Things Go Better With Bitters

Article published in Pathways Magazine Winter 2012-13 issue:

By Jim Duke and Helen Lowe Metzman

Jim’s Rant on Bitters:

Where once the green trees were kissed by the sunrise
There’s a highrise ‘tween the sunrise and the smog in your eyes.
All the other flow’rs got twisted by the herbicide squirt;
The last dandelion’s laughing, deserved bitter dessert. (HerbAlBum, 1985)

IMG_0303 taraxacum officinale dandelionPerhaps one of the healthiest recommendations in the Bible is to “eat with bitter herbs,” anticipating by a couple millennia the tardy appeal by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to eat your leafy veggies. Helen and I are going to make that suggestion also. The bitter herbs of the Bible have variously been interpreted to include chicory, dandelion, endive, lettuce, sheep sorrel, watercress, and possibly fenugreek. Some have even suggested rocket, which I find more bitter than the endive, lettuce, and watercress.

In the Green Farmacy Garden, we have a more exhaustive list of bitters—some weak, some strong, and many of them invasive weeds, but free to us for the harvesting. They are: air potato, alfalfa, aloe, American and Asian ginseng, angelica, artichoke, asparagus, baical skullcap, balmony, barberry, bayleaf, bearberry, blackberry lily, black cohosh, blessed thistle, blue cohosh, boneset, bottle gourd, burdock, cascara sagrada, chickweed, chicory, Chinese foxglove, corydalis, cranberry, creat, dandelion, dogwood, dong quai, Dutchman’s breeches, Echinacea, eclipta, eleuthero, ephedra, fennel, feverfew, forsythia, fo ti, fringetree, gotu kola, goldenseal, goldthread, hawthorn, hops, horehound, horseradish, horsetail, huang qi, Indian valerian, juniper, lesser periwinkle, licorice, magnolia vine, mate, mayapple, milkthistle, mugwort, nandina, neem, nettle, Oregon grape, pawpaw, phyllanthus, pot marigold, redroot sage, rhubarb, rose-of-Sharon, rue, saw palmetto, self-heal, shatavari, sida, skullcap, southernwood, sweet annie, tansy, tulip tree, tulsi, turmeric, vervain, watercress, wild yam, willow, wolfberry, woodruff, wormwood, yellow dock, yellowroot, yerbasanta, and yucca.

All of these bitter herbs contain many important nutraceuticals, which primitive and modern agriculture tend to select against, as seeds of more palatable variants are saved and more bitter ones discarded. In other words, modern agriculture selectively breeds to diminish the bitter nutraceuticals, making them less bitter and tastier, but thereby also reducing their medicinal value. I suspect that a half cup a day each of seven of these bitter herbs would lower the incidence of many diseases of modern man, some by as much as seven-fold. Instead of following the NIH directive, maybe you should strive for seven veggies a day, maybe even seven bitter herbs.

For example, among the many diseases for which the maligned dandelion is useful are some of the most advertised ailments of Americans. I will wager that if you have the much-touted acid-indigestion, dyspepsia, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and heartburn and/or indigestion, dandelion can help. But I will also wager that if you go to your doctor, he or she is more liable to prescribe such things as (alphabetically from A to Z): Alka-Seltzer™, Axid®, Bromo-Seltzer, Duracid™, Gaviscon®, Maalox®, Mylanta®, Nexium®, Pepcid®, protein-pump-inhibitors (PPIs), Prevacid®, Prilosec®, Rolaids®, Tagamet®, Tums®, and Zantac®.

These medicines are all mentioned in a great book I am tardily reviewing, Why Stomach Acid is Good for You, by Jonathan V. Wright, MD, and Lane Lanard, PhD (2001). Most of them are also mentioned in Consumer Reports on Health (CRH) (24, No. 7, 2012). The CRH is usually a bit more conventional than Jonathan Wright, a great holistic physician, and me, a mediocre botanist. Under the title, Soothe the Fire in Your Belly, CRH has a picture that looks like a hot dog on fire (one item on Wright’s list responsible for firing up acid indigestion). CRH tells us that the average person with GERD spends an estimated $3,355 a year on medications, etc., to help control symptoms—that’s nearly ten dollars a day! And more than 50 million U.S. citizens experience heartburn every month, with about 15 million enduring daily flare-ups.

One prescription drug proton-pump-inhibitor (PPI), Nexium®, earned more than $6 billion in 2011. CRH admits that PPIs are overused, overly hyped by Big Pharma. According to CRH, “studies have found that up to 70% of people who take a PPI may not have GERD and may not need such a potent, expensive medication” (CRH, p. 5). CRH enumerates some serious side effects of PPI’s, including bone fractures, Clostridium, diarrhea, gastrointestinal problems, muscle spasms, osteoporosis, and pneumonia.

Unlike CHR, Wright and Lane, Helen and I suggest cheap bitters might do more good for the average American, especially older Americans. In their book, Wright and Lane list barberry, caraway, dandelion, fennel, gentian, ginger, globe artichoke, milk thistle, peppermint, the famous wormwood, and yellow dock as the most common bitters used in western medicine. We have them all in the Green Farmacy Garden, except the gentian. We have always fared badly with gentian, even when we started with nursery-bought plants. But we have the king of the bitters, creat (Andrographis paniculata). It is time we harvested it before frost and get our bitters ready for the window, and for those days when it is too cold to harvest the ubiquitous dandelion. Either dandelion or creat could keep our digestive juices flowing.


