From the Desk of James A. Duke
~ Helen Lowe Metzman 17 Dec ’17
It’s daunting to be sitting at the legendary Dr. James A. Duke’s desk typing a tribute to him. It’s even more disconcerting to be here in Jim’s basement library/office without him hunting and pecking away with his index fingers. I am surrounded by Jim’s wealth of books, and his articles, poetry, and prose stuffed inside government-issued file cabinets lining the side wall. How I wish I could hear just one more story…like the story of his dangerous flight over Jamaica inspecting for ganja fields, or the story of going to Iran seeking Persian poppies to replace opium poppies, or going down the Shenandoah and discovering Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua) at pit stop number two, or the tale of traveling to China to meet the Chinese fountain of youth.
Searching for the holy grail
On the Appalachian trail,
When I found the herb they call ginseng.
Growing deep down in the woods,
That’s where I got the goods,
That the Chinese call renshen.
Jim did not care about the decorative properties of this basement grotto, where he spent so much time as a compiling troglodyte. He did not care one bit about aesthetics. He was a man of the mind. Words mattered. Information mattered. Music mattered. Plants mattered. Family and friends mattered. Teaching and telling stories mattered as did trying repeatedly to get the FDA to test and get fair comparable trials of North American and all medicinal plants alongside Big Pharma and placebos. Walks in the woods identifying local flora mattered. Saving the Amazonian rainforest mattered. Getting folks outdoors and promoting healthy food farmacy mattered.
He was a tome, a walking encyclopedia with a genteel southern drawl that fluctuated between refined and red neck. Women would peel off their shirts down to their undies in our classes for him to urticate or flagellate their arthritic backs with stinging nettles (Urtica dioica). He dined on BBQ cicadas spiced with Old Bay. He ate live palm beetle larva suri grubs (Rhynchophorus palmarum) from the Amazon and coined the word “suriculture.” He would stuff creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea) up his nose to demonstrate how to ward off the anthrax virus. Jim wore bulbs of the stinking rose garlic necklaces to keep away the flu. He cooked Duke’s soup du jour for the garden crew every day for years. He made manuka honey antibacterial salves and concocted pomegranate juice styptics to stop bleeding. Jim’s idea of a research study in the garden was to rub mountain mint (Pycnathemum muticum) on only one of his legs for its pulegone phytochemical, walk through the woods and see which leg ticks prefer. Jim taught us about the ejaculating seeds of the jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) as well as the uses of horny goat weed (Epimedium grandiflorum). I’m not even going to discuss what he had to say about fava beans (Vicia faba). Jim dyed his hippy beard yellow with turmeric (Curcuma longa) and chanted shamanic chants, icaros, “mucarita, mucarita” as he reflected on his experience with La Soga and the ayahuasca ceremony. He formulated medicinal living liqueurs with clever labels like Alzheimeretto, Crème de’mentia, and Hot-Bloodied Mary. He was always on the hot trail of the latest health issue or herbal discovery and would spend days “crawling” through PubMed data to either support or disclaim the information. He would, in his folksy yet scientific fashion, write plant rants suffused with long lists of phytochemicals of each species and continually update his USDA database to report his findings. Day after day, he broadcasted his rants via his enormous email contact list, interviews on radio shows, newspapers, videos and to garden tours.
With his humble yet eloquent teaching style, Jim had a unique gift to make phytochemicals, traditional plant knowledge, and scientific research palatable to all no matter their background. Universities, government organizations, garden clubs, homeschoolers, refined researchers, botanists, herbalists, hippies, and wild edible connoisseurs made their way to the garden not just to learn plant medicine but primarily to meet Jim. He was often asked at the tours, “how did you get your interest in plants as food and medicine.”
Jim repeatedly said that he had a charmed life. He was born on April 4, 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama just prior to the stock market crash. At age five, Jim was introduced to foraging watercress and chestnuts after befriending the lonely old man across the street “who only had his rabbits to talk to.” During the depression when he was eight, his family moved to Durham, North Carolina where Jim became interested in wildflowers and enjoyed going to the woods so much that he worked at a state park in his teens as a junior park ranger. Not only the woods but also music filled his high school years. The guitar was his first interest as he learned to play hillbilly chords and then moved on to bass fiddle in Raleigh. He played with Homer A Briarhopper and the Dixie Blues and cut a record called the “Briarhopper Boogie” in Nashville. A singer songwriter himself, Jim’s songs were cut into a vinyl LP, Herbalbum in the 80’s. He played jazz, big band, blues and bluegrass, and maintained his love of music with jam sessions at the house to his final days of ordering “Alexa” to play his favorite tunes.
After abandoning a music major his first semester at Chapel Hill, Jim eventually received three “academically inbred” degrees at University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill including his PhD in Botany. It was during his Master’s at UNC, that he fell in love with Peggy-Ann Wetmore Kessler, who was also pursuing her Master’s in Botany degree. Together, they shared botany and music and eventually married in 1961.
