On February 27, 2024, SDBG hosted its first Medicinal Plants Research Symposium, bringing together leading researchers from academia, industry and nonprofits, along with Native American tribal governments and members, and other community partners to celebrate accomplishments from the first phase of the Medicinal Plants Project, and look ahead at the future of medicinal plants research. 

Gathering experts from across the nation, keynote speakers at the event included professor and award-winning author Dr. Cassandra Quave from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia; distinguished agricultural ecologist and ethnobotanist Dr. Gary Nabhan from University of Arizona in Tucson; and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and Environmental Director Dr. Shasta Gaughen from the Pala Band of Mission Indians in Pala, California. See Dr. Gaughen’s full keynote address titled “Plants and the Sovereignty of Indigenous Knowledge” here.

Symposium keynote speaker Dr. Shasta Gaughen presenting to the audience in the Dickinson Family Education Conservatory event space.









The Symposium also included a tour of the new Medicinal Garden at SDBG, along with breakout sessions and a public-facing workshop (“Sharing in Medicinal Plant Knowledge”) on February 28 that included healers and teachers from Brazil, Georgia, New Mexico and Arizona. 

Native American Healer Brophy Toledo from Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico and Flower Hill Institute speaking at the “Sharing in Medicinal Plant Knowledge workshop


Launched in 2022 with funding from The Conrad Prebys Foundation, the Medicinal Plants Project was initiated to create the first medicinal plant collection and consortium of its kind in the United States. As many as 40% of all drugs found in modern pharmacies today are directly or indirectly derived from plants. Yet, the rate of plant-based drug discovery has declined in recent decades, in part due to lack of readily available medicinal plant collection resources. Led by SDBG, the consortium brings community collaboration to the forefront, connecting experts of diverse backgrounds across industries and sectors to uncover new and expanded plant-based medicines in an innovative way. 

Medicinal Garden educational signage at SDBG.


A critical component of this work is partnering with Indigenous communities, who have used plants as medicine since time immemorial and still do to this day. As the original native inhabitants of what is now San Diego County, the Kumeyaay, Cahuilla, Cupeño, and Luiseño people have lived in this region for more than 10,000 years, using native plants to heal and nourish. The Jamul Indian Village of California (a federally recognized Kumeyaay nation) and the Pala Band of Mission Indians (a federally recognized Cupeño and Luiseño nation) are key partners in the ongoing medicinal plants project at SDBG, educating and advising on traditional practices, tribal sovereignty, and participating in decision making about medicinal plant research and development. 

SDBG staff with current and prospective tribal partners in the Native Plants Native People garden at SDBG.


On the laboratory side of the project, SDBG is working closely with Salk Institute for Biological Studies and California State University San Marcos on potential drug discovery using genomic, transcriptomic, and metabolic methods to study a specific group of medicinal plants under controlled growing conditions. Two species of focus include the California yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) and California sagebrush (Artemisia californica).

In addition to the creation of a 16-partner research consortium of organizations throughout the region, project successes at SDBG within the first two years include: 

  • Construction and operation of a new 2,100 square foot medicinal plant greenhouse.
  • Addition of 648 newly acquired medicinal plant taxa to the Garden’s living collection from field expeditions, partner organizations, and responsibly sourced commercial nurseries.
  • Three new educational gardens within SDBG, including a healing herb bed in The Hamilton Children’s Garden; a Native California herbal garden; and new medicinal garden adjacent to the Native Plants & Native People trail that was developed with the Jamul Indian Village of California 25 years ago.
  • In-person and online educational programming about medicinal plants and their foundational role in modern medicine for visitors and community organizations, along with recurring folk herbal classes.
  •  Launch of a new mobile phone app, which will be available this spring and will allow visitors to locate and learn about medicinal plants via a self-guided tour throughout the Garden. Featuring more than 50 plants, the tour includes audio translations, and will be available in both English and Spanish.

Looking ahead, SDBG will work with the consortium to continue to evolve the program and expand into new partnerships, regions, and plant species of focus with a goal of becoming a  resource for medical and botanical researchers, traditional knowledge holders, native and Indigenous communities, conservation institutions, and other interested groups worldwide.

We thank all of our dedicated partners for this project, including the academic institutions of California State University San Marcos, Kumeyaay Community College, Salk Institute, University of California San Diego, and University of Southern California Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute; non-profit companies Flower Hill Institute, the San Diego Branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, and SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute); small and large for-profit companies Aquillius, Cellibre, Ionis Pharmaceuticals, Pathlight Healing, and Wildflower Biopharma; and Native American Indian tribal governments from the Jamul Indian Village of California and the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

Funding for the medicinal plants collections and research consortium is made possible by The Conrad Prebys Foundation, the Dickinson Family Foundation, and philanthropic donors.