One Garden  

Interview with Robert Newman
September 27, 2004
By Cindy Riviere

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Robert NewmanRobert Newman is a practicing acupuncturist in Sherman Oaks, CA, a teacher and clinic supervisor at Emperor’s College of Traditional Oriental Medicine, and collector extraordinaire. Robert has provided seeds and plants to a group of growers from around the country for over a decade. This group is conserving over 500 different species of rare Chinese medicinal plant germplasm.

"It’s preferable to use those plants that are in nature around you…when plants are able to naturalize in your area—when they are that much at home and they’re that strong in your area—I think they are going to produce better plant medicine."

Cindy: How did you get started collecting Chinese medicinal plants?

Robert: I began attending American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM) in San Francisco (SF) in 1989 and started collecting Chinese medicinal plants after I had been a student there for a while. I always loved growing plants and had been doing so since I was a young boy--it was an interest I kept going. I was growing lots of different cacti and succulents on a little balcony when I was living in the Marina District in SF. Early on, I noticed the school grounds surrounding the buildings. There were a couple of areas around the school overgrown with grass and fennel, and one of the areas had a plant of Mexican marigold and a plant of Lavender that someone had planted there—these couple of herb plants were apparently the last remnants of someone’s previous attempt at creating an herb garden at the school. No one was taking care of them, so it was lucky they were drought tolerant or they would have surely died. I thought it would be a great thing to take over the garden space for Chinese herbs. I was already familiar with Native American traditions and the concept of learning from the plants that were around you, and how critical it was to get connected to them to get a deeper understanding of them. I thought it would be a great opportunity. But I was just a new student, so I decided I’d wait a while before I approached the school’s administration with my idea.

After my first year, I went to the president--he said that starting a garden had been tried before and no one had continued to take care of the garden. They even had a rare Peony plant from China that was left to die. He said that he would support me emotionally and in spirit but not with any money. Little did I know that, because of the financial situation at the school, I would never be paid during the whole time I took care of the garden.

Cindy: What year was this?

Robert: Around the autumn of 1990 to early 1991. I started doing personal research at school to add to the information I learned in our herb classes, and I found a lot of useful information in the school library about which species were used for which medicines. I visited the Strybing Arboretum’s fantastic botanical library in Golden Gate Park, and began looking in catalogues, seed lists, botanic gardens’ seed exchange lists, etc. I started writing or calling these places, finding out what material was available, and then I began to order plants and seeds. I also wrote to botanic gardens--particularly ones in China and Japan--and started to develop the garden through all of these sources. Over time, I continued to expand some of the range of my sources, but with the botanic gardens, not many of them wanted to help me. The Chinese ones were really tough. I think what happened there was, the letter I’d send would not be put on the right person’s desk--no one knew what to do with the request. Or perhaps they didn’t want anything to do with the correspondence unless it would clearly benefit them in some direct way.

I also found a directory in the library by Lyle Craker: a listing of individuals doing research on medicinal, aromatic, oil, and economic plants. He ended up having information on researchers that included people in China, Indonesia, Japan, India, etc. I knew that some of these people and their associated workplaces might have material that I was searching for. So I sent some faxes or letters to some researchers from this list and it was during that time that I received a reply from a researcher from the Institute of Medicinal Plant Development (IMPLAD), in Beijing, China. I also heard from He Shan An, the director of the Nanjing Botanic Garden, in Jiangsu Province, China.

Cindy: Did you write them in English?

Robert: Some of them I wrote to in English. But for the ones in China, I had teachers at my school help me write a couple of standard letters in Chinese and the letters became form letters that I could use repeatedly. I would mail it or fax it out. Another botanic garden that I eventually received a reply from was the Guangxi Botanic Garden of Medicinal Plants. It turned out a private individual worker there had found my letter, wanted to make some money and decided he would be willing to sell me some seeds and plants for a fairly hefty price. But in spite of the high costs, I did get a few important species going from that connection.

Cindy: When I met you in 1995 your apartment in SF was filled with thousands of packets of seed. You acquired a large collection in a relatively short time.

Robert: Yeah, it took about three or four years to accumulate the seed contacts. I kept on ordering from various sources, and I also joined 5 or 6 rock garden or alpine garden societies—their seed exchanges were often a fairly good source. If you were a member and you also contributed some seeds to the exchange, you would get more access to seed. Eventually, I had enough seeds being produced from some of my plants that I was able to start contributing to the seed exchanges and also trading with others for seed. The botanic garden contacts were also somewhat helpful.

Then I met Vinnie (Elixir Farm) and Joe Hollis. Although, I’m not sure which person I met first, I think it was Vinnie. I ordered some things from Vinnie. I also spoke with her and we became friends and colleagues in this effort to grow Chinese medicinals—then we started trading seed. I think I got hooked up with Joe through Vinnie. Joe had a list of seeds of American medicinals that he was collecting and growing. We had the idea of using Joe’s list of American medicinals as an official botanic garden list and using an official name for his gardens there in North Carolina. Then we were able to start getting seeds from Japanese botanic gardens.