Between his Masters and PhD, Jim did a stint of military service, where he ended up at Fort Detrick in Frederick, MD. Jim worked on culturing fungi and later understood his projects were for the purpose of developing biological agents with the potential of destroying enemy crops. His time in the military provided him a Korean GI Bill, and Jim returned to Chapel Hill for his PhD in 1961 and traveled to Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica on plant-gathering expeditions. It was during this time that he started his infatuation with Latin America. Jim moved to St. Louis to be at the Missouri Botanical Gardens and Washington University for his postdoctoral work as a taxonomist identifying dried herbarium specimens from Peru. Jim then traveled to Panama to identify the best vegetation to support “vehicular traffic” before starting his career at the USDA in 1963. Jim admits that although he loved his work with plants, he did not always feel comfortable with the reason behind his work. For instance, early on in his career with the USDA, he studied plant succession in Puerto Rico but it was for the purpose of learning how defoliants or herbicides alter that succession.
While at the USDA Jim was offered a consultant job with the Battelle Memorial Institute (1965 -1971) in conjunction with the Atomic Energy Commission to work in Panama for two and half years. He accepted, left the USDA, and moved there with his young family including his “botanical illustrator par excellence” wife Peggy, their three-year-old son, John, and their six-month-old daughter, Celia.
Jim’s position was to go off into the Darién bush to investigate and thoroughly document all of the flora and fauna as well as the Choco and Cuna populations for what they were eating. There was a proposal to excavate a sea level canal using nuclear weapons but there was a question of whether radioactive materials would settle into the soil and how these materials may affect the indigenous population and the local food chain. Ultimately, the project was tabled and it was determined that it is not feasible to use nuclear weapons to excavate a canal. The experience of being in the jungle impressed on Jim how deeply tied the indigenous populations were to their environment. Jim’s became a “Panamaniac” studying the food and medicine of the Choco population. Jim often told groups of students that his time spent in Panama was the time when he metamorphosed from a taxonomic botanist to an “ethnobotanist” – a term he did not know at the time. From his observations, he noted the contrast of how indigenous people used herbs versus how his own family used allopathic medicine practices. Jim concluded that there was better living through phytochemistry not pharmochemistry.
Back from Panama, Jim returned to Battelle in Columbus, Ohio to document his findings, which lead to a compilation of his articles resulting in him publishing his first book, Isthmian Ethnobotanical Dictionary.
In 1971, Jim returned to the USDA where he continued to work as an economic botanist and received assignments such as crop diversification and the challenging position of seeking alternative cash crops for cultivated plants including coca, poppies, and marijuana that were grown for narcotics. He was appointed chief of the Medicinal Plant Laboratory (1977), whose mission was to work in conjunction with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to collect plants that had potential anti-tumor activity. This position took him around the globe as he documented not only toxic plants but also traditional plant knowledge.
Mayapple Lemonade Duke, J. A. 1985. Herbalbum; An Anthology of Varicose Verse.
Penobscot Indians up in Maine, Had a very pithy sayin’,
Rub the root most everyday, and it’ll take the warts away.
Farther south the Cherokee, echoing Menominee
Made a tea out of the roots, to keep the bugs off potato shoot.
CHORUS: Mayapple lemonade, wildest thing my momma made,
Coolest thing there in the shade, fruits of amber, leaves of jade,
They couldn’t know etoposide, nor of its aid to homicide
Nor could they know the course it charts, for cancer of the private parts.
I’ll venture to prognosticate, before my song is sung
This herb will help alleviate, cancer of the lung.
CHORUS: Mayapple lemonade, wildest thing my momma made,
Coolest herb in the summer shade, swing your partner’n promenade.
Jim’s medicinal plant compilation led to the development of his USDA database that he continued to work on meticulously for decades. After the Reagan administration shut down his program with the NCI, Jim returned to specializing in alternative crops for narcotics. He continued work with this program while he simultaneously began teaching Pharmacy from the Rainforest ecotours down in the Amazon, where he went at least 50 – 60 times…He lost count.
Jim retired one year early from the USDA in 1995 to write his Rodale bestselling book The Green Pharmacy. The sales of his book secured him the ability to recognize his dream and build the Green Farmacy Garden in his backyard. In 1998, Jim and Peggy converted a portion of their six-acre “Herbal Vineyard” farmette in Fulton, Maryland into a teaching garden designed by John Snitzer and Kerry Kyde. The Green Farmacy Garden, with its 80 plots represent the chapters of his book. These plots are designed to highlight plants associated with conditions and ailments like Alzheimer’s disease, prostate, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes, yeast, constipation and bacteria. In the garden, Jim taught about traditional uses of plants across our planet, botanical medicine research, and herbal alternatives to pharmaceuticals. He did so with credibility and debunked anything from Big Pharma to what he felt were charlatan claims.
I remember that sad day
In the year 2002
When I heard the TV say
St. John ain’t good for you
I reckon they forgot
What you really oughta know
2 billion bucks of Zoloft
Placed second to placebo.
