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Awareness growing for Mills Healing Plant Tour

Michelle Ma

Brittle leaves crunch beneath your feet as you shuffle toward two metal plaques nestled in a creek-side clearing behind Mills’ Vera Long Building. One sign features a description of the California Buckeye plant and its medicinal uses, including information that ranges from the plant’s ability to strengthen the vascular system to its use by “Native American peoples to stupefy fish for easy harvesting.”

The sign is one of many that make up the Mills Healing Plant Tour, which exists to bring awareness to the Mills community of the presence of primarily native but also non-native medicinal plants on campus and how they’ve been used over time. Each plaque features a photograph of the plant along with its scientific and common names, medicinal and non-medicinal uses and various cultures and places throughout the world where the plant or similar plants exist.

A tour sign located at the intersection of Kapiolani and Post Roads informs anyone who takes the time to read it that the “California Bay Laurel is used as a cooking spice, in cosmetics, in traditional migraine medicine and as an insect repellent.”
The sign details how the California Miwok Indians used the California Bay Laurel and highlights the Miwok Indians’ ingenuity with descriptions of how their use of the spice has been applied to commercial insect repellent products.
Each sign also includes the warning, “CAUTION: Many plant remedies can be poisonous when not properly prepared,” followed by a description of the dangerous parts of each plant.
One sign states, “Glycoside esculin, saponin aescin and alkaloids are poisonous components of (California) Buckeye seeds, leaves and sprouts.”

According to Biology Professor Susan Spiller, the tour blossomed from the collaboration of professors, students and faculty working on the Healing Plant Project in spring 2003, in which Mills students created a science curriculum about medicinal plants for the Junior Center for Arts and Science, a non-profit organization located near Lake Merritt. The tour led to the creation of the Greening of Mills College 60 course co-taught by Spiller, Director of Campus Facilities Paul Richards and former Public Policy Program Director Emery Roe in the spring of 2003, in which students and faculty continued to work on the tour.

“It was just a great synergy that semester,” Spiller said.
According to Spiller, students in the Greening of Mills course collected information for the signs through interviews with friends, family and members of the Oakland and Lake Merritt communities.

“They came back with folklore on it and tried to find some scientific basis to do some research on that,” she said.
Richards spoke of the project’s interconnectivity between various disciplines and aspects of life.

“It’s science. It’s personal. It’s sociological. It’s everything that education should be,” he said.

The project was funded through the Irvine Multicultural Engagement: Mills and Oakland (MEMO) Grant from the James Irvine Foundation.

According to Mary Ann Wight, executive assistant of the Provost’s Office, the Office of Institutional Advancement wrote the grant proposal for the three-year, $800,000 MEMO grant that was awarded to Mills in the 2002-2003 school year. She said that $7,025 of that $800,000 was allotted for various expenses of the Healing Plant Project, including hiring student research assistants, installing signs for the Healing Plant Tour and partnering Mills students with the Junior Center for Arts and Science.

Richards said that the tour “represents an opportunity to increase awareness of what urbanization’s impact on the environment is. These signs bring a visual presence to this problem.”

Spiller echoed this sentiment.”Bruce Pavlik, Paul Richards and I have a dream that Mills will be a center for restoration biology,” she said.

She and Mills’ Botanical Garden and Greenhouse Coordinator, Christina McWhorter, said the Mills Biology community will work toward this goal by launching projects similar to the Healing Plant Tour in the future.

Visitors can easily embark upon the self-guided tour by picking up a tour pamphlet at the library or Sage Hall and following the red numbers on the map to locate twelve plants on campus.

Many tour signs are located in the Botanical Garden and outdoor classroom near the Children’s School for easy access. Visitors can also make the extra trek to find signs in the less traveled areas of campus.