Signs of Spring: Snowdrops

s underneath snowdrops


“… And thus the snowdrop, like the bow
That spans the cloudy sky,
Becomes a symbol whence we know
That brighter days are nigh; …”

‘Origin of the snowdrop’ –George Wilson

s group rainy snowdrops

Galanthus nivalis

Snowdrop; Fair Maid of February; Bulbous Violet

The snowdrops bloomed last Sunday February 2, right in tune with Imbolc/Candlemass – the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox – heralding the celebration of spring’s soon return. Accompanied by the hellebores, snowdrops are the first flowers to bloom here at The Green Farmacy Garden after most of winter is behind us, announcing that spring is right around the corner. Their iridescent gems dapple the woods behind the pond and down the trail beyond the old shed, coaxing exploration and enjoyment. They encircle Jim Duke’s old chair down by the woods stream in a verdant embrace adorned in light drops; a solitary place of hopeful contemplation and content.

spsilly circle jims chair N snowdrops

snowdrops encircling Jim’s chair by the stream

It’s an amazement how their dainty, delicate stems are strong and persistent enough to push up through the frozen ground and pierce the layers of leaves to bless us with their simple beauty. It’s no wonder the snowdrops have been revered as a sign of hope, patience, and endurance by many cultures around the world for centuries. They are also spoken of as shy, humble flowers, as signified by their drooping blossoms. This posture has come to be realized as an attribute to keep the dusty pollen dry and protected from the winds, rains and snows of February. As there are few insects awake to help pollinate this time of year, the bowing heads of snowdrops are also to ensure their soft scent stays sweet and detectable.

This snowdrop’s botanical name is Galanthus nivalis. The Greek ‘gala’ is the word for ‘milk’ and ‘anthos’ the word for flower, while ‘nivalis’ is Latin for ‘snowy/growing in or near snow’. Thus Galanthus nivalis can be poetically translated to “milkflower of the snow”. The Welsh name for snowdrops is Eirlys meaning ‘snow lily’. Galanthus nivalis are native to the mountainous alpine regions of mainland Europe and Southwest Asia, where the winters are cold and harsh. The quaint flowers favor shady, moist areas such as woodlands. Snowdrops are perennial bulbs of the family Amaryllidaceae hardy in USDA zones 3-7. The Amaryllidaceae family is, aptly named, the Amaryllis family, of which members are typically perennial plants that resprout yearly from their underground bulbs. Daffodils, onions, and lilies are also members of this family. There are 15 species of the genus Galathus, 2 of which have naturalized in (mostly) north eastern United States- Galanthus nivalis and Galanthus elwesii. Galanthus bulbs grow in compact masses of shiny green, pointed leaves, well adapted to pierce through moist leaves and snow layers. Each mass of thin, arrow-like leaves protects a single stem topped with one flower. Snowdrop flowers stay open a long time, stretching their petals ever wider with each passing day.


snowdrop clusters   sfirst snowdrops


At The Green Farmacy Garden, Galanthus nivalis can be found in the Alzheimer’s plot. The alkaloid galantamine was first isolated from Galanthus and has been used to treat Alzheimer’s, neuritis, and neuralgia. Galantamine has been found to help prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter necessary for healthy brain function and memory. This theory that the breakdown of acetylcholine is the cause of Alzheimer’s was the prevailing thought when the garden was founded over 20 years ago. While new theories have developed since this time, the exact cause of Alzheimer’s is still unknown. Though the isolated alkaloid of Galanthus is made into pharmaceutical medicine, all parts of Galanthus nivalis are toxic and poisonous to eat.

Despite their raw toxicity, snowdrops have been cherished by our ancestors for their symbolism of hope, endurance, persistence, and the lengthening of daylight. A potent reminder that beauty is just as healing and nourishing as medicine herbs and food. Taking time to be still, observe, and be held in wonderment humbles and fuels our souls with hope.

She calls up the first snowdrop_Outhwaite

‘She calls up the first snowdrop’ : Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

“Welcome, welcome!” sang and sounded every ray, and the Flower lifted itself up over the snow into the brighter world.
The Sunbeams caressed and kissed it, so that it opened altogether, white as snow, and ornamented with green stripes.
It bent its head in joy and humility.

“Beautiful Flower!” said the Sunbeams, “how graceful and delicate you are!
You are the first, you are the only one!
You are our love! You are the bell that rings out for summer, beautiful summer, over country and town.
All the snow will melt; the cold winds will be driven away; we shall rule; all will become green, and then you will have companions, syringas, laburnums, and roses;
but you are the first, so graceful, so delicate!”