Andrographis paniculata, Creat, flower

In Wright’s Takoma clinic, over 90% of the people over 40 complaining of gas, heartburn, and indigestion were carefully tested for acid and were found low, not high, in stomach acid. On p. 124, Wright rephrases that as “more than 9 out of ten of us who suffer from so-called ‘acid indigestion’ actually have lack of acid indigestion.” Yet Americans and their allopaths foolishly treat lack of acid with antacids.

Hyperacidity, or High Acid, is much overhyped in the press; hypoacidity, or Low Acid, which probably more of us have, is scarcely mentioned. Dandelion as a bitter can help in many cases of hypoacidity, more often the culprit in older Americans. The allopaths do not know, as do I, that dandelion has level 2 evidence for many indications, not just indigestion (dyspepsia), the subject of today’s rant. (Note: Jim Duke assigns a rating score of level 2, “if the aqueous extract, ethanolic extract, or decoction or tea derived from the plant has been shown to have the activity, or to support the indication in clinical trials.”) Dandelion is probably most familiar of the many bitters that can help in indigestion. It is approved in Europe also for bladder stones, bronchitis, gas, hepatitis, kidney stones, urinary difficulties, and lack of appetite.

My friends Simon Mill and Kerry Bone have a detailed account of bitters in their excellent book, Principles of Herbal Pharmacology (2000), which notes, “Bitter drinks taken before meals are still called apertifs.” Many Europeans believe, with good reason, that bitters are a cheap and safe corrective for indigestion. Here in the Green Farmacy Garden, I myself had not gotten into the European school of thought. But Helen, having been exposed to British Simon Mills and Australian Kerry Bones, and now me through osmosis here in the garden, would recommend a dash of bitters with every meal to prevent dyspepsia. I have on my desk as I write this half a jar of Angostura bitters. My wife Peggy’s mother, Hazel Wetmore Kessler, had a strongly British air about her. Hazel lived with us her last years, and while she was alive, instead of having a dash of bitters with each meal, she had a dash of angosturas with her whiskey sour. That was at our Happy Hour preceding dinner. I now have a dash of Angostura with my gin and ginger ale. (Ginger is also viewed as a bitter.)

The Benefits of Bitters: A Look at the Literature

Many Europeans believe that bitters work by stimulating the digestive juices—bile, gastrin, HCl, pepsin, pancreatic enzymes, even saliva—and not by turning them off as most over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs do. Unlike the OTC’s, you do not even have to consume the bitter to have this effect. Science has proven that in some people, some bitters need only to be tasted to get those juices flowing.

The more I looked into the literature, searching for solutions to my own litany of conditions, the more I have finally become convinced. I have been a high fiber freak for decades, participating in at least five dietary fibers studies at the USDA in Beltsville. Two of the study leaders warned me that I might be stripping myself of minerals. Wright and Lane specifically mention yet another USDA researcher, Elaine T Champagne, PhD, stressing the dangers of hypoacidity, inadequate pepsin production, and poor protein metabolism. Champagne adds that taking most of those commercial antacids named earlier in this rant ultimately generates the same problem. The bitter truth is bitters can prevent many if not all of those problems from which I am probably suffering.

Historically, many American Indians, e.g. Apache, Cherokee, Iroquois, Kiowa, Malecite, Menominee, Meskwaki, Micmac, Mohegan, Ojibwa, etc., ate dandelion, often boiled as a potherb. The Winnebago make wine from the flowers when someone marries. The tender leaves are valued worldwide as a potherb. Dandelion is sometimes eaten raw in salads, but often blanched like endive and used as a green; it is frequently cooked with salt pork or bacon to enhance the flavor. Roots are sometimes pickled. Ground roasted roots are used for dandelion coffee, and sometimes are mixed with real coffee. Redneck me, I like the Potawatomi recipe, i.e., cooked with vinegar and maybe with a little pork or venison.

I also like the title “Dyspepsi Kola” used in my best book The Green Pharmacy (Rodale Press, 1997), which consists of one dash each, as available, of angelica, anise, chamomile, coriander, fennel, ginger, rosemary and turmeric, and two dashes marjoram and peppermint. Today I would add licorice, having relieved my dyspepsia several times with DGL (deglycyrrhinated licorice). But when I wrote that book, I was not aware of the multitude of health benefits of the classical bitters.

In Herbal Drugstore (Rodale Press; White, et. al., 2000) Linda White, MD, says, “You have to eat the bitter to get the digestive effect.” Not everyone would agree with this; some say all you need do is taste. However, Dr. White, like most Europeans, suggests a bitter containing gentian, mugwort or wormwood 3 times a day before meals, 1/8-1/2 teaspoon or a full dropper. She also suggests bitters to boost overall energy, improve endocrine function, and improve digestive functioning, even hypothyroidism.

In Clinical Botanical Medicine (2003), authors Yarnell, Abascal and Hooper recommend bitters for depression among the elderly. Gut function declines with age. Many over 50 have low levels of gastric acidity. They quote famed German physician, Rudolph Weiss, who found the effects of bitters increases with prolonged usage. Weiss claimed that bitters would neutralize the negative influence of chronic stress on digestion partially by stimulating the liver. Their table for choosing a bitter herb lists gentian first, then dandelion, followed by (in order) wormