The Healing and Harming Garden is a physical and conceptual space imagined and directed by Vikram Tamboli (Visiting Scholar at the Latin American Institute) in collaboration with Anthony Baniaga (Herbarium Curator and Adjunct Assistant Professor in EEB) and forms a core project of the Plants and Peoples initiative of the UCLA Mathias Botanical Garden. Showcasing plants that both have been linked to healing and harming traditions around the world, the Garden facilitates a campus-wide conversation about the multiple ways of conceiving, living, and honoring the natural world. As a conceptual space, the Garden is transdisciplinary, bringing together specific conversations emerging from the History, Geography, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Medicine, centering the multiple ways of engaging the power and sacred intelligence of plants.

 The Garden privileges ‘Native,’ ‘Indigenous,’ and/or ‘Alternate’ epistemologies and cosmologies from across the world (American, African, Asia, and European) to provoke a dialogue with Enlightenment Science and its specific genealogies of knowledge and traditions of classification, curation, preservation, and bioprospecting. As a physical space within the Botanical Garden, The Healing and Harming Garden provides a new way of conceptualizing the role of the garden as teaching tool and proposes an alternate means of reading plants, the landscape, and, more generally, the natural world, as a part of a cross-cultural lexicon of power and knowledge.

Phase I: The Otherworldly and the Ornamental

The first phase of the garden project is underway and showcases a world of manit, momoy, tamet mih’a, toè, toalache, toalitzin, sacred datura, floripondio, moon flower, jimsonweed, morning glory, chalice vines, devil’s and angel’s trumpets. As spiritual awakeners and shamanic assistants, as pain relievers, aphrodisiacs, and poisons, these healing and harming plants are lumped together in the Linean family of Solanaceous plants and are cultivated widely across the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Europe. Over the course of Fall 2022 and Spring 2023 Vikram and Anthony are planting Daturas, Brugmansias, and Solandras to begin a discussion about the way we think about the relationship between aesthetics and spirituality that bind the Atlantic and Pacific Worlds to the continental Americas. In addition to being beautiful and powerful spiritual beings, these plant bodies are also toxic to humans and connected to the history of healing and harming as medicines and as vectors of resistance, control, deception, and manipulation.

Not unlike another recognized Solanecous family member, Tobacco, Datura, Brugmansia, and Solandra varieties powerfully connect the concepts of the ornamental and the otherworldly. A key source of atropine in the historical development of Western Medicine, in Mexico varieties of Datura and Solandra are rumored to be used by native women to control wayward spouses as much as they form parts of sacred landscapes, pathways to shamanic discovery and sometimes death. Indeed, in Ancient Greece Socrates took his life by taking the sister solanaceous plant, Hemlock. Burundanga in Colombia is the popular name for the chemical compound escopolamina derived floripondio or Brugmansia arboreo and it is often used to drug, confuse, rob, and/or otherwise take advantage of people. In the adjacent Andean highlands of Peru as well as in parts of the Brazilian Amazon, it is a recognized shamanic vehicle. However, the fact that scopolamine was also a drug developed by the United States military and that this knowledge may have been exported is an important pathway to denaturalize the relationship between indigenous knowledge of poisons and a bioprospecting imperial state. In homologous fashion, across India Datura metel is widely offered to Lord Shiva, the creator and destroyer of the universe.  Steeped in rumor is the related history of Thugees, one group of nineteenth and early-twentieth-century anti-colonial allegedly criminal devotees to this Supreme Deity in the Hindu Pantheon and his ‘consort’ Kali Mata, the Great Mother and a manifestation of ultimate cosmic power and death. Thugees, it was alleged by colonial officials, used Datura metel to poison and rob elite travelers in the forested interiors of the British Raj. In the Healing and Harming Garden, Daturas, Brugmansias, and Solandras initiate a conversation about the porous and shifting boundary between the magical, political, poisonous, therapeutic, and aesthetic.

— Vikram Tamboli, Los Angeles, January 2023


We are digitizing our macroalgae collections, stay tuned!


We are partnering with the LA Mycological Society (LAMS) and the Fungal Diversity Survey (FunDiS) to house fungal specimens from southern California. Please stay tuned for more information.

The UCLA Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden acknowledges the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (the Los Angeles basin and So. Channel Islands). As a promoter of nature at a California land grant institution, we pay our respects to the Honuukvetam (Ancestors), ‘Ahiihirom (Elders) and ‘Eyoohiinkem (our relatives/relations) past, present and emerging.

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