Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans living along the Mississippi River bluffs relied on available herbs as medicine. Today, many of those native plants are endangered or threatened, but the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa is making an effort to conserve traditional herbs.
A new medicinal plant sanctuary that includes black and blue cohosh, trillium, Tennessee coneflower, and goldenseal is opening on the grounds of Chucalissa on Saturday, May 19th.
"We're growing plants that were traditionally used by either the African-American or Native-American cultures who lived in southwest Memphis in pre-history up to today," said Robert Connolly, director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.
The sanctuary isn't contained within a greenhouse but rather spread naturally throughout the forest trails surrounding Chucalissa. Native plants will soon be marked, and there's a seating area for school groups to listen to presentations about natural medicine.
Planting for the sanctuary began last month, and although some new plants were put into the ground, others were transferred to the sanctuary from areas where they were growing naturally around the museum.
"As this expands, we intend for people to be able to crop them and use them as they were originally used," Connolly said.
Connolly said the museum would rely on a trained herbalist to crop the plants. Some of the more endangered plants might not be made available to the public.
The idea for the sanctuary was born out of an email survey sent to Chucalissa's newsletter recipients. More than 60 percent of respondents said they wanted to see the museum focus on developing the natural environment around Chucalissa.
"We created an arboretum in 2008, and we've been partnering with T.O. Fuller State Park. We've tied our trail system into theirs. We already had an herb garden, so this sanctuary was a natural extension of that," Connolly said.
The sanctuary was funded through the University of Memphis' "green fee," a $10-per-semester student fee that goes toward university sustainability projects. The C.H. Nash Museum is maintained by the U of M.
Herbalist Glinda Watts, who will be lecturing at the opening-day event, has been pushing the museum to develop a plant sanctuary for some time.
"Right now, Chucalissa is a depository for ancient artifacts. It holds the bones of the last remnants of people who lived long ago. It's dedicated to the dead," Watts said. "But why not have something out here that has to do with living and promise and green things?"
Although the museum eventually plans to crop some of the native plants for medicinal use, Watts said it's important for people to understand that cropping be left to the professionals.
"We're hoping to raise awareness that these plants should be conserved," Watts said. "Every time I walk through Overton Park, I see less and less of its wildflowers, because people are digging stuff up. If you want one, buy it from a nursery or a native plants sale."
Watts will talk about native plant conservation at the opening-day ceremony, which runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Also on the agenda are a talk on Shelby County native plants by Memphis Botanic Garden curator Chris Cosby, a session on making medicinal teas, tours of the sanctuary, and a screening of the documentary, Numen: The Nature of Plants.