The Magical, Medicinal NLM Herb Garden

Garden plots and a bench

The NLM garden features plants known for their healing qualities.

“Fresh herbs—there’s nothing else like them!”

So says Montgomery County master gardener* Mary Musselman, one of several dedicated volunteers who tend the National Library of Medicine’s colorful herb garden, across the oval driveway in front of the main Library building. Bracketed by benches, this unique haven on the NIH campus is intended to showcase the healing power of nature.

Since the beginning of time, people have used plants to cure illnesses and treat wounds. In previous centuries, medicinal gardens were carefully cultivated and the knowledge of their healing properties passed on to succeeding generations.

The NLM Herb Garden was created in 1976 as part of NIH’s celebration of the US Bicentennial. It continues to thrive today, with some of those original plantings still going strong. The garden’s lush variety of herbs captures the endless curative and useful qualities that made these healing plants integral to the development of modern medicine. Today, it’s lovingly maintained by volunteers from the Montgomery County Master Gardener Association and the Herb Society of America, Potomac Unit.

A woman talks about the nearby plants.

Master gardener Mary Musselman shares her knowledge of the garden’s herbs.

We’re sorry we can’t offer a scratch-and-sniff feature with this piece because, as Musselman escorts this reporter around the garden, she points out and invites touching of fragrant sprigs of everything from bay leaf to dill to lavender to lemon verbena to oregano. Heavenly!

“Being out here is a form of therapy—especially aromatherapy,” Musselman noted with a laugh. “Some members of our group have been working here for over 20 years. It always feels good to get some dirt on your hands and to see new plantings mature and thrive. There’s also a real community feeling, not only among us gardeners but also with the NIH staff who stop by to visit.”

During our chat, in fact, an NIH staff member from Ethiopia drops by to see the garden, which she loves, and to talk with its tenders. Selma DeLeon promises to give her mountain mint from her home garden. In return, the employee will bring the gardeners a batch of orzo with herbs next Monday. A couple of other NIH staff members also stroll through for a moment’s reverie or relaxation.

Not given to relaxation themselves, the gardeners work every Monday morning, weather permitting, from 9:00 to 11:00, April to October. Sometimes they visit during the week, for watering. The public is welcome to chat with the gardeners and to visit the garden anytime.

You’re Invited!
NLM Garden Open House

NIH employees and the general public are invited to an open house Monday, June 19, from 10:00 am to noon in the NLM Herb Garden. Hosted by the Montgomery County Master Gardeners and a local garden club, the event will feature herbal tea and herbal treats. Master gardeners will be on hand to answer your questions.
NIH Visitor Information

As we continue our stroll, we run into several other master gardeners, often hidden behind plants.

Her face damp with perspiration, Karen Kim robustly cuts chunks of soil with a large garden spade in an overgrown area of the garden.

Sandy Occhipinti digs in another corner, which showcases herbs used in Native American healing and ceremonies. She worked at NIH for 30 years, at the National Cancer Institute and Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, before retiring.

“Believe it or not, while I was working on campus, I never knew about the garden,” said Occhipinti. “When I really started to get into gardening, I heard of this opportunity at NLM and took it. It never gets old. Every week brings something different.”

A tall totem pole and a smaller totem bench.

Hand-carved totems overlook the NLM garden.

The Native American section relates nicely to a dramatic element added to the Herb Garden in 2011—a healing totem, part of the NLM exhibition, Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness. Through colors and symbols, this unique work communicates ancient legends from a variety of tribes.

“It’s so fitting for us,” Mary Musselman pointed out. “On the bottom, you see the woman with a gathering basket for herbs. We also see the Tree of Life, with its roots, and the forests that give us natural healing medicines. The message is that nature is the prime source of cures for human ailments.”

One of the gardeners’ stories was also a study in healing, but with the NIH Clinical Center at its heart. Jeanne Weiss was close to death three years ago, suffering from an unusual form of Cushing’s syndrome and pheochromocytoma caused by a non-malignant tumor wrapped around her left adrenal gland. She was hospitalized for six weeks with severe complications, including respiratory failure. The doctors stabilized her and performed an adrenalectomy, and she recovered. “NIH absolutely saved my life,” she recounted. “They came up with the treatment that saved me.”

After she started to pursue gardening seriously, Weiss was given the opportunity to work in the NLM herb garden. “It was a joy to know that I could pay NIH back in some small way,” she said. “And the garden here has become a place of therapy for me, too.”

Other master gardeners who tend to the NLM Herb Garden are Debbie Alexander, Marty Isaacson, Donna Kolis, Doris Leatora, (former NLM Board of Regents member) Deanna Marcum, Susan McCall, Ermona McGoodwin, and Ida Wallenmeyer.

*Founded in 1973, master gardener programs (also known as extension master gardener programs) are volunteer programs that train people in the science and art of gardening. These individuals pass on the information they learned during their training as volunteers who advise and educate the public on gardening and horticulture.

More information

The NLM Herb Garden: herbal remedies, herb gardens around the world, and more

By Melanie Modlin, NLM in Focus writer

2 thoughts on “The Magical, Medicinal NLM Herb Garden

  1. Thank you for your interest in NLM’s spectacular garden. The garden currently has peppermint and spearmint. The gardeners tell us that they have planted the mints in pots so they won’t “go bizerk.” But they did say if someone wants them to grow chocolate mint, they will! If anyone has a starter for the chocolate mint, let them know.

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