The Healing Nature of NLM’s Herb Garden

Extreme close-up of flower in NLM's Herb Garden

Guest post by Kathryn McKay, writer-editor at the National Library of Medicine 


Perhaps the scent of lavender or the sight of flowers could soothe you.

That’s what a group of gardeners have discovered while tending to the NLM Herb Garden. “When the herbs grasp your soul, you can’t just walk past them,” says Pat Keeney, who helped the garden bloom into what it is today. 

Volunteers from the Montgomery County Master Gardeners care for the more than 125 different herbs, right in front of the Library. Every Monday morning, about a dozen women and men plant and prune herbs and yank weeds. 

Between wiping sweat off their brows and sipping lavender tea, a few of the master gardeners told stories about their love affair with NLM’s Herb Garden. Each of the gardeners has a health story, whether as NIH patients, employees, or plant medicine historians. Started in 1976, the garden began as a way to highlight the healing power of nature.

In the 1980s when then-NIH employee Pat stumbled upon it, there weren’t many plants then—lavender, thyme, boxwood, a few snap dragons. So Pat started caring for them. She recruited friends to help, with varying degrees of success. When her friends started retiring, recruitment got easier. Now, she says, they are “luxuriating in gardeners.”

Summertime in the NLM Herb Garden.
Photo by Karen Kim

One of those gardeners is Jeanne Weiss. In 2014, Jeanne was diagnosed with pheochromocytoma, a rare condition in which tumors, usually noncancerous, develop in the adrenal gland. This diagnosis, along with Jeanne’s Cushing’s syndrome, led her to the NIH Clinical Center, where she received care for six weeks. This world-renowned research hospital provides care for people with rare and unusual diseases, mysterious illnesses, and health conditions that are under clinical investigation at NIH.

“I got the best care in the world. NIH saved my life,” Jeanne says. As a way of giving back, she started volunteering in the garden. Years later, that’s not what keeps her coming back. Jeanne volunteers to enjoy the plants and share her research into the history of the herbs.

She turns to a Lenten rose and explains how it was once used as a method of chemical warfare. “The Greeks put the roots in the water supply, which made people so ill, they couldn’t fight,” she says.

Holding up a leaf of the betony plant, Jeanne says with a wink and a smile that, according to folklore, “if you put a leaf in each nostril, one under your tongue, and a leaf in each hand and under each foot, you might cure your insomnia but not just any kind of insomnia—the kind you get from heartbreak.”

The NLM Herb Garden in front of the National Library of Medicine.
Photo by Kathryn McKay

Gardener Selma Deleon enjoys unearthing trivia on women’s health. “Lady’s mantle appealed to me because of its beauty, but it also amuses me,” she says. “It was called a ‘woman’s best friend’ because it was thought to stimulate the uterus, restore ‘feminine beauty’ after breastfeeding, and more.” She mentions how black cohosh was thought to minimize menopausal night sweats and hot flashes and how mountain mint brewed into a tea was drunk to cure menstrual disorders.

Selma sees the “circle of life in the garden” and “the joy of starting something and seeing its growth.”

Sandy Occhipinti understands. She says, “It’s therapeutic to work in and sit in a garden.” Sandy remembers a morning when a young patient from Peru needed exactly this kind of therapy.

As Sandy recalls, the Peruvian girl came to the garden with her father and her nurse. Because her immune system was compromised, this girl couldn’t play with her peers, but she could touch and smell the herbs. Sandy says, “The garden is a respite for so many different people of different nationalities.”

Sandy’s statement is as true for NLM’s staff as it is for visitors. We come from all over the world and we provide access to health resources used by people all over the world.

Thanks to the volunteers who care for it, the NLM Herb Garden provides a sanctuary for us all to relax and rejoice in the healing power of Mother Nature.

Photo of Kathy McKay


Kathryn McKay, MA, is a writer-editor at NLM. She is a graduate of the University of Delaware and Johns Hopkins University.


4 thoughts on “The Healing Nature of NLM’s Herb Garden

  1. I’ve loved the NLM Herb garden since I first came to NIH. Like others I find myself walking through it, or sitting a while and reflecting on life, experiments, and decisions to be made at work and home. A good friend of mine’s mother used to work on it and bring her along to help, so I knew of it before I came. My original degree is Botany so I’ve visited it ever since I joined NIH to feel the peace, smell the lavender, and thyme and learn a little more about plants. Since the totem was added, it’s also been my escape place when loved ones have needed prayer. I’ve enjoyed the tree of Hippocrates clone being moved there more recently. I keep a watercolor sketch above my desk at work which I made of the NLM garden in 2012 while sitting there and struck a conversation with an elderly person who like me had come for the peace of the garden, amid concerns about a loved one’s health. I love that you chose the garden for the topic of this blog. Thank you

  2. I’ve often driven past the NLM, feeling like an ‘outsider’, curious about what goes on behind the gates, in that interesting architectural structure, sited on a hill. The herb garden story gave me ‘access’ to, and a sensibility about the NLM’s garden, its history, volunteer keepers, and what is has and continues to offer those whom spend time there. I am a gardener. On my best days, my garden enhances my life; on my worst days it takes care of me as I care for it.

  3. Thank you Kathryn for your wonderful story about the NLM Herb Garden. As one of the garden volunteers, I enjoy the ever-changing colors, textures and smells of this garden. But, truly, it’s the wonderful comments I get from garden visitors that brings me the greatest pleasure. Myra and D.L.– please stop by and visit us when we’re working at the garden, most Mondays from 9-11am (April-October). And D.L.– if you don’t work on the campus, the garden is still accessible to you, all you’ll need to visit us is a photo ID!

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