The Healing Power of Plants

Jim Duke, America’s elder statesman of herbs and spices, is a dedicated and strong-willed scientist whose advocacy of natural healing methods has never diminished. Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929, Duke earned his doctorate in botany from the University of North Carolina in 1961. Following military service, he undertook postdoctoral activities at Washington University and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.

Starting in the 1960s, Duke was an ecologist with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), joining Battelle Columbus Laboratories (1965-71) for ecological and ethnobotanical studies in Panama and Colombia. During this formative period, Duke lived with various ethnic groups, pursuing what became a lifelong passion for learning from peoples whose traditions are rich with knowledge of the healing properties of plants. Eventually, Duke became chief of the USDA Medicinal Plant Resources Laboratory.

Duke’s book, The Green Pharmacy (St. Martin’s, 1997), is the standard setter in its field, having sold over one million copies in English. It is now translated into eight languages. Duke has also authored or co-authored 40 other books on herbs, spices and foods, along with 400 articles (half in peer-reviewed journals). He remains a popular lecturer on the subjects of ethnobotany, herbs, medicinal plants, and new crops and their ecology.

In 1995, Duke retired after 30 years with the USDA. Before retiring, he brought his Father Nature’s Farmacy database online at USDA. It is now one of the most frequently consulted databases with the Plant Genome Project at USDA. Duke’s database is especially useful for determining biological activities and healing potentials of food ands herbs.

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Please tell us how you first fell in love with plants.

There was an old man across the street from me in the Birmingham, Alabama suburbs that had his rabbits to talk to, and every now and then he would walk me through the nearby woods in the foothills. He taught me about chestnuts when we had chestnuts, and watercress. That was when I was about age five, and I think he was about as old and gangly as I am now. We both profited from these mutual walks through the woods. And I have been in love with botany ever since.

All of us learned in grade school that many of the first European explorers set sail across the ocean in search of spices. I personally love spices but I can’t really see risking life and limb to procure them. What’s your take on this?

I have a bad poem on that. It only takes four or five lines. I recited this in ’92 when it was the 500th anniversary of Columbus setting sail. The poem goes like this: “Columbus set sail/looking for black Indians and black pepper/and he took the wrong ocean/and he found red Indians and red pepper/and he changed the cuisine of the world.” As of today, capsicum (red pepper) is one of my ten favorite medicinal spices, and one that is recommended for certain maladies that I have.

What are some of your other favorite spices?

Two years ago, I would have said that garlic is the most important in my garden. Garlic is in more than 20 plots of the 80 plots in my garden. It’s also good for some of my ailments. It’s a constant battle in my mind over which is most important to me. But garlic is so good to eat and so easy to grow, that I can find it in one condition or another in my garden year-round.

Turmeric is another plant which I have in my garden but I’ll need to move it into my greenhouse any day now. Ginger, and cinnamon (which is a shrub), I’ll move them into the greenhouse, too. Those are good medicines. I have a database of 2500 plants, of which I would call 200 of them spices. I understand that my database is one of the most frequently visited at the USDA.

Considering the amount of data on handled by the USDA, that’s quite impressive. Prior to your developing these databases that the USDA now keeps, did such databases exist? Did they have other herb or spice databases that you built on? Or are you the one who started this project?

They had none at the USDA. This started in 1977 or 1978, when the USDA accepted my assignment to a major anticancer program of the National Cancer Institute. At that time, I was sent to lead a small group to look for plants that might have anticancer activity, funded by the National Cancer Institute. So that means that way back in 1978, I started this database. It was primitive but we’ve improved it.

When I’m long gone, that will still be there. [In my own personal database] I’ve got almost three times as much data on some of these same questions as you could ask the USDA database tonight. I can take it proprietary, but if I can’t find a buyer for it, I will dump it all into the USDA database and improve it probably five- or six-fold.

Either way, that’s a wonderful legacy to have created and to pass on to others. You mentioned that, starting in the late 1970s, you were part of a project looking for potentially anticancer herbs. Where did that take you in your travels?

My whole lab traveled a lot. I had at least three trips to China, one trip to Panama (my old stomping grounds), one to Ecuador and one to Syria. And though not all of these were necessarily due to the anticancer program, in my USDA career I’ve been to over 50 countries.

I’ve had a charmed career! My God, I feel sorry for those people who spend their 30 years studying wheat or corn. I’ve landed from helicopters in ganja fields in Jamaica, in opium fields in Laos, and driven into coca fields back in the 1970s, when it wasn’t dangerous. I was involved with the USDA alternative crops program where we would try to convince farmers that if they would phase out the narcotics, they would give them some interesting alternatives that might be remuneratively competitive.

