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Sowing the seeds: Sacred Seeds program at Missouri Botanical Garden expands into Europe

Peter Wyse Jackson
Provided by the Missouri Botanical Garden | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 28, 2013: In many parts of the world, a web of gardens work to connect the past with the present, and the present with the future.

They grow in India and Israel, in Cambodia, Peru and the Bronx, in Costa Rica, Madagascar, Colombia and Sri Lanka, in South Dakota, in St. Louis, and now, for the first time, into Europe through France.

Sacred Seeds, a nonprofit run out of the William L. Brown Centerat the Missouri Botanical Garden, recently announced a new partnership with L’Herboretum in France’s Loire Valley. The partnership marks the project’s arrival to Europe.

That’s significant for several reasons, including that Europe is the cradle of the world’s botanical gardens, early on offering a place to study, teach and preserve plants, according to Peter Wyse Jackson, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 

"So having a garden in Europe associated with the Sacred Seeds network is really important," he said.

The new partnership adds the 28th garden to the Sacred Seeds network, and brings them onto their sixth continent. L’Herboretum is located in Saint-Ay, France, has a 22-acre garden in the Loire Valley. The site, which is a historic landmark, focuses on preserving medicinal and cosmetic plants.

So far, says Ashley Glenn, a research specialist at the William L. Brown Center, Sacred Seeds has mostly worked with gardens in the U.S. and in the tropics.

Out of necessity, the knowledge of plants and their use is still strong In many developing countries, Glenn said.

"In America and Europe, there’s a lot more risk of things being ignored because they're not immediately needed, because we do have Walgreens and we do have doctors to go to. We have a lot of buffers to go to," she said.

To include the biodiversity of European plants, which are the basis of our own medical traditions, helps to close a gap, she said, "to see where our medicinal legacy comes from."


The first Sacred Seeds garden began a decade ago with Sanctuario Semillas Sagradas. The garden, which cares for more than 250 traditional Costa Rican plants, began at Finca Luna Nueva, a rainforest ecolodge and biodynamic farm. 

That garden served as a model for the Sacred Seeds program, which began six years ago at the Brown Center, Glenn says.

Each of the diverse 28 member gardens share an overall goal — to preserve and promote both biodiversity and traditional knowledge about local plants.

In the six years since Sacred Seeds began, they’ve added gardens around the world, and they’ve changed the way the program itself works, Glenn says. It’s less institutional, now, and more in the hands of the people in each community. 

Sacred Seeds is able to provide a number of things, including funding for specific projects through grants, and also help connect the gardens with each other to share knowledge about what’s worked and what hasn’t.

"We’re in a perfect position to go around and connect all the people to each other," Glenn said, "and make sure that no one’s reinventing the wheel."

Alyse Kuhlman manages the Madagascar ethnobotany program at the Brown Center. Through Sacred Seeds, she’s working to establish a Sacred Seeds garden in the Ambalabe commune which will serve five villages and 7,000 people. 

Right now, the project is working to gather local knowledge about plants there with the help of a Malagasy graduate student, and ultimately the garden will not just help preserve biodiversity, but could feed the people there.

The program is also planning a camp, which will be led by a professor of social work at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, to bring together elders and young people to share traditional knowledge.

Using Sacred Seeds allows the program there to look beyond biodiversity and into the community, Kuhlman says.

"It allows us to see what the needs of the community are."

And that holistic approach is intentional.

"The knowledge about the plants is every bit as important as the plants themselves," Wyse Jackson said. "There have to be incentives for people to conserve plants."

Plough on

The partnership with L’Herborteum offers many more opportunities for partnership, Glenn thinks. 

"We want to expand throughout Europe and have L’Herborteum be the vanguard of medical conservation on a global scale."

Sacred Seeds is also planning a partnership with the botanical garden in New Zealand, she says, which is totally devoted to medicinal plants.

"We’ve now hit six continents"” Glenn said. 

And since there’s little chance Sacred Seeds will head to Antarctica, Glenn says, “we just need to bring a richness to those continents.”

Wyse Jackson said he hopes to see stronger links between member gardens, as well as adding small and community gardens from around the world, allowing the program to continue representing institutions and grassroots projects at the same time.

The work of Sacred Seeds is part botanist, part social worker, part historian, part community developer. 

And it’s all necessary to preserve biodiversity and the traditional knowledge behind it.

“You can have the knowledge," Kuhlman says, "but if you don’t know what it really pertains to, it’s just going to be a line in a book."

Sacred Seeds locations

View Sacred Seeds locations in a larger map

Kristen Hare