You see, it was hard to get seed from botanic gardens unless you were a botanic garden, and this is still often the case—especially if you are in America and you are requesting seed from an Asian botanic garden. From that experience, I decided to start calling the garden at the school the "ACTCM Garden of Asian Medicinal Plants"—in that way, it would make the ACTCM garden sound a lot more official-sounding for any future needs I might have in connecting with other botanic gardens: especially overseas ones. From this list of Joe’s, we were able to get some good material from Japanese botanic gardens. They had some really great material. We would split the material and then share the plants with each other--if one of us couldn’t get something going, often the other could. It was unusual to get this special material and was therefore very precious. I want to mention here that I also got a number of important and uncommon—at that time—species from Elaine Sedlack, the curator of the Asian section and the Chinese herb garden at UC Berkeley botanic garden. She was very helpful and generous. Also, Bill McNamara of Quarry Hill botanic garden has been very kind and helpful with our efforts in obtaining some medicinal species.

Eventually, I got more connected with the folks in Nanjing as well as at IMPLAD in Beijing. I eventually hooked up with Zhang Ben Gang at IMPLAD. I initially didn’t get anything from IMPLAD, but I did get a seed list from Nanjing. When I was still in SF, they were kind enough to send me some seeds from their seed list when I requested them.

Cindy: Was that when you made your connection with Nanjing and they learned how much you knew about Chinese herbs?

Robert: I eventually met Prof. Chen Chong Ming—he was a Vice-Director of the Institute and the head of the Chinese Medicine Dept. at the Nanjing Botanical Garden. I sent the Nanjing botanic garden some samples of specific herbs from our pharmacy because I believed we were too often receiving substitute species, or even false ones, instead of the real or primary ones we were supposed to be getting. From the books I had been learning from and in which I had been looking up all this information, and from growing some of the plants in the garden, I started to know the plants and recognize characteristics about them. After looking at the material in our pharmacy through these "new" eyes, it became clear to me that we were having problems with identification. So, I sent the Nanjing Botanical Garden a bunch of dried pharmacy samples and asked them to see if I was correct in my guess about which species we were actually getting in our pharmacy. The director, He Shan An, passed that information to Prof. Chen who apparently was soon going to be coming into Los Angeles (LA) after some institutes in Brazil he was going to visit. I think they deliberately had him stop in LA just to meet with me so that we could talk about the herb samples I’d sent, and probably more importantly, to make another international connection. He didn’t know that SF and LA weren’t right down the block from each other and that I didn’t have the money to fly down from SF to meet him at the airport. But as fate would have it I was coming home to see my family during my school break, which was coinciding with his visit. I believe it was one of those things in a long list of things that gave me the clear sense of being guided in what I was doing—fate seemed to help it work out so well that he was coming when I was going to be there anyway. I picked him up at the airport and I brought him home with me for a few days. He got to know my folks and we talked about the samples, we talked about my interests and talked about schools and the educational process here. He came back the next year to SF and he stayed with me for about 4 weeks or so in my apartment. He wanted to see some Chinese medicine schools, try to make some connections and basically try and find some way of having a cooperative effort happen. I brought him to ACTCM and a college in Oakland. I went to Santa Barbara at UCSB with him because they had a medicinal garden going there, but that ended up not going anywhere.

Then, I made my first trip to China in the autumn of 1996 and traveled around there. I was visiting Nanjing and of course I wanted to see the institute, so I arranged a visit. They already knew about me through Prof. Chen who had seen the garden that I had developed at American College. We went out to dinner with the institute’s leader, Prof. He--director He Shan An—a very busy man at that time. He was director of the institute/garden and the Vice President of the International Botanical Society at the time. He had a lot of contacts and fancied himself an international connector with researchers around the world that were doing work with plants, generally, and also medicinal plants. He was also interested in botanical medicine.

So he brought with him on this night his entourage of other leaders at the institute, along with Prof Chen, and we met for dinner. And in the middle of eating he asked me what I thought of the herb garden. Let me say here that the garden had been taken over from the Chinese medicine department by the landscape department. That department had been taking care of the gardens for a couple years or more and had not done the greatest job with the herb garden—they were the landscape department, not the Chinese medicine department, so that was the big problem with that. The herb garden had gone downhill quite a bit. Lots of things in that garden were left in disrepair. But I wanted to be diplomatic, so I said, "The garden looks pretty good….however, I think you need someone like me to come here for 6 months who can fix it up a bit." They thought that was pretty amusing and everyone laughed and that was it, or so I thought. The next day or two later he had his secretary take me on a tour in Suzhou, and on the way there, she asked me if I liked China and if I liked Nanjing. After I told her I did and that I’d like to come back in the future, she then asked whether I was interested in the job. I said "What job"? And she said, "Oh they didn’t tell you—perhaps they thought you’d be too busy to consider taking the job because of the work you have going in SF." She told me the job was for me to be the herb garden’s curator. This sounded VERY intriguing to me, so I said, "I might be interested in the job—do you know the details?" She told me I would have to talk to Director He. So I talked to him from Hong Kong just before I left China, I learned what the arrangement would be and he said he’d send me a contract. I made my decision and signed the contract towards the end of 1996. Then I got myself prepared to go to China.

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