The Heart in the Garden


Sublime Garden Rant readers, I am delighted to introduce you to Stephen and Tom Amidon. Stephen is a wonderful novelist and Tom a prominent cardiologist. Together, they teamed up to write the just-published The Sublime Engine: A Biography of the Human Heart. And today, they explain the ways in which our gardens and our tickers are intertwined. 

Guest Post By Stephen Amidon and Thomas Amidon, M.D.

Common sense tells us that gardening is good for the heart.In fact, this may be one of the reasons for the apparent longevity of avid gardeners. If stress and high fat diets are two of the biggest causes of coronary artery disease, then spending happy hours growing vegetables–and subsequently eating them–is one of the best courses of prevention imaginable.

What is perhaps less well known is the role that produce of the garden has played in the history of cardiology.  While we now think of the treatment of heart disease in terms of high-tech procedures such as angioplasty and cutting-edge drugs like statins, some of the key breakthroughs in the history of cardiology were literally plucked from the ground.

In fact, our image of the organ itself may stem from a plant. The popular shape of the heart, familiar to anyone who receives Valentines or loves New York, may derive from the seed of a plant known as silphium, a type of giant fennel that was prevalent in North Africa in the 6th century BC, but has since become extinct. Depending on who you believe, it was either an aphrodisiac, a contraceptive, or a remedy for love sickness. (Perhaps it was all three: the first wonder drug, perfect for a weekend in Vegas.) 

Whatever its use, it must have worked, since the heart symbol–which actually does not look very much like the cardiac muscle in our chests–remains ubiquitous.

Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was known to use a powder derived from willow bark as a pain killer. Its active ingredient is salicin, an almost unbearably bitter tasting compound that was finally isolated in the 19th century. When split with sugar, it became the much more palatable salicylic acid, which is the basis of acetylsalicylic acid, known to one and all as aspirin.  Although originally used as a painkiller, its virtues as an anti-clotting agent, effective in the prevention of strokes and coronary blockages, are well known.

Cambridge rose Perhaps the most important use of a plant in the history of cardiology came in the early 1780s, when an English chemist named William Withering learned that a local folk herbalist in his native Shropshire had used a concoction of native plants to cure a patient of dropsy, or what we now call congestive heart failure. 

After analyzing the gardener’s remedy, Withering understood that the active ingredient was foxglove, a plant that takes its name from its flowers’ resemblance to gloved fingers. Convinced that he had come up with a decisive therapy for treating heart disease, he began to study the plant more carefully, resulting in his seminal 1785 book, An Account of the Foxglove and Some of Its Medicinal Uses.  It is perhaps the first systematic description by a scientist of how a plant could be used for medicinal purposes.

What Withering determined was that foxglove acted as a diuretic, reducing the swelling of heart congestion. Years of subsequent research established that the plant’s active ingredient, digitalis, was also effective in reducing elevated heart rates and arrhythmia. By the nineteenth century, it was the drug of choice among doctors faced with a growing epidemic of heart disease. It remains in use today.

Another interesting intersection of cultivation and cardiology came in the 1970s, when a Swiss microbiologist took his family on a vacation to Norway. This happened at a crisis time in heart surgery.  A few years earlier, a swashbuckling South African vascular surgeon named Christiaan Barnard had performed the first successful heart transplant. A rash of similar procedures followed, though in every case the patient would die within days or weeks of the operation because the body’s immune system would, not surprisingly, reject a strange organ placed into the chest.

And then that unknown employee of the Swiss firm Sandoz went hiking in a remote section of the Norwegian forests. Since it was the practice of pharmaceutical companies to have employees scoop dirt from remote regions to see what turned up in it, he collected a sample of soil to bring back to the lab for routine analysis. Although the scientists in Zurich were looking for new antibiotics, what they came up with instead was a fungus that yielded the drug cyclosporine.

This proved to be remarkably effective at warding off T cells, the commandoes in the immune system’s assault on the transplanted heart. By the 1980s this wonder drug had led to a resurgence in cardiac transplantation: Thanks to that intrepid Swiss man’s spade, there are now roughly four thousand heart transplants performed worldwide each year, with an average survival time of fifteen years. Another soil fungus, rapamycin, which takes its name from the island where it is found, Rapa Nui (a.k.a Easter Island), is also widely used to prevent clots in coronary arteries.

In the future, researchers will be looking less and less to the soil for new compounds to treat heart disease. Instead, they will be treating the human body as a sort of garden, ‘growing’ genetically targeted drugs out of stem cells or antibodies that are harvested from the patient himself.

That said, there is no evidence that the benefits for the heart of growing and eating your own food will diminish any time soon. 


  1. Fascinating stuff, Stephen and Tom! And thanks for introducing me to this blog, which will feed my gardening hunger while mine is under a foot of snow.

  2. Last year I saw the freakiest chocolate valentine candy. The company had used old biological molds to make chocolate hearts that looked like REAL human hearts, only miniature. I couldn’t bring myself to buy one since everyone always tell me that my sense of humor is different than normal, somewhere in my brain a warning signal was going off. To take to an even grosser level they also had other organs made in chocolate – kidneys, stomachs and pancreas’.

  3. Thanks to that audacious Swiss man’s spade, there are now almost four thousand affection transplants performed common anniversary year, with an boilerplate adaptation time of fifteen years.

Comments are closed.