Photo of Lavender and feverfew in the foreground, and monardo in the background

Harry Potter’s World and the NLM Herb Garden

By Jill L. Newmark ~

For centuries, people have used plants to cure illness and treat wounds.  Medicinal properties of plants have been studied by scientists and scholars throughout time and the plants carefully and lovingly cultivated in gardens.  Since 1976, the National Library of Medicine has maintained an herb garden directly across from the library’s main entrance.  The garden showcases the healing power of nature through a wide variety of herbs and plants.  From its first plantings of perennial hedges of boxwood, lavender and thyme, it has grown to include over 75 varieties of plants including columbine, feverfew, foxglove, goldenrod, lavender, yarrow and sage.

All that man needs for health and healing has been provided by God in nature, the challenge of science is to find it.”  Paracelsus (1493–1541)

As the National Library of Medicine celebrates the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first book in the Harry Potter series, the Herb Garden provides a great place to explore and find similar medicinal plants to those mentioned in the popular book series.  One of the required subjects for Harry Potter and his classmates at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is herbology—the study of plants and their medicinal uses.  Although some plants studied by Harry Potter are fictional, several are real and were studied by Renaissance scientists and botanists.  These early scientists recognized the medicinal value of plants and believed in their healing powers.  Many are still used today for treating injuries, wounds and diseases.

Photo of Lavender and feverfew in the foreground, and monardo in the background
National Library of Medicine Herb Garden in Early Summer
Courtesy Claudia Quiros and Fran Sandridge

Among the over 75 plants in the NLM Herb Garden, you can find Goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) and Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia).  Similar to Mandrake, a real plant used in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to cure injured students, Goldenrod and Lavender can be used topically on the skin to aid in healing wounds and ulcers. Mandrake leaves have been used in ointments for external application to the skin to stimulate healing.  Recognizing the Mandrake’s medicinal value, historical physicians sometimes used a small dose of the plant as an anesthetic.

 

Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) and Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) are two other medicinal plants found in the Herb Garden.  Feverfew is known as an effective treatment for headaches and fevers.  In a similar way, Dittany (Dictamnus albus), a plant found in the Harry Potter series, has been used in mixtures to treat migraines and fevers as well as for wound healing.  In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione Grainger uses Essence of Dittany to treat Ron Weasley’s injured arm.  Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is a medicinal used to strengthen contractions of the heart and regulate the heart’s rhythm. The standard potion-making kit of every Hogwarts student including Harry Potter, contains Belladonna, whose derivatives can be used to regulate heart rate.

Many more plants and herbs can be found in the NLM Herb Garden. Not only is it a wonderful source of study for students of botany and herbology like Harry Potter and his classmates, it is a peaceful place for contemplation and observation of the beauty of nature.  We encourage you to explore this special place where the fictional world of Harry Potter meets the real world of natural medicinals.

As part of a week-long celebration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the National Library of Medicine presents two special lectures. The celebration will also include a special display of the 15th, 16th, and 17th century books that influenced the Harry Potter series along with the six-banner traveling exhibition, Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine. Visit this special exhibition in the History of Medicine Reading Room at NLM, June 26–30, 2017.

The NLM Herb Garden is maintained by volunteers from the Montgomery Country (MD) Master Gardener Association, and the Herb Society of America, Potomac (MD) Unit who generously dedicate their time to this source for study by herbalists and botanists and center for peace, rest, and meditation, and a place to watch butterflies.

Learn more about NLM’s large and varied collection of herbals dating from the Middle Ages to the 20th century in the series Curious Herbals.

An informal portrait of Jill L NewmarkJill L. Newmark is an Exhibition Specialist for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine and co-curator of Opening Doors: Contemporary African American Academic Surgeons.

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