IMAGINE a garden where a rainbow of flowers, long tangled vines and hallucinogenic plants from around the world grow side by side, and even have the power to cure.
This is not a fantasy, but an active medicinal garden just a short drive from San José.
This Garden of Eden is on The Ark Herb Farm. The 7.1-hectare farm’s main function is to grow fresh herbs to distribution to local restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and cruise ships. But the real reason to visit the property is the medicinal garden, which boasts more than 400 species from such far-flung places as Europe, Asia and Africa.
The garden was the creation of two U.S. citizens – Tommy Thomas and his wife Patricia Riley. They originally came on vacation to Costa Rica 15 years ago and decided to stay.
THEIR interest in medicinal plants dates back to an earlier time, when they were in India serving as Peace Corp volunteers. This experience sparked their interest in medicinal gardens and, with the help of friends sending seeds from around the world (hence the farm’s name), their dream became a reality.
The farm sits above the traffic and pollution of the cities of the Central Valley and close to the mountain town of Santa Bárbara de Heredia. Almost two hectares of the property are set aside for growing herbs in plastic-covered gardens.
The medicinal garden occupies another two hectares in a more natural setting.
As you saunter by the cabinlike homes of the owners, the broad paths of the herb gardens give way to narrow, shaded trails leading to the medicinal garden.
THE farm’s two main guides are Allison McGarrity Ball and her fiancé Tin Contreras. They are helping the farm’s manager Maria Janssen take care of the farm while Thomas and Riley are on sabbatical in India.
Under the young couple’s tutelage, I learned each plant offered a story and various possible cures.
One of the first plants I was shown is notorious for its hallucinogenic qualities. The Reina De La Noche (Angel’s Trumpet Datura) is a Costa Rican plant, a member of the potato family and possesses some of the strongest hallucinogenic chemicals in the world.
It looks harmless – a collection of flat green leaves reaching no higher than my knee with large, drooping white flowers.
The thorny balls that carry the plant’s potent yellow seeds are hidden under the brush. Put just a couple of these seeds in your tea or cigarette, and it might well be an experience from which you never return.
“Your brain is crazy for three days,” Contreras said. “”It is very, very bad.”
THE Mexican and Indian Datura plants also live in the garden.
Datura plants are so potent that one species in Haiti is used as a crucial component in the creating of zombies in that country, according to Wade Davis, author of “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” an investigation into the secret societies of Haitian voodoo.
After poisoning the victim with other drugs, burying them alive and raising them from the grave, the Datura is administered and “chemically capable of maintaining a person so poisoned in a zombie state,” Davis wrote.
Most of the other residents of the garden are fairly harmless, and many offer a feast for the senses.
One fun plant to touch was the Mullein plant from Europe. It has long green leaves covered with a white cotton-like fur that feels like suede. Its main medicinal purpose is to extract phlegm. Put a little in your tea to loosen congestion.
ANOTHER specimen with an interesting texture is The Dragon’s Blood tree. The name comes from the tree’s blood-red sap, which soaps up when placed on the skin.
The sap is used as an ingredient in toothpaste and is good for keeping a loose tooth temporarily intact. It also is said to help treat polyp ulcers.
I got my first taste of the garden from the nearby Bush Mint.
As I nibbled on the leaves, Contreras explained how the plant relieves stomach aches and flatulence.
Along the tour I continued to sample a number of the plants, with one of the tastier being the Asian Gotu Kola. As well as a welcome addition to any salad, this small green plant is supposedly good for your memory.
UPON passing through a small forest the owners are trying to regenerate, the main section of the garden opened up like Munchkin land in “The Wizard of Oz.” An assortment of flora bursts forth in a garden organized in a more traditional manner, with gravel paths weaving in and out of the flowerbeds.
A couple of the more memorable plants were the Zorillo and Vietnamese Cilantro.
The Zorillo smells like a skunk, and is used to cure sinus infections. Boil some in a pot of water, stick your towel-covered head over the steam and inhale. Contreras also recommended eating a few leaves every day to prevent throat cancer.
The Vietnamese Cilantro has a much more pleasant, almost radish smell. This tasty plant isn’t the cilantro used in Costa Rican cuisine. It has a similar taste and aroma, probably because it developed a chemical defence to fend off herbivores, as the local variety has, Ball said.
“It’s amazing that plants from totally different parts of the world and from totally different plant families may develop similar defences and aromas,” she said.
THE Wandering Jew is one of the garden’s most colorful plants. A common ornamental, this electric purple and pink plant is also used for pain relief and diabetes.
The last plant I took special notice of goes by the seductive name of Kava Kava, or its nickname “The Surfer’s Drug.” This plant is a native to the PacificIslands, and has earned this latter designation because of its use by surfers to feel drunk without losing their motor skills.
They might also take it for the plant’s more stimulating qualities– it is touted as an aphrodisiac.
FOR more info on the farm, e-mail [email protected]. It’s open 9 a.m.–4 p.m. daily. To arrange a tour or for directions, call 269-9683 or 239-2111. Tours for residents are $2.50 for adults and $1 for students; for non-residents, $5 for adults and $2.50 for students.
The tour lasts about two hours and can be coordinated to your needs. Free herbal tea and cookies are served at the end of the tour. Spices and medicinal plants can be purchased at the farm.