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Tropical plants help heal, in chemotherapy, decongestants and more

The cinchona tree produces quinine, which is used to treat malaria.
The cinchona tree produces quinine, which is used to treat malaria. (Courtesy The New York Botanical Garden)
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Tropical rain forests are undeniably beautiful. They’re home to vibrant animal life and thousands of varieties of plant life, and they play a key role in regulating Earth’s climate and offsetting human carbon dioxide emissions.

They’re more than animal abodes, climate champions or wet wonderlands, though. Tucked beneath the canopy is wild medicine — a pharmacy of plants that play a critical role for human health.

Visitors to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx can discover some of those healing plants. “Wild Medicine in the Tropics,” an exhibition in the garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, lets visitors discover the healing powers of the rain forest while soaking up a bit of tropical atmosphere.

Interpretive signs point visitors to more than 50 plants that heal, such as the cinchona tree. You can thank these expansive, blossomy trees for quinine, which is used to treat malaria. (They make tonic water taste good, too.) Other tropical plants are used in everything from chemotherapy to decongestants.

Natives have been using tropical plants as medicine for thousands of years, but fewer than 1 percent of the world’s tropical plants are thought to have been screened for their pharmaceutical applications.

“Wild Medicine in the Tropics” runs through Sunday. Bonus: The conservatory is always heated to between 65 and 75 degrees, so it’s a great way to warm up.

Can’t feel the heat in person? Check out the NYBG website — it’s chock-full of resources on its plant conservation efforts and how to grow your own garden.

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