oil is applied to the skin to soothe mild burns and rheumatic pains; it’s an extract of fresh flowers macerated in olive oil, with a characteristic blood red color.
Belladonna (Atropa bella-donna)
Atropa bella-donna is a perennial species of Eurasian origin, belonging to the Solanaceae family. The name of the species refers to an ancient custom for which women instilled in the eyes the juice of the berry to dilate the pupils in order to enhance their beauty. The term Atropa refers to the Greek Moiral Atropos, a mythological goddess that severed the thread of life, precisely to indicate the strong toxicity of the plant. Roots and leaves are used in pharmaceutical preparations with analgesic, narcotic, antispasmodic properties.
Lamiaceae forms one of the most important aromatic families (which includes many commonly used aromatic herbs such as mint, lavender, origan, thyme, …) because its plants possess numerous glands along the entire plant, that secrete essential oils widely used in pharmaceutical, cosmetic and herbal fields. The first three flower beds of the south sector of the Brera Botanical Garden host around 40 species of sages which include both native Italian and species from many parts of the world. There are also sages from South America, which can reach 2-3 m in height and show off summer-autumn blooms with showy colors, bright red or intense blue.
Clary sage (Salvia sclarea)
Salvia sclarea, or clary sage, is one of the Italian native species. The plant is rich in essential oils and has been cultivated for medicinal uses since ancient times, for its antispasmodic and eupeptic properties (not yet scientifically demonstrated). In oenology it was widely used to give the wine a note of taste similar to that of the muscat grape and to perfume the barrels.
Californian poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
Eschscholzia californica, also known as Californian poppy, is a medicinal plant of the Papaveraceae family also used for decorative purposes, because it offers elegant summer blooms with a strong color.
The flowery aerial parts contain compounds with anxiolytic, sedative and sleepy inducing activity. In cosmetics, creams are used to make soothing massages on muscle tension. It also has antibacterial activity and this is the reason why it is commonly used in toothpastes and mouthwashes.
The appearance of the Botanical Garden is quite luxuriant in this June 2020, characterized by cool temperatures and rainy days in the first half of the month. During the different periods and seasons of the year, also on the basis of the trend of weather conditions, the Garden shows ever-changing features and offers the opportunity to enjoy the vegetative development of its species in many different ways.