-excerpt from ‘The Snowdrop’ by Hans Christian Anderson


s underneath 'sunny' dewy snowdrops


The following is an ancient German tale that speaks to the graciousness of snowdrops:

“At the beginning of all things when life was new, the Snow sought to borrow a colour. The flowers were much admired by all the elements but they guarded their colour’s jealously and when the Snow pleaded with them, they turned their backs in contempt for they believed the Snow cold and unpleasant. The tiny humble snowdrops took pity on the Snow for none of the other flowers had shown it any kindness and so they came forth and offered up to the Snow their colour.

The Snow gratefully accepted and became white forevermore, just like the Snowdrops. In its gratitude, the Snow permitted the little pearly flowers the protection to appear in winter, to be impervious to the ice and bitter chill. From then on, the Snow and the Snowdrops coexisted side by side as friends.”

A little kindness goes a long way. Take care of me I’ll take care of you. It takes a village.

s group rainy snowdrops2

“Alluding to the colour of the flowers.
The snow-drop, Winter’s timid child,
Awakes to life bedew’d with tears;
And flings around its fragrance mild,
And where no rival flowrets bloom,
Amidst the bare andd chilling gloom,
A beauteous gem appears!”

–The Language of Flowers (1839)

s bedew'd snowdrops


The snowdrops also appear in a Christian tale of creation that Scottish poet George Wilson depicted in his poem “Origin of the snowdrop”. The tale starts as Adam and Eve hold hands in tearful shame walking away from Eden after they are exiled. The snows start swirling around them nipping their extremities with frost. An Angel appears feeling sorry for them, and with the freshly fallen snow cupped in hand, The Angel breathes upon it and the first snowdrop flowers were born. The Angel offers the dainty pearly blossoms to Adam and Eve as a sign of hope, endurance, persistence, and humility for their kind into the world beyond. Below is George Wilson’s retelling of this tale:

Origin of the snowdrop

No fading flowers in Eden grew,

Nor Autumn’s withering spread 

Among the trees a browner hue, 

To show the leaves were dead; 


But through the groves and shady dells, 

Waving their bright immortal bells, 

Were amaranths and asphodels, 

Undying in a place that knew 

A golden age the whole year through. 


But when the angel’s fiery brands, 

Guarding the eastern gate, 

Told of a broken law’s commands, 

And agonies that came too late; 


With longing, lingering wish to stay, 

And many a fond but vain delay 

That could not wile her grief away, 

Eve wandered aimless o’er a world 

On which the wrath of God was hurled. 


Then came the Spring’s capricious smile, 

And Summer sunlight warmed the air, 

And Autumn’s riches served a while 

To hide the curse that lingered there;


Till o’er the once untroubled sky 

Quick driven clouds began to fly, 

And moaning zephyrs ceased to sigh, 

When Winter’s storms in fury burst 

Upon a world indeed accurst, 


And when at last the driving snow, 

A strange, ill-omened sight, 

Came whitening all the plains below, 

To trembling Eve it seemed affright 


With shivering cold and terror bowed 

As if each fleecy vapour cloud 

Were falling as a snowy shroud, 

To form a close enwrapping pall 

For Earth’s untimeous funeral. 


Then all her faith and gladness fled, 

And, nothing left but black despair. 

Eve madly wished she had been dead, 

Or never born a pilgrim there. 


But, as she wept, an angel bent 

His way adown the firmament, 

And, on a task of mercy sent, 

He raised her up, and bade her cheer 

Her drooping heart, and banish fear; 


And catching, as he gently spake, 

A flake of falling snow, 

He breathed on it, and bade it take 

A form and bud and blow; 


And ere the flake had reached the earth, 

Eve smiled upon the beauteous birth, 

That seemed, amid the general dearth 

Of living things, a greater prize 

Than all her flowers in Paradise. 


“This is an earnest, Eve, to thee,” 

The glorious angel said, 

“That sun and Summer soon shall be; 


And though the leaves seem dead, 

Yet once again the smiling Spring, 

With wooing winds, shall swiftly bring 

New life to every sleeping thing; 

Until they wake, and make the scene 

Look fresh again, and gaily green.” 


The angel’s mission being ended, 

Up to Heaven he flew; 

But where he first descended, 

And where he bade the earth adieu, 

A ring of snowdrops formed a posy 

Of pallid flowers, whose leaves, unrosy, 

Waved like a winged argosy, 

Whose climbing masts above the sea, 

Spread fluttering sail and streamer free. 


And thus the snowdrop, like the bow 

That spans the cloudy sky. 

Becomes a symbol whence we know 

That brighter days are nigh; 


That circling seasons, in a race 

That knows no lagging, lingering pace, 

Shall each the other nimbly chase, 

Till Time’s departing final day 

Sweep snowdrops and the world away.

George Wilson (1818–59)


s under moody snowdrops


A short fairy tale

How the Snowdrops Came

Fairies are never allowed to stray out of Fairyland during the winter-time. But when spring comes they may dance and play in the woods and meadows of the earth as long as they please, and at night they may sleep out in the wood, curled up in a bluebell or a buttercup.

