In gardens across Connecticut, green tomatoes slowly turn red, corn stalks inch higher toward the sky, and tissue-papery squash blossoms evolve into hardy fruit.

But in one particular garden at the University of Bridgeport (UB), something far more unusual is starting to bloom this summer: a bumper crop of exotic herbs, flowers, and plants that can be used to treat everyday ailments, like coughs and rashes, to life-threatening diseases like hypertension and diabetes.

The medicinal garden is nestled outside a towering University building overlooking Seaside Park. Nonetheless, it plays a central role at the College of Naturopathic Medicine (UBCNM), one of UB’s health sciences programs. Students at the school must become experts in biomedical science and plant-based holistic care to earn their Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (ND) degrees.

Deep roots for plant-based care

The connection between plants and health is not new. “Let food be your medicine and your medicine food,” Hippocrates famously intoned some 2,400 years ago.

The Greek physician likely was referring to olives, figs, and other locally harvested crops that made their way to his Mediterranean dinner plate and medicine cabinet. Today, naturopathic doctors, known as ND’s, have a global arsenal of plants at their disposal. Yet that doesn’t always sit well with Dr. Euguene Zampieron, one of the founding members of the College of Naturopathic Medicine and the co-host of the nationally syndicated radio shows, The Natural Medicine Chest and The Natural Nurse and Dr. Z.

“I don’t want my students at the College of Naturopathic Medicine to be a ‘UPS naturopath’ who thinks herbs come from a guy in a brown truck who delivers them in bottles. When students can see and touch the plants, they will remember them much more vividly than just reading about them in textbooks,” says Zampieron, who is known as “Dr. Z.”

We’re growing plants that should  not grow in Connecticut . . . It’s a little bit magical.”

That’s why Zampieron takes College of Naturopathic students on trips to examine plants in various natural settings. Although the excursions enhance students’ understanding of various medicinal plants, they are limited. Many natural places have been bulldozed into parking lots, he said. So in 2002, Zampieron planted a more accessible, and protected, garden on the campus instead. It has thrived, despite winter storms, hurricanes, and all manner of natural phenomena.

On a recent summer afternoon, butterflies flitted from plant to plant. Zamperion took time off from watering and weeding to show off some more unusual varieties, like an ancient Medlar tree.

“In Iran, the bark, fruit, flowers and leaves are used to treat diarrhea, throat abscesses and fever, and it was brought back to Europe during the Crusades,” Zamperion says.

Close by, the garden’s banana trees are more “ornamental, though they can help balance mood,” he said. Roots harvested from the egg-shaped teasel plant can be used to treat Lyme disease, while berries plucked from a twiggy Hawthorne have been used for medicines that lower cholesterol and clean out arteries. Purple lobelia can be used to help people quit smoking.

Then there are plants that are unusual, even among a garden brimming with fascinating leafy things. Palm trees, for example, generally don’t grow outside north of Virginia. But two Sabal palms, which are used to treat prostate ailments, have defied all odds by thriving for more than ten seasons without ever being moved inside during bitter New England winters, says Zamperion, who keeps photos of the determined trees buried in snow.

Cultivating a buzz among botanical pros

Others are equally impressed. Earlier this year, the Connecticut Botanical Society contacted Zampieron, asking if they could include the Sabal palms in the state’s official Notable Trees Database.

Constant tending helps plants grow. But the garden’s unusual, and, it turns out, highly auspicious location adjacent to the 90-foot Health Sciences Building, gives an added boost to the garden.

You can walk by 100 plants in a few seconds. It’s like a rainforest.

“It has tropical plants to cold-climate plants. It has everything,” says Derek Reilly ’18, the past president of the UBCMN Garden Club who graduated in May. “If you were going to grow things in Bridgeport, Connecticut, most of the land would be suitable for a few types of plants. We use the building to create a microclimate to grow tropical plants: the roots won’t freeze because they’re so close to such a big building. There’s also such an amazing variety in such a small area. You can walk by 100 plants in a few seconds. It’s like a rainforest. The garden gives me opportunities to constantly learn.”

Growing a garden, and a curriculum

Since the garden was first planted, the College of Naturopathic Medicine’s curriculum has evolved to include five semesters of clinical herbal education, with one semester of plant biochemistry, three semesters of materia medica, which is the actual formulary and function of the medicinal plants, and one semester of hands-on training making different herbal preparations, a field known as phyto-pharmacy.

UBCNM student Tara Tranguch goes to the garden to make cough syrup to tinctures. “You could probably use only that garden to make all of your medicine for a year and you’d be covered,” she says.

As it happens, Tranguch founded a program called “Herb Time Lunch” that encourages her classmates to experiment with the plants, too. “We meet once a month, and everyone brings in products—teas or balms—that they’ve been making and working with,” she said.

But sometimes, Tranguch goes to the garden just to look, and wonder.

“We’re growing tropical plants that should not be growing in Connecticut—banana trees, fig plants!” she marvels. “It’s a little magical.”

Media contact: Leslie Geary, (203) 576-4625, lgeary@bridgeport.edu