Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

The Muthi Garden Project

Number 16 - July 1998

J. Roff



The Natal National Botanical Garden in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, has developed a medicinal plant ("muthi") garden, which covers new ground in community involvement, interpretation and horticulture.

The Muthi Garden project began in response to a need within the NBI to make our gardens more relevant to the majority of South Africans, and a realisation of the need to act to protect the species of medicinal plants threatened with over-utilisation and possible local extinction in our region. Over 1000 taxa are known to be used for medicinal purposes in KwaZulu Natal alone.

The project began with consultations among a group of local traditional healers. Plans were formulated to build a traditional hut, surrounded with medicinal plants. Three local healers were contracted to construct the hut and the plantings.

Throughout the project, maintenance, interpretation, and likely audiences were considered. Planting plans were based on photographs of traditional healers' gardens, and on ideas from the traditional healers themselves. Plant material was collected from fields and local muthi markets.

In developing the garden, we tried to 'steer clear' of western aesthetics. Gardeners aimed to plant as 'healers' as well as gardeners. I liken it to arranging a medicine cabinet for ease of access, as opposed to how good the toothpaste and the cough mixture look next to each other.

A Process Not A Product

This project is by its very nature ongoing and responsive. All interpretation and education should remain relevant and issues-based, especially with a 'hot' topic such as medicinal plants. As the garden changes and grows, so the information available to share with visitors will improve, and creative ways of sharing it will need to be found. The process of working with traditional healers will add to this information. As friendships are built and networks develop, so the richness and value of the project increases. A project that has the "community based" tag needs to be backed by a management commitment to make time and resources available for ongoing staff development, education and interpretation.

Education and Interpretation

Education and interpretation in the the muthi garden takes several forms. Formal and informal guided tours are offered as part of a "walk and talk" program. Interpretative materials are pitched at different levels in the muthi garden. The simplest is a series of small plant labels that give the name of the plant in Zulu and English, and its scientific name. A level up from this is a plant use label, describing the traditional uses, and temporary "Did you know" informational labels. Occasional warning signs are necessary due to the poisonous nature of many of the plants. Inside the traditional hut are poster displays describing various aspects of the medicinal plant culture in KwaZulu-Natal, and encouraging people to grow their own plants. These displays and signs will change as more is learned about medicinal plants.

We will soon be offering courses for those who wish to grow their own muthi plants. The course format is still in the development stages, but it is hoped they will provide the skills necessary to propagate medicinal plants using low cost methods, reducing the pressure on wild populations.

When approaching the issue of traditional healing and the plants associated with it, care must be taken to remember that there is a complex culture associated with traditional healing and healers. Healers are often unwilling to divulge specific healing methods, although this is precisely the kind of information that most people want. Education programmes which sensitively address this issue, respecting both the healers and the knowledge-seekers, will be helpful.


The muthi garden project is proving to be a popular feature of the Garden. We look forward to it developing and becoming part of a larger traditional plant-use garden, where we grow plants for crafts and food, and teach practical ways of growing and using them. This may be combined with a sustainable agriculture demonstration garden. Gardens need to stay relevant to the demands of an increasing population whose primary requirements are food, medicine, income generation and a sustainable lifestyle. Botanical gardens are ideally placed to help meet these needs, as well as carry on their valuable work of conserving, educating about and promoting biodiversity.

Le Projet "Jardin Muthi"


Le projet "Jardin Muthi" tente de faire un jardin botanique capable d'ˆtres utilis‚ par la majorit‚ des residents de cette importante communaut‚ zulu et de conserver ces plantes qui sont menacees d'extinction par leur culture pour la pharmacope dans cette province. Ce projet a favoris‚ un developpement progressif des relations dans la communaut‚ et le partage de la connaissance generale par ce processus d'education et d'interpretation.