There was once a fairy called Silver Wing, who grew tired of waiting for the spring-time. One day early in February she whispered a secret to her playmates.

She was going to run away from Fairyland and see what the earth looked like in winter-time. Her little friends said it would be great fun to go with her. As soon as supper was over the naughty little fairies slipped away in the dusk until they came to the first wood outside Fairyland. For a long time they played there, looking very gay and pretty in their green silk frocks and white bonnets. But at last they crept into a bed of ivy leaves and went to sleep.

When they awoke in the morning the ground was covered with soft snow, and a man whose coat was trimmed with hoar-frost, and whose cap had a border of glistening icicles, stood before them.

The little fairies all felt quite frightened when they saw him. They trembled so that even their teeth chattered, for they knew that he was jack frost, and he was stern.

“I don’t allow fairies to come here during the winter-time.” he said angrily.  “Why couldn’t you keep away until ‘Bluebell-time’?”

To punish them for their naughtiness he turned them into flowers and kept them prisoners for three weeks and a day.

Then he allowed them to go home; but every February they have to return for a few weeks, and the children of the earth call them snowdrops.

from “Land of the Happy Hours” by Stella Mead
– first pub: James Nisbet & Co. Ltd  1929

He was Jack Frost_Jacobs

-Helen Jacobs



spsilly circle snowdrops2



s underneath snowdrops

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A tale of curiosity awakened creativity

::a personal account followed by some botany, research and lore::

plectranthus & tangle o'tropicals

Plectranthus barbatas among the greenhouse tangle of tropicals

A tale of curiosity awakened creativity::
As I entered the greenhouse I was enveloped in an intoxicating, exotic sense I had never experienced before. A divine fragrance coaxed to me from somewhere within the verdant tangle of tropicals, the euphoric ambrosia salivating my taste buds and nose with bliss & curiosity. What was this pleasantly unfamiliar scent embracing me in mystery and familiarity?
To my left I was greeted by the vibrant violet pockets of Plectranthus barbatas’ blossoms as I had been for several weeks. I knew she wasn’t the source of the enchanting scent, as I had long discovered she is a visual appeaser without a detectable perfume. Ever since I was a child, upon meeting a new plant, or any time I see a familiar ally, my first instinct has always been to explore it & smell it, creating an olfactory sensory memory, though I never realized the science, or instinct rather, behind it. In doing so it is tying together all the senses through the feel of the plant’s branches, leaves & petals as the flower is drawn close to face; the sight of the colors & fine details in the blossom as it is brought to the nose; the sounds of the surroundings completing the harmonious connection as the scent transforms to taste dancing through the sinuses, senses & spirit.

Plectranthus barbatas

Plectranthus barbatas flowers… not the source of the divine aroma

Our sense(spirit) of smell and olfactory system are one of the oldest tools we hold to observe and learn our environment. Aromas carry the aura of beings into the deepest wells of our mind, weaving countless, ineffable subconscious connections along the way to our conscious. A most distinct metaphor for all the senses, and life in general. A most primal sense of security and detector of our surroundings, our sense of smell gives us clues and insight to our biosphere, often long before our other senses. Scents are woven into thick memories layered by intuition & experience, knit by our senses and perceptions. Fragrances awaken the conjuring of these memories in our subconscious & somatic selves, along with remembering the feeling of these experiences our conscious evolved mind otherwise couldn’t recall on it’s own. Often inducing a déjà vu feeling, seeing from remembering. Taking us to a place seen before but not looked back on in precisely the same way & awareness.


Brunfelsia grandiflora flowers

As I continue the usual scan of the greenhouse at eye level, I turn my gaze upwards to the rising winter sun bursting through the glass, warming & deeply steeping the alluring scent into the space. My eyes fall on a welcome greeting of soft, playful periwinkle pink peeking at me from among the lush tapestry of tropicals. Dainty blossoms atop delicate twisted branches, dancing in a gentle twirl up to the sun, weaving through the neighbors while gracing them with flirty frills. I reach up to bring the flowers towards me and am carried to a warm, fresh afternoon at the edge of a colorful jungle, dense with undergrowth and exotic bird melodies. The breeze is carrying the scent of divine delight and harmonious life dancing with the rosy tune.


