The first Sacred Seeds Garden was planted at Finca Luna Nueva. It preserves more than 300 native Costa Rican plants – and the traditional knowledge of their use.
alive senior editor Ellen Niemer shares her visit to the Sacred Seeds Garden at Finca Luna Nueva, Costa Rica.
In June, I wrote about my trip to Finca Luna Nueva, a beautiful ecolodge and biodynamic farm in Costa Rica. Nestled in the rainforest, Finca Luna Nueva is abundant with life—tropical birds, swaying palms, exotic flowers.
It’s also home to the first established Sacred Seeds Garden. Join me on a walk through this living testament to Costa Rica’s botanical heritage.
Sacred Seeds Sanctuary
A rugged wooden sign points the way to a natural garden nestled within the forest. Also known as the Sacred Seeds Sanctuary, or Sanctuario Semillas Sagradas, more than 300 traditionally important plants are grown here. A winding dirt path leads us into the forest where we find fascinating trees, bushes, and flowering shrubs.
Sowing the first seeds
The concept of the Sacred Seeds Gardens was the brainchild of Steven Farrell, president of Finca Luna Nueva; Rafael Ocampo, a local ethnobiologist; and Tom Newmark, former CEO of New Chapter, a passionate botanist and environmentalist.
Fifty to 200 species of plants become extinct every day due to deforestation, over harvesting, climate change, or other human activities.
“We said let’s create living seed banks, living sanctuaries, where gardeners, farmers, collectors all over the world can curate medicinally important, botanically significant plants,” says Tom. “And at the same time, interact with the native peoples while they still exist, while the grandmas, midwives, curanderos, and shamans are still around who remember why these plants were used and how to use them.”
Preserving plants and knowledge
Finca Luna Nueva’s garden is special because it was the one that started it all. It was created to preserve Costa Rica’s biological diversity and its traditional knowledge for future generations.
“Dr. Michael Balick, who’s the chief of philecology at the New York Botanical Gardens, described it as ‘the finest medicinal plant garden in the world.’ And working with the Missouri Botanical Gardens, we’re happy that the concept of sacred seeds has spread now across many continents,” says Tom.
Today there are 31 sacred seed gardens around the world.
Tom and his daughter Sara, New Chapter’s Director of Sustainability, lead me through the garden. There are so many varieties of plants that Tom decides he’ll just point out the more interesting ones because we only have an hour to spend here.
I realize that I’ve taken for granted where things come from. When I buy a bottle of allspice, I can’t envision its source. But Tom points out allspice and cinnamon trees, and tea trees just beginning to bloom.
Stinging (ouch) nettle
We stop before a stinging nettle plant. Prickly hairs grow on the undersides of the leaves. While they’re supposed to be painful to the touch, Tom suggests, if I feel like it, we could try rubbing the prickly side of a leaf across our inner wrists. The chemicals released into the skin are supposed to help heal joint pain.
I consider for a moment, then decide to be brave (or foolish) and go for it. I offer my wrist and Tom firmly rubs the leaf across it. The stinging sensation begins almost immediately. It feels like a bee sting. Tom rubs a leaf across his own wrist. Soon we’re both sporting red blotchy areas of skin on our wrists.
We look at plants that have been used for medicinal purposes by locals for centuries. Tom explains how local midwives, healers, and farmers come here to share their knowledge about these plants and to learn how best to grow them.
“This ecosystem has its unique needs and so do the ecosystems in Madagascar or Peru. We needed to create a way for the people to communicate with one another so someone who faces a challenge in Costa Rica has an opportunity to learn from what someone’s doing in Peru because there could be some similarities and lessons that could be learned from them,” says Sara.
Sara explains how the sacred gardens located around the world are all unique. Her husband, Drew, started a Sacred Seeds Garden at Kindle Farm School, a school for boys in Vermont.
An idea takes root
“School kids researched the traditional uses of plants in our part of the world and decided which plants should become part of their garden. It’s not only preservation but also a learning tool that helps these kids be more connected to the land of their ancestors. So there’s many different uses for these gardens and each has its own unique story,” says Sara.
We walk by a bamboo grove where several varieties flourish, arching high over our heads. We stop to marvel at a tree trunk. The trees in Costa Rica have developed the most amazing ways to protect themselves, by growing spikes and thorns on their trunks.
If you’d like to learn more about the fascinating plants of the Sacred Seeds Garden at Finca Luna Nueva, download this free book. Next month, we explore the Costa Rican rainforest and discover why its conservation is so important.