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  October 9, 2000

Palaniswamy's Asian Medicinal Plants
Collection Offers Food for Thought

Aloe, Echinacea, Ginkgo biloba, Gymnema sylvestris and Jasmine line the shelves, but there isn't a bottle of pills in sight. Instead, there are plants in clay pots.

These are among some 52 species of medicinal plants of Asian origin clustered in a small greenhouse outside the pharmacy building. It is here in her medicinal garden that Usha Palaniswamy feels most comfortable: nurturing the plants she calls her "green immigrants"; teaching her students; or conducting her research. The assistant professor of allied health and Asian American studies is teaching courses in critical health issues of Asian Americans and Asian medical systems.

Palaniswamy raised the plants from seeds or cuttings - "wherever I could get them" - be it from friends, health food stores or her backyard. It has taken her about a year to grow the garden. Most of the plants are of Chinese or Indian origin.

"This living collection is a teaching tool and a method of creating awareness and appreciation for the plants used in ancient cultures and traditional health practices," Palaniswamy says. "These plants have been used for their health benefits in ancient medical systems and play an important role in health promotion and disease prevention today. They contain phytochemicals that can prevent the occurrence and progression of major diseases, including cancer and heart disease," she explains. The garden also will enable Palaniswamy to pursue an ethno-botanical approach to identifying bioactive compounds for chronic illnesses.

"While the fields of traditional 'cures' and medical practices, modern medicine, and plant science appear to be far apart, a common element does exist," says Palaniswamy, a native of Madras, India, who earned a Ph.D. in plant science from UConn. "Each is searching for biologically active compounds for practical use and profit. It is the chemistry of natural products that tie them together."

Roger Buckley, director of the Asian American Studies Institute, says Palaniswamy's work adds an important dimension to the program. "Usha's appointment is unique because she represents the sciences. This adds an important perspective that is usually not entertained in ethnic studies programs or cultural studies programs," Buckley says. "The West is increasingly looking at alternative medicine and the potential of medicinal plants. Usha will be widening the Asian/Asian American experience by looking at the question of herbal medicine, Asian medical systems and approaching them through the eyes of a plant scientist."

The air in the greenhouse is humid. Palaniswamy wanders amongst the sea of green in her "food pharmacy" to find a Curcuma longa. "This is an age-old condiment, with a natural food coloring agent, a yellow pigment used in Indian cooking. You won't find any dish cooked in India without this," she says. The yellow pigment is also an antioxidant.

A Gymnema sylvestris catches her eye. "The chemical components from the leaf extracts are used in diabetes in Ayurvedic medicine," she explains.

Palaniswamy's long-term goal is to identify and characterize the environmental conditions that produce the highest phytochemical concentrations in plants. She will focus on two that have been used in the treatment of diabetes, effectively lowering blood sugar levels: Gymnema sylvestris and Phyllanthus amarus.

"My ultimate aim is to come up with a standard practice for each plant. It will be useful to the consumers as well as the pharmaceutical companies," she says. She conducted a similar study for her doctoral thesis, researching purslane and watercress, which she says could become major sources of preventive medicine in the future. Her studies showed that concentrations of phytochemicals could be altered by environmental conditions such as plant nutritional balance, temperature and light intensity.

Palaniswamy says Asian medicinal plants have a growing role to play in diet and preventive medicine. "Eating has come a long way. Earlier it was just fat, protein and carbohydrates. Then came vitamins and minerals," she says. "Now, it's more toward prevention. There is a general desire for people to be healthy and well."

Palaniswamy writes a monthly newsletter, Purslane, that highlights herbs and health practices of Asians and Asian Americans. The newsletter is published by the Asian American Studies Institute. Those wishing to receive a copy should call Palaniswamy at (860) 486-2901.

There will be an open house to showcase the medicinal plant garden on Friday, Oct. 13, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in the pharmacy greenhouse in front of the Hewitt Building.

Sherry Fisher