The flowers are reminiscent of vincas, (of which I am fondly familiar, & will always associate with my beloved mother), simple in design though complex in sense and bud depth. The buds are a miniature vase, a spiral of silky pop. The blooms and buds arranged in a perfect pattern of varying stages, to ensure a continuous flow of alternate flourishing for days to come. As I brush my fingers upon the petals, their velvet silk caresses my fingertips, the hues of lilac & lavender & blush blending together in a dripping ombre swirl of coy & joy. The exotic essence kissed my nostrils and taste buds with a softly distinct rosey-lilac aroma; ethereal & familiar, simple & mystical, radiating from humble blossoms of unknown insight.

brunfelsia swirl bud

Brunfelsia swirl flower bud

I had met this plant before I knew, but realized had never fully known her until now. Connections were made and she speaks many things to me; so will always remember yesterday, today, & tomorrow all woven into one simple, ever flourishing, bloom cluster. She is Brunfelsia grandiflora, Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow.
∞ bursting of coy & joy

brunfelsia sunburst

Some botany and other information:: 

Brunfelsia grandiflora is also known as chiric sanango in Spanish; fever tree, kiss-me-quick, or yesterday-today-tomorrow in English. It is a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade and potato family. It is a small tree that grows wild in tropical South America. The leaves are 10-13 cm long, 3-5 cm wide, entire and oval shaped with a drip-tip and alternate in arrangement.

yesterday today tomorrow

changing colors of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

The flowers are 2-3 cm in diameter occurring in small clusters on stalks 2-4 cm long. An English common name for Brunfelsia grandiflora; Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow; comes from the way the flowers change from purple the first day of bloom, to lavender the second, and finally white on the third day of blossoming before they start to fade. Our Brunfelsia here at The Green Farmacy is very happy in our greenhouse and has been blooming prolifically for 3 weeks now!

endless layers of blooms

Endless layers of Brunfelsia blooms

Brunfelsia grandiflora is used throughout the north west Amazon region to treat fever, hence another one of it’s English monikers, fever tree. A brew from the leaves and/or bark is taken or a root infusion. The root is known for it’s diuretic and analgesic properties, thus has been used to treat a range of ailments by Amazon healers from yellow fever, to syphilis, to snakebites, to arthritis. Shuar shamans mix the Brunfelsia root into batches of ayahuasca tea in ceremony for its hallucinogenic properties.

The root medicine is very potent and can come with severe, even fatal, side effects if not used with proper knowledge, experience, reverence, and care. Some side effects include, but are not limited to, chills, itchiness, nausea, vomiting and convulsions. The leaves are a safer medicine of Brunfelsia grandiflora and are known as a pain-reliever. A tea of the leaves is used throughout the northern range of the Amazon basin for common colds, arthritis, rheumatism and venereal disease.

brunfelsia3   brunfelsia leaf shape

The spanish name, Chiric Sanango, comes from the Quechua word chiric meaning “itchy” or “tickling” and refers to the sensation when the brew of roots is swallowed. Chiric Sanango is regarded as Grandfather Medicine, the male counterpart to the feminine ayahuasca in ritual ceremonies. Chiric Sanango is one of the master plants of the Amazon given to the shamans or curandero/as to see visions and listen to the plants’ knowledge of healing, well being, and ritual. These experiences with the plants are called dietas, which involve drinking an extract of a master plant or planta maestra, living in seclusion, and eating light and simply for a period of time varying depending on the planta maestra. Chiric Sanango’s power specifically is revered so highly that it is a ‘pre-requisite’ dieta shamans or curandero/as must experience before serving all other planta maestra medicines.

brunfelsia sunburst2





Disclaimer:: The content on The Green Farmacy Garden blog is for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended as medical advice. We, the authors of The Green Farmacy Garden blog, are not medical professionals and the information contained on this blog should not be used to diagnose, treat or prevent any disease or health illness. Please consult with a qualified health care professional before acting on any information presented here. Any statements or claims about the possible health benefits conferred by any herbs, foods, supplements, essential oils, or lifestyle changes have not been evaluated by medical professional or the Food & Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. We, the authors of The Green Farmacy Garden blog, will not accept responsibility for the actions or consequential results of any action taken by any reader.
No part of this publication shall be reproduced, transmitted, or sold in whole or in part in any form, without the prior written consent from The Green Farmacy Garden blog author(s). All trademarks and registered trademarks appearing in this website are the property of their respective owners.
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Warm winter blessings!

small gazebo n pond wideshotOur apologies, for it has been far too long since we have written here and kept up to date with our beloved site. Our “Tours and Workshops” page here, as well as our Facebook and Instagram pages (both at The Green Farmacy Garden), have kept most of our attention and become the main platforms to inform the community of our blossomings and happenings. While we are working on some tweaks and edits to the website, it is our endeavor to post writings and pictures here more regularly this coming season.

With the formalities out of the way,…

We hope you’ve had a wonderful solstice & holiday season, celebrating all the light, joy, hope, & love that fills our world.
Things out in the garden have long since settled down for the cold moonths, but inside we’ve still been busy little garden elves (gnomes;) excitedly organizing, planning, & preparing for next season.
One of the most anticipated things filling our time this winter is looking to hire a new assistant gardener! This is a paid, part time position without benefits, and will start in March & work through mid or end of November.
If you or someone you know is passionate about gardening, native/medicinal plants, and interested in applying, click on the ‘Employment Opportunities’ link at the top of the page for the full job listing, description, & how to apply.
Feel free to share this post with others to reach more of the lovely plant people:)
❣️Warm wishes,
Annie-Sophie & Veri


In the meantime, here are some pictures from the first snow to ‘blanket’ the garden January 8, 2020

chiminea large gazebo

lower sunny terraces, stone chiminea, and large workshop gazebo dusted in snow


Joyfull Juniper


serene pond scene

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Spring has Sprung!