How did that work out?

You may have noticed I used the words, “might be” … Because if we came up with a product that was more competitive, the narcs would just pay more. It was a non-winnable situation. I don’t think the USDA would say that, though. Frankly, I think ganja is a great medicinal plant, much better than the synthetic copycats, which cost much more.

You’ve authored or co-authored many books on herbs, spices and foods. Some are academic treatises and others, like the classic bestseller, The Green Pharmacy, are for general audiences. Looking back on your publishing life, what work or works do you recall as the most satisfying, either because you loved writing them or because of the influence they had on readers?

Every time someone comes to a tour of the garden here, we show them a few of the books that I have on hand. And when they ask, “Which one would you buy if you were only going to buy one?” I always say The Green Pharmacy. It sold over a million copies in English and is now translated into eight languages. It was a turning point for me and I actually retired from the USDA a year early so I could work on that. I think it was one of the best decisions I ever made. That’s why I have the Green Pharmacy Garden, with 300 species of plants, mostly built like the chapters of that book. We have a stone in the middle of a plot, say the Alzheimer’s Plot. There, we’ll see rosemary, sage, periwinkle and some of the plants that are still arguably better than the pharmaceuticals like Aricept.

Tell us more about the Green Pharmacy Garden.

It’s a south-facing slope on my home property here. It will revert, upon my death and my wife’s death, to the Tai Sophia Institute, which is an acupuncture and healing institute at the moment, but it’s liable to become part of a laureate university system all over the world.

The garden on the south slope has four long rows that are sort of like sloped terraces, and in each we have about 20 plots. In each plot, we’ve gathered the best medicinal plants for different ailments. For example, we have a Prostate Plot. We have the best sources of lycopene there – the saw palmetto (which we have to bring in before frost arrives), the stinging nettle, and the African pygeum, proven to help the prostate. That’s just one of the 80 plots in the garden. I can send to those who wish a map of the garden, listing all the species in each plot. It’s sort of like a catalog.

Science marches on and we keep learning new things that might be promising. And frankly, I’m really eager, as is my head gardener, Helen Metzman, to get the latest into them. She is being paid by Tai Sophia. She is hardworking, an artist. She builds beautiful structures out of bamboo and vines to keep the garden a place of beauty as well as a place of education.

What role do you have in the herbal masters program at Tai Sophia? Are you teaching there? Guest lecturing?

I’m glad you asked. My garden is where I teach. We like to call it “Tai South Campus.” It’s roughly one and a half miles, as the crow flies, from the Tai Sophia main campus. The students love to come down here for classes. Instead of my giving them a bunch of slides, we squeeze and tug and defoliate. We have one specimen plant, the jewel weed, that ejaculates its seed into the student’s hand. It’s a hands-on experience.

I recall going on an herb walk a long time ago in Iowa and being told that jewel weed was very helpful for poison ivy.

A long-deceased researcher friend of mine discovered that there is an antihistaminic compound in the jewel weed which explains some of the folklore. But it turns out, wildly and surprisingly to almost anyone, that the active ingredient in jewel weed is lawsone, which is also the active ingredient in the dye called henna. Just two weeks ago in class, one of the students rubbed into one side of my goatee, the reddish roots, or prop roots, of the jewel weed. We didn’t wash it for a few days, and it gave me a light yellow tint to my goatee. It doesn’t really work well on gray hair; henna and lawsone work better on darker hair.

A century or so ago, there was a massive shift in the practice of medicine from plants as the primary healing agents (which had been true since the dawn of humanity) to synthetic pharmaceuticals. What would you say was lost and gained in that shift?

Synthetic pharmaceuticals, your genes have never known. And that’s why these FDA approved synthetic chemicals kill over 100,000 people a year. People have no genetic experience with them. We’ve lost the synergies of the mixtures of the 5000 chemicals in each herb, which your genes have known for thousands of years (if you’re Biblically oriented) or millions of years (if you’re evolutionarily oriented).

Each herb, from turmeric to hot pepper, contains about 5000 biological chemicals, or phytochemicals. All are biologically active. I mean, that’s incredible! It’s chaotic. Your genes know these things that your ancestors ate, and your genes will mine them like menus of active chemicals, and pull out the ones it wants and piss out the ones it doesn’t want. [See the Multiple Activities Menu at]. That’s what homeostasis is. You and I and most alternative practitioners know about that, but few of the allopaths think about the fact that the synthetics are unknown to your genes. When you take them, it’s going to throw you out of balance. It might help you in some ways, but it might throw you out of balance in other ways. And then you’ll return to the physician to find out what to do for the problems the synthetic caused.

