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New Exhibit Highlights Medicinal Plants

An exhibit in the United States shines new light on the crucial role many plants play in healing numerous ailments. Robert Raffaele offers a look at some of the species of plants on display at San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers.

Visitors can get an up-close look at the plants from several continents, whose medicinal uses have helped fight everything from the common cold to cancer.

Conservatory director Scot Medbury says the display is truly educational for all ages. "Kids will come in here and they'll go on the exploration to discover just how important plants are to our survival on this planet," says Mr. Medbury.

One example: This climbing vine from South America is used to a make a general anesthestic applied during open-heart surgery. Aloe, originally grown in Africa, has many applications, from a sunburn remedy to a laxative.

This machine shows the heat levels of different chili peppers, beneficial in settling an upset stomach and easing the pain of arthritis and other diseases.

Curator Lisa Van Cleef says, "the ingredient that makes that heat is being used for people who have shingles, which is such a painful disease and what it does.. it's like heat on top of heat and so it just numbs it."

Another example: Morphine administered to terminally ill people and others in severe pain comes from opium grown in India and Afghanistan.

Taxol - a widely used drug that helps stop breast cancer cells from reproducing - is derived from the bark of a European yew tree. And Hoodia is a bitter-tasting cactus plant that is native to South Africa.

"The Calahari sandmen from South Africa - they used this as an appetite suppressant when they would go out on their long - three, four-day hunting trips," says Ms. Cleef.

The "Nature's Pharmacy" display is on exhibit through October 2005.