Here at The Green Farmacy Garden we’ve been hard at work preparing the Plots and Terraces for visitors: pruning, weeding, seeding, mulching and labelling; all so we can share these plants and their traditional and emerging medicinal uses with YOU!!

We’re always eager to share the wonders and delights of this place and the season with our friends, so please come volunteer with us on a Wednesday or Thursday between 11 and 4, or catch one of our upcoming Tours and Workshops!

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Espirito de Shapaja

Daddy won’t you take me to the Primary Forest by the Amazon River where Paradise lies.

Honoring his end of life wishes, ethnobotanist Jim Duke’s ashes were scattered not only in his Green Farmacy Garden but also into the lush diverse forest of the Amazon River basin. Jim’s dear friend and rainforest companion, Andrea Ottesen, PhD, along with Explorama’s garden curator and shaman, Guillermo, mixed his ashes with Peruvian earth as they planted sacred Jergon Sasha (Draconitum  loretense) in Jim’s ReNuPeru Garden. Above the treetops on a perfect sunset evening, Jim was blessed during a traditional ceremony performed by Guillermo. Guillermo was adorned with a shapaja palm (Attalea sp.) headdress as he chanted from the highest platform of the ACTS canopy walkway. In and around an enormous Ceiba or Kapok (Ceiba pentandra), Jim’s ashes mixed with jungle spirits.

Several of us escorted Jim’s ashes to the rainforest. His daughter, Celia Larsen, who had accompanied her father to the jungle approximately 25 years ago, made the journey from Michigan. Andrea Ottesen helped organize the trip with Explorama staff and came with her FDA colleagues and University of Maryland students. My family, including my husband, son and daughter, met up with the rest of the group and all of us were facilitated by Basilio, an expert guide and veteran of Explorama as well as musician par excellence. Basilio had worked with Jim for decades to help assist with his “Pharmacy from the Rainforest” tours. Jim was at peace knowing his ashes were to be spread in the garden and the rainforest.

The song, Te Quiero, in this video is to be credited to Basilio and accompanying Caobas musicians from their CD entitled Misterio Verde. Caobas musicians serenade many who travel to Explorama lodges and the Peruvian guitarists highlighted the evenings for Jim.


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Jim’s Memory Lives On In The News

Better late than never, Jim Duke’s Obituary appeared in the New York Times

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A28 of the New York edition with the headline: James Duke, 88, Scholar Of Indigenous Remedies. 

By John Motyka

Dec. 5, 2018

The life-changing experience for James A. Duke came as he roamed the lush jungles of Panama in the mid-1960s, munching on the plants indigenous peoples used for food and medicine and learning firsthand about them.

At the time, he was two years into his job as a botanist for the Department of Agriculture and working on a federal project, ultimately abandoned, to determine the feasibility of excavating an alternative to the Panama Canal using low-level nuclear bombs.

And what he found there, and ate, excited his imagination and led him to embrace ethnobotany, a then-emerging field that investigates the healing properties of plants that indigenous peoples have used for millenniums.

His field work, incorporating botany, natural healing and anthropology, took him to remote corners of the world, often in the company of native guides and even shamans — worlds away from his early professional success as a standup-bass player in country, bluegrass and jazz bands.

His peripatetic research made him a widely acknowledged expert at a time, the 1960s, when interest in traditional cultures was on the rise, in tandem with the burgeoning counterculture in Western countries.

Dr. Duke was also a pioneer in identifying phytochemicals, the now familiar, often beneficial chemical constituents of foods like antioxidants in oregano and flavonoids in green tea. He poured the results of his work into a 1997 book, “The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases and Conditions From the World’s Foremost Authority on Healing Herbs,” as well as into an extensive database he compiled for the Agriculture Department.

The book has sold more than 1.5 million copies, according to the publisher, Rodale Press.

For all Dr. Duke’s achievements, however, his death, on Dec. 10, 2017, at 88, did not draw widespread attention; it was reported at the time mainly by organizations devoted to botany or nutrition. The New York Times learned of his death recently while seeking to update this obituary, which was written about four months before his death.

His daughter, Celia Gayle Duke Larsen, said Dr. Duke died at his home on his six-acre herb farm in Fulton, Md. No specific cause was given. In addition to Ms. Larsen, he is survived by his wife, Peggy-Ann K. Duke; a son, John; four grandchildren; and one step-grandchild.