In some other countries, medical physicians prescribe herbs far more than American doctors. For example, German MDs prescribe St. John’s wort for depression more often than prescription medications like Prozac and Paxil. Why is there such a difference?

America is run on a faulty premise, “Better living through chemistry.” And we have been convinced (though I’ve never been convinced) that herbs are dangerous and that synthetic chemistry is the answer to all our problems, when literally it is the genesis of most of our problems.

Tell us about your travels to the rainforests of Central and South America.

Believe it or not, although I’ve been interested in botany and edible plants since the age of five, I didn’t have a major conversion in my life until I moved to Panama in 1965 with my wife and my very young children. And while there, I worked with the Choco Indians and the Kuna Indians in the eastern part of Panama, which is very sparsely populated.

While I was living with these wonderful people, I saw that their children were just as happy and healthy as my children back in the Panama Canal Zone, with the best of American allopathic medicine. And I said to myself, “These Indians are on the right track, if not the righter track.” That was my mid-life conversion to the belief that herbal medicine is better than what we’ve been getting. I truly believe that we are being killed by our medicine. Medicine is the number four killer in the U.S. these days and none of these herbs are doing this killing.

When you take an herb, you get a menu with those 5000 chemicals, which can often help things you weren’t even seeking help for. You take the synthetic medicine and it can help, especially if the diagnosis is correct (and about 50 percent of diagnoses aren’t). But taking any pharmaceutical will upset your body more than if you took an herb. So we’ve gone the wrong direction. And I think those Europeans, who at least tolerate prescribing the herbs, are way ahead of us.

You mentioned something about people visiting your garden and spoke about the Tai Sophia students coming there to learn about the plants. Do you encourage visits by others who are interested?

I like to have groups of between 20 and 30, for a couple of hours. I show them, among my 300 plants in the garden, those that are currently of greatest interest to me. This week, cinnamon is of interest to me, because Avandia [a prescription diabetes medication] is close to being taken off the market, and cinnamon is infinitely better than Avandia. Vioxx has been taken off the market, and I would show them that capsaicin, from the hot pepper, is a better Cox-2 inhibitor than Vioxx was. Vioxx killed 90,000 people within ten years. We’ve gone in the wrong direction. I’ve even had the FDA out here four times, but they were lower echelon people who think more like I do. It’s almost as if the upper echelons are on the payroll of Big Pharma.

It’s nice to know that there is at least someone within the bowels of the bureaucracy with some creative thinking.

The upper echelons of the bureaucracy would not even let us say that prunes are a laxative because it hasn’t been proven to their satisfaction. Let them eat prunes!

That says it all, doesn’t it? Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

Well, I’ve been thinking all day about lycopene, from tomato and an herb that I have in the garden which has a lot more lycopene than tomato.

Lycopene is connected with red color in plants, correct?

Yes. The best source I have here among the plants that have been analyzed is an invasive weed called Russian olive or autumn olive. It’s richer in lycopene than tomato, watermelon, guava and the flower pot marigold. Lycopene could probably help prevent every cancer that’s on the books. Turmeric is probably even better. I would recommend those to anyone with any hormone-related cancer. I would also tell them not to listen to their allopath if they tell them, “Don’t you dare take the antioxidants while we’re shooting you with chemotherapeutics.” That’s controversial, I know, but I certainly think that turmeric could be proven better than any chemotherapeutic out there.

But because the turmeric plant can’t be easily patented like a drug, there’s no financial incentive for a drug company to make the necessary investment to test that hypothesis. In theory, government could fund the studies, but they haven’t. Also, I’m guessing that a study in which a group of cancer patients does not receive chemotherapy probably could not be approved, as things stand now.

It costs $1.7 billion now to prove a single chemical according to FDA specifications. And turmeric, provably, has 5000 chemicals. How much would that cost? And what company, or what country, has that kind of money? FDA and FTC are costing many American lives, making it impossible to attain this simple check. The way they could check it out would be to set up a clinical trial. Is turmeric better? Prove us wrong. Instead, the drug companies compare their drug to another drug, or with a placebo.

Daniel Redwood, DC, the interviewer, is a Professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College-Kansas City, and Editor-in-Chief of Health Insights Today and The Daily HIT.

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Written by Daniel Redwood DC

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