Sacred Seeds at Finca Luna Nueva Lodge

Ethnobotanists Rafael Ocampo and Luis POveda
Ethnobotanists Rafael Ocampo and Luis Poveda in the Sacred Seeds Sanctuary

I’m convinced the place is a magnet, attracting us to it. What other explanation can there be?

Consider this: about ten years ago, Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle, a respected therapist, teacher, and author, visited Finca Luna Nueva. My wife Terry and I met her at breakfast one morning and we asked her why she decided to visit our ecolodge. That’s a question we delight in asking our guests, as our lodge, while beautiful, is not exactly the Four Seasons: we don’t have TV sets, we’re in the mountainous rainforest, we’re removed from the hurly-burly of tourist centers, and we’re dedicated to rainforest conservation, birding, and regenerative agriculture. Olivia explained that her grandfather was a botanist who studied orchids, and unlike most botanists had the resources to travel every summer down to Costa Rica and other neotropical sites to deepen his knowledge of his beloved orchids.

Hmmm… A botanist specializing in orchids with enough money to take his family traveling every summer. “Where,” I asked Olivia, “was your grandfather teaching?” “In Cambridge, Mass.,” she answered, and the mystery was becoming clearer. “What was your maiden name?” “Ames.”

So here she was, a descendant of the great Harvard botanist Oakes Ames, sitting with me about twenty-five meters from the Sacred Seeds Sanctuary in a remote location on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica, out in the rainforest. And Oakes Ames, you may recall, taught Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, who in turn taught Dr. Michael Balick, who in 2006 began working with the ethnobotanist Rafael (“Rafa”) Ocampo to create the Sacred Seeds Sanctuary at our farm. And so I told her “turn around, Olivia, and behold this sanctuary, an expression of your grandfather’s legacy.”

Rafael Ocampo In the medicinal herb gardens at Finca Luna Nueva
Rafael Ocampo In the medicinal herb gardens at Finca Luna Nueva

Many of the above names are certainly familiar to you, but this article may be your first introduction to Rafa. He is deeply respected in the Latin American ethnobotanical community, and it’s no surprise that when Dr. James A. (“Jim”) Duke came to Costa Rica about thirty years ago to work on what would become the Tico Ethnobotanical Dictionary, he turned to Rafa as his guide into indigenous knowledge and region.

In many ways, the Tico Ethnobotanical Dictionary is an expression of the combined scholarship of Rafa and Jim, and it was thus a great delight to welcome Jim to Finca Luna Nueva where he reunited with Rafa and collaborated with him, Mike Balick, Steven Farrell, Ruth Goldstein, and others in creating Semillas Sagradas, our Sacred Seeds Sanctuary.

Jim Duke in Sacred Seeds
Jim Duke in Sacred Seeds, where he often carried his Tico Ethnobotanical Dictionary

Some years later, Mike and Rafa created an introduction to the mission and design of the Sacred Seeds Sanctuary in their book Plants of Semillas Sagradas, which is available for free download here.

Rafa’s “seminal” role in creating Sacred Seeds is a story worth retelling. For many decades he had explored Central America collecting specimens of plants deemed sacred or medicinal by indigenous communities. About fifteen years ago he came to Steven Farrell, the founder of Finca Luna Nueva, with an idea. Could we, Rafa asked, create a living sanctuary for his plant collection? Not a frozen seed bank but a living laboratory where he could plant these specimens in appropriate conditions (sun, shade, swamp, understory, with sister species, etc.) and we could learn how to keep these plants alive during this period of climate chaos. Such a place would also be, in Rafa’s mind, a place where indigenous communities might come to share their knowledge, where people throughout Costa Rica could come for seeds or to take cuttings, and where students from around the world could learn about ethnobotany. We at Finca Luna Nueva leapt at this opportunity.

people in the sacred seeds sanctuary
Jim Duke in the Sacred Seeds Sanctuary, with (from left) Ruth Goldstein, Rafael Ocampo, Robert Newman, and Michael Balick

There was an old ginger field that had been resting for a few years, and Rafa walked that field to take an inventory of the medicinal herbs that had sprung up from the seed bank during that period of fallow. He found about sixty medicinal plants growing there, not because any humans had planted them but because their seeds were there (perhaps disseminated by wildlife) and just needed a little undisturbed time to reassert themselves in that rich organic soil. That old ginger field became the Sacred Seeds Sanctuary, and we are proud to declare that all of Rafa’s founding hopes have been realized. Teachers, guides, and students visit our sanctuary almost daily to explore neotropical ethnobotany, and working with Rafa we now have more than three hundred species of plants of medicinal and spiritual significance. It is, according to Michael Balick, one of the premier medicinal herb gardens in the world, and we are committed to supporting this living laboratory. We are also proud to be working with Dr. Susan Leopold and United Plant Savers on the worldwide Sacred Seeds Program.

Ocampo and Farrell
Rafa Ocampo and Steven Farrell “biologizing” in Sacred Seeds

The Sacred Seeds Sanctuary is a continuing tribute to the legacies of Oakes Ames, Richard Evans Schultes, and Jim Duke and to the ongoing work of our beloved friends Mike Balick and Rafa Ocampo. It is what our land asked us to do when those sixty medicinal plants emerged on their own in our old ginger field and reminded us of what once was, and what deserved to live on. And Sacred Seeds also answers the challenge voiced by the great biologist E. O. Wilson, when he explained that we are in the midst of cataclysmic biodiversity collapse. It is, he said, our spiritual obligation to shepherd as many species as possible through the bottleneck of extinction.

jim and mike in semillas sagradas
Jim and Mike in Semillas Sagradas

Please come visit this “bottleneck garden,” this place on Earth where we come together to care for these Sacred Seeds while there is, hopefully, still time.

— Tom Newmark


Tom is a founder of Semillas Sagradas (Sacred Seeds) and a co-owner of Finca Luna Nueva in Costa Rica.