Dr. Duke at a jungle camp in Panama in 1968. What he found there, and ate, led him to embrace ethnobotany, a field that investigates the healing properties of plants that indigenous peoples have used for millenniums. Credit Joseph H. Kirkbride, Jr.

In “The Green Pharmacy,” Dr. Duke wrote that the trip to Panama, his second, involved interviewing local people about the wild plants they ate. The aim was to determine how long they might be displaced from their homes and way of life — “six days, six months, six years, six centuries or six millennia,” he wryly wrote — if the local flora were destroyed in building an alternative canal.

The local people, Choco and Kuna Indians, knew exactly what was going on, Dr. Duke wrote, and sometimes asked if similar nuclear-based efforts were being used in, say, dredging the Great Lakes. The effort, sponsored by the now-defunct Atomic Energy Commission, sputtered and was allowed to lapse.

“The Green Pharmacy” took a folksy, anecdotal, sometimes whimsical approach to describing the herbs, foods and teas that Dr. Duke recommended for various ailments, arranged alphabetically. He named one tea “DyspepsiKola.”

A gentle exhortation often followed a recommendation. After noting that the herb chamomile, which is known to soothe nerves, also has potent anti-inflammatory compounds, he wrote, “If I had carpal tunnel syndrome, I’d drink several cups of chamomile tea a day.”

Dr. Duke stressed that the stories he had heard, whether from indigenous peoples or the doctors and other herbalists cited in the book, often reflected empirical and historical findings about healing plants.

He was critical of pharmaceutical companies and the doctors who zealously prescribed their products. Skeptical of the high prices and side effects of modern drugs, he championed plant medicines as a viable alternative.

“If you and I go around sucking on licorice root, which can guard against ulcers, that’s not going to make any money” for drug companies, he told Anne Raver, a gardening columnist for The Times, in 1991.

Dr. Duke had his own remedies. “To cure a cold, he mashes up the stems and leaves of forsythia,” Ms. Raver wrote. “To help strengthen weak capillaries, he makes ‘rutinade’ from violet and buckwheat flowers, lemongrass and rhubarb stalks, and herbs high in rutin (anise, chamomile, mint, rose hips).”

Dr. Duke’s authoritative reference book from 1997 has sold more than 1.5 million copies, according to its publisher, Rodale Press.

He also made lemonade from the wild plant Mayapple and wrote a ditty about it:

Penobscot Indians up in Maine

Had a very pithy sayin’:

Rub the root on every day

And it will take your warts away!

. . . I’ll venture to prognosticate

Before my song is sung:

This herb will help eradicate

Cancer of the lung.

James Alan Duke was born on April 4, 1929, in Eastlake, a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., to Robert Edwin and Martha (Truss) Duke. His love of plants, he wrote, came from his mother, an avid gardener, and from spending time in the woods of rural Alabama with “country cousins” and an elderly neighbor, who introduced him to edible wild plants, like chestnuts and watercress.

His parallel love of music began when he was 5 years old: He was selling magazines to help earn money for his family when he encountered bluegrass musicians in a local college dormitory.

After the family moved to North Carolina, he learned to play the bass fiddle in high school and began performing with Homer Briarhopper and His Dixie Dudes, a country band he had heard on the radio. At 16, he played on a 78-r.p.m. record that the band cut in Nashville.

Dr. Duke attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where his bass playing caught the ear of Johnny Satterfield, a big-band leader who taught there. He recruited Jim Duke as a jazz bassist, on the condition that he enroll in the music program.

His native love of botany kicked in, though, and from 1952 to 1960 he earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in botany at Chapel Hill. He did postdoctoral work as a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and curatorial work at the Missouri Botanical Gardens there.

Botany and music continued to be entwined in his life, however. While working, he would pick up gigs at clubs and perform with jazz, blues and country singers.

“The deeper I delved into botanical medicine with its earthy folk roots,” Dr. Duke wrote, “the more comfortable it ‘fit’ with the music I played, which also had deep roots in the same earthy folk experience.”

He married Peggy-Ann Wetmore Kessler, a fellow botanist, in 1960. An illustrator as well, she made all the drawings for “The Green Pharmacy.”

In retirement, Dr. Duke conducted tours along the Amazon River in Peru, here, in 1995, under the aegis of the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER). Credit Steven Foster

Dr. Duke’s first work experience in Panama involved identifying plants along the last uncompleted stretch of what would become the Inter-American Highway, reaching from Alaska to Chile. His team collected more than 15,000 specimens in the two and a half years he spent on that trip to Panama.

Dr. Duke held various positions at the Agriculture Department. As chief of the Plant Taxonomy Laboratory, he traveled to South America to help the State Department investigate and limit the cultivation of coca, from which cocaine can be extracted. He also visited Vietnam and neighboring Southeastern Asian countries to identify cash crops that might be grown as alternatives to the widely cultivated opium poppy.

