For 15 years, Patrick Keller has been teaching students the art of growing and cultivating medicinal plants using the campus’ herbs garden opposite the newly built greenhouse.
Keller, a biology professor from Rhode Island, has been demonstrating a nontraditional method of practicing good health and teaching students a preventative health care approach that is very different from western medicine teachings.
He teaches his Horticulture of Medicinal Plants class during the both spring and fall semesters.
“In the spring we focus more on germination and horticulture,” said Keller. “In the fall we focus on harvesting plants and then utilize different parts of plants to make medicine.”
Recently, Keller demonstrated how to transplant and move certain perennials. In a recent project, he and freshman Jesse Rowe made room for newly sprouted seedlings that were ready to face the challenge of outside conditions.
“I’d much rather be outside working in the garden instead of sitting in a classroom,” Said Rowe. “It’s a nice change of pace.”
Keller enjoys seeing students take ownership for what they do. Students appear to share the enjoyment of the newly designed garden layout and the tidy keeping of the garden space. The plant life and healthy appearance seems to inspire the students.
Medicinal plants are utilized through a process of pulling the beneficial chemical compound out of the plant part and making tinctures, salves, capsules, or teas. The class mainly focuses on making tinctures – solutions of alcohol, water and plant material – for students to take home and use.
Between the two classes, students learn how to grow a plant in optimal conditions, how and when to harvest parts of a plant for their most medicinal value, how to properly dry a plant and how to extract the chemical properties of each plant.
The class also discusses the benefits and disadvantages of western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine, and touches upon ethno-botany, which is the study of different cultural approaches to using medicinal plants.
The garden consists of a permanent collection of more than 100 plants, said Keller. Although some are grown inside the greenhouse, the majority of the plants are grown outside – most being perennials. When the class is over, students have the option to take home some plants that the class grew.
The classes also grow a smaller vegetable garden within the herbs harden. The plants are not grown solely for medicinal purposes, but for culinary and ornamental use as well.
Emily Haley, a junior enrolled in the class recognizes the importance of practicing this health-promoting lifestyle.
“I think it’s important to learn skills in sustainability that will be relevant through our lifetime regardless of our major or career. This class is very practical,” Haley said, proudly revealing her sacred ginseng patch.
Senior Aric Marcille found the deep history of herbal medicine to be most valuable, saying “The fact that this approach has been around for so long says a lot.”
After graduating from the University of Rhode Island with a PhD, Keller moved to Castleton where he pursued a career of teaching a variety of science courses including general chemistry, bio chemistry, organic chemistry, analytical chemistry and cell biology.
Keller said he hopes interest in his work will allow him to teach a class or two during the summer.
“We used to run the class during the summer, but it has not been running lately. It would make a great summer class if we had the enrollment,” said Keller.