Jim was notorious for walking barefoot in his cut off shorts exposing his bowed legs. He had a disdain for cumbersome shoes, and if he did wear any, they were slip-ons with soft soles. This barefoot doctor led groups to the “Gout” plot and recalled how he used celery seed for his condition and that the pharmaceutical colchicine was originally extracted from the Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale).
He walked barefoot down in the Amazon, too, while all of us on my trip in 2003 were sporting overpriced hiking boots, quick-dry safari pants and shirts, and gear to repel mosquitoes and avoid the poisonous bite of the fer de lance. Speaking of the Amazon…I’ll never forget one afternoon when Jim called me into his open-air lodge room to show me blue morpho butterflies puddling or drinking minerals from mud right outside his window where he had dumped the contents of his night time chamber pot.
Down in the Amazon, Jim, along with the Peruvian guides, played not only the typical folk songs de Colores, El Condor Pasa, but also John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads. Jim wrote a parody to the tune of John Prine’s Paradise with a dire warning that the state of the Amazon rainforest would be Paradise Lost.
Daddy won’t you take me to the Primary Forest
By the Amazon River where paradise lies (lay)
I’m sorry my son, but the forest is gone!
I’ll show you some slides, that have to suffice!
In addition to the ecotours to the Peruvian Amazon, Jim’s work as an ethnobotanist offered him the opportunity to travel the world in search of medicinal plants while touching the hearts and minds of many – young and old. I was fortunate to have met Jim in my early thirties around 1991 and again in 1997 just after his Green Pharmacy was published and before the garden was installed in 1998. After the garden was built, I volunteered for several years under the guidance of the prior garden director, Holly Vogel. I am forever grateful that Holly asked me to work at the garden as I got to know Jim and his plants as they aged with the garden.
I accompanied Jim to the Amazon, United Plant Savers (UpS) Goldenseal Sanctuary in Rutland Ohio, Finca Luna Nueva in Costa Rica, Eagle Hill Institute in Maine, Black Mountain and Brevard in North Carolina, Wintergreen Resort in Virginia, and finally, to the country he always wanted to visit, Cuba. From watching Jim traipse muddy paths barefoot in the Amazon basin, to botanizing while skinny dipping with our Tai Sophia class in Ohio, to assisting him with his rollator on cobblestone streets in Cuba, Jim became not only my mentor but also my dear friend. To read Jim’s Cuba food farmacy trip report click here.
Jim, a proclaimed altar boy turned atheist, claimed he did not believe in spirits. He did, however, talk about plant-to-plant communication from the aromatic spirits, methyl salicylates, of wintergreen. His tales were sprinkled with his ayahuasca vision of watching three women dressed in white taking notes in his garden, as well as a fellow participant, who in her vision, saw her brother die of a heart attack. Although he would never admit it, I have a hunch that Jim, the skeptic, became a believer of shamanic powers when at the end of the tour his student got back to the dock in Iquitos and was handed a note to inform her that her brother had passed.
Jim was a reductionist botanist who believed in the synergistic healing of the whole plant with their thousands of phytochemicals. Jim believed our DNA has been commingling with plant constituents for thousands of years. Jim believed when given herbs, our bodies will mine what constituents it needs. He fervently believed in the healing power of plants.
After a bout with neuropathy in his legs, Jim started losing his ambulatory abilities and went from compiling away on his computer to a holding pattern, wanting to go. Jim was, in his own words, “waiting for the reaper to come and harvest me.” An apropos metaphor for a botanist. Portending the inevitable, the garden’s ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi), La Soga, The Vine, which had looked healthy just a couple days prior to Thanksgiving died a week before Jim. Could it be that “celestial connections” intertwined these two? He would say no; it was just coincidence. The last words he told me were that he “hates winter.” Two days later the weather abruptly changed from a balmy late autumn to cold and snow. The reaper came and Jim peacefully passed in his home on Sunday, December 10, 2017, ten days before the winter solstice.
As I sit here at his desk, I must confess that I find solace imagining Jim in green pastures of a tropical paradise perpetually playing parodies, plucking plants and waxing poetic varicose verse. May his words, wisdom and spirit continue to educate and inspire for decades, if not centuries, to come.
He’s a poet, he’s a prophet,
He’s a walking contradiction, kinda low when flying high
He’s a brujo, a soguero
With celestial connections, he now navigates the sky.
And the throwing up was worth the coming down’
And the going up is coming back around!
~ from La Soga. (parody of Kris Kristofferson’s The Pilgrim Chapter 33)
To hear La Soga and several other songs and stories from Jim’s “Herbal Adventures” keynote at Medicines from the Earth, Blue Ridge Assembly, Black Mountain, NC, June 4, 2011, click on this video produced by Linnea Wardwell’s www.botanicalmedicine.org:
To read a legacy letter from his daughter, Celia Larsen click here.
For a wiki list of Jim’s books click here.
To view Peggy Duke’s artwork on amazon.com click here.