He got what he called his “dream job” at the department in 1977, as head of the Medicinal Plant Laboratory. In that job he traveled to China, the Middle East and South America to collect specimens for a cancer-screening program being run jointly with the National Cancer Institute. The program, he wrote, analyzed 10 percent of the world’s known plant species for anti-tumor activity.

After retiring from the Agriculture Department, Dr. Duke sometimes conducted tours, often barefoot, along the Amazon River in Peru. He’d also give tours of his herb farm, the Green Farmacy Garden, in Fulton, about 18 miles north of Washington.

Dr. Duke’s other books include “Handbook of Medicinal Herbs,” an authoritative reference work first published in the late 1980s, and “The Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America,” which he wrote with the herbalist Steven Foster.

In 1991, Herbert Pierson, a fellow Cancer Institute toxicologist, told The Times that Dr. Duke’s strength as an expert in herbal remedies was in his own firsthand experimentation, measuring the effects of plants on himself.

“He actually practices what he preaches,” Dr. Pierson said. “Nobody should underestimate his knowledge. He knows from folkloric use that these things aren’t used by chance, that they’ve survived the test of time.”

Indeed, in an interview with Ms. Raver in 1992, Dr. Duke spoke about his enthusiasm for dandelion. He liked the roots pickled in old pickle vinegar, and he had eaten every part of the dandelion, from root to seed.

“Dandelions are extremely rich in beta carotene and ascorbic acid, the flowers in particular,” he said. “I sometimes eat 100 flowers in a day. I was trying to see if I’d turn orange from beta carotene, and it didn’t work.”

A Tribute to Dr. James Duke and His Green Farmacy Garden

When intern Astrid Stephenson and I arrived at the James A. Duke Green Farmacy Garden in Fulton, Maryland, we found director Helen Lowe Metzman wrapping an enormous rosemary plant with burlap. On that mid-November afternoon, the damp chill portended even harsher weather. She had already dug up all the tropical plants and relocated them, safe and warm, in the nearby greenhouse.

We walked on a carpet of bright yellow ginkgo leaves, adding rays of sunny color to the overcast day. We took the fieldtrip to see what might be left of the American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) plants, as part of research for an upcoming program of the 2020 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. At this point in the season, we saw just a dried tan stalk where bright green leaves and red berries flourished earlier in the fall. Nearby, other plants with similar healing properties have braved the weather better. Helen showed (and let us taste) one called jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) whose still green leaves look like a tiny ground cover version of ginseng.

Dr. James Duke Green Farmacy Garden

Astrid displays an American Ginseng (Panax quiquefolius)root preserved in alcohol.

Ask anyone interested in traditional plant-based medicine if they have heard of Dr. James Duke, and they invariably answer in the affirmative. His most popular book, Green Pharmacy, and other prolific writings grace countless bookshelves of herbal medicine aficionados. He developed the Green Farmacy as a “teaching garden” with 300 native and non-native medicinal plants. He welcomed students and the public to the garden to learn about these plants and their healing powers. Dr. Duke passed away in December 2017, but his garden lives on in tribute, lovingly tended by Helen and others.

Having worked in the garden, first as a volunteer [since 2003] and then as director [since 2007], Helen is determined to keep the garden as close to its original intent and structure as possible, but she also has ideas and wishes for improvement and change. And she would like to groom a new director who is a good fit for the garden. She talks of keeping Dr. Duke’s legacy alive in the garden. I recall Smithsonian horticulturalist Janet Draper recounting the saying, “a garden dies with the gardener.” She didn’t mean the whole garden dies, but those parts of it that were unique to the gardener will necessarily change and evolve under new overview.

But the Green Farmacy lives on, in a mostly dormant state heading into winter, with the hope of inevitable renewal in the spring. Helen tells us that Dr. Duke’s ashes were scattered in various places within the garden by devotees during a memorial service in June. A small alcove near the top of the garden includes some of his quotes, and a laminated photo of his smiling face framed by mullein flowers (Verbascum thapsus). Even as casual visitors, we could feel his spirit there—an energizing force.

Betty Belanus is a curator and education specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a future master gardener.

Dr. James Duke Green Farmacy Garden


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I’d rather feel the earth beneath my feet. Yes I would. If I only could, I surely would.

April 25th 2018

The veil of winter has finally lifted after its power struggle with spring forced a long endurance of raw cold, strong winds, rain, snow, and ice. Although the cacao plants (Theobroma cacao) in the greenhouse didn’t make it, hope springs eternal as the winter shabby Rosemary has come back to life with new flowers blooming – albeit after losing over 60% of growth from last fall. Rosemary is a hard one to keep alive during our Maryland winters.

Jim is gone but seems to be everywhere in the garden. As I walk around, I hear his stories and teachings. He loved his rosemary. We spread Jim’s ashes a couple weeks ago in the garden just after what would have been his 89th birthday. We spread them under the rosemary, in the ayahuasca shamanic plot, by the ginseng, and wherever folks were moved to go.

here’s what I had to say:

I have far too many stories of jim… and I’ve told this story far too many times of realizing a well-known botanist lived not far from my home. I learned of Jim back in my early 30’s after receiving a copy of a letter that he wrote to Seeds of Change in Arizona. I hesitantly called the phone number printed on his Herbal Vineyard Stationery and immediately reached Jim. He gave me his address on Murphy Road and told me to look for the driveway by the pine trees.  For over two years, I shyly drove past this driveway before I had the nerve to turn in… which I finally did… only after I saw an open gallery sign as my chance not to feel too intrusive. Although the sign was for Peggy’s art gallery, she was not home, and I found Jim back working in his basement office. He kindly got up, left his desk, and with his genteel nature walked me around the square garden (which preceded the Green Farmacy Garden), offered me some mints and nettles, and then took me on a stroll into the woods. Afterward, in the basement where John’s office is now, he played a beautiful instrumental rendition of El Condor Pasa, “The Condor Happens” a Peruvian piece written for a musical in 1913. In the early 70’s, an English version El Condor Pasa (If I could) was made famous by Simon and Garfunkle. Jim encouraged me to go to Peru that day. As a young mother, I knew I would go, but I also knew it wouldn’t be for a long while. I finally went to Peru in 2003 with Jim and Holly, and while there, I heard many, many renditions of El Condor Pasa.

While walking through the garden this late winter February reflecting on Jim and how much he hated winter, I was looking at the stubble dishevelment of plants and listening to the red-shouldered hawks squabble. I always think of Jim and Peggy when I hear the hawks squabble… but I also started thinking of that day I met Jim just barely less than 30 years ago. Although he played me an instrumental version of El Condor Pasa, The Simon and Gardunkle version and lyrics came to mind. Jim didn’t remind me of a sparrow, or a hammer, but I could imagine how he’d rather be a forest than a street…

And I certainly knew the last line pertained to Jim… I’d rather feel the earth beneath my feet, Yes I would. If I only could, I surely would.

Yes, Jim would rather feel the earth beneath his feet, yes, he would. This barefoot doctor was firmly grounded – he was rooted, focused, and fixated on plants and music.

I spent a lot of time in this garden with Jim. He had his favorite topics and plants. The yin/yang valley and the yin yang huo or the horny goat weed; the faba bean l-dopa and priapism; the evening primrose and alpha linolenic acid; sweet annie, artemisinin and malaria; his stinking rose garlic necklace, the spirit of the wintergreen; St. Johnswort and the FDA; dying his hippy beard yellow, nettles and the five or was it six neurotransmitters…acetylcholine, choline, histamine, leukotriene, and serotonin, and formic acid and occasionally he would say secretin, and I would wonder, “is that a neurotransmitter?”; he sang about how ginseng makes an older woman younger a younger woman hunger, an older man cocksure and an younger man endure; he talked about alcoholic hamsters and kudzu, and he taught about mayapple lemonade and genital warts.

At the beginning of his tours, he also talked about a less known plant Angelica dahurica, “Bai Zhi” – this plant was in his garden to represent Don Quai or Angelica sinensis. He liked to tell students that the plant is in the Apiaceae or Carrot family along with edibles and spices – parsnip, dill, anise, parsley, fennel but also in the same family as poison and water hemlock.

He taught that Angelica dahurica is a biennial as he dug up young roots to show how thick and fleshy they were (show roots). During its first year, the roots are edible and gathered energy from the sun and nutrients from the earth. He taught that the next year it bolted up 4 – 5 feet, put out thickly sheathed large parsley-like leaves, bore numerous flower inflorescences that attracted pollinators and how the flowers’s ovaries ripened to become seeds. Once the plants bolted he would tug at it gently and show how it easily came out from the earth (show dried stalk)…because at this point when the seeds were ripe that the roots, which had once been anchors, were basically non-existent. The next generation had been cast to the wind, seeded, and the adult plant no longer was necessary.

I began to think of how Jim represented Angelica dahurica during the time I knew him -with the earth beneath his feet acting like roots gathering, compiling, working, teaching, so he could…yes he would… spread his wisdom, knowledge and spirit to so many and most importantly – to the next generation. At some point in the last decade, the neuropathy set in and he longer could feel the earth beneath his feet. It took some time for Jim’s anchor to let go, but he did so under his own will. He let go knowing that his seeds, his teachings, would be carried on, and so he sailed away like a swan that’s here and gone.

All of us at the garden and his family will continue to maintain and realize his wish to do whatever is necessary to keep the garden a sanctuary to come, visit and learn – especially in bare feet. Yes we can, and we surely will.

IMG_4276 angelica dahurica rootsIMG_0993IMG_4278IMG_4282 angelica dahurica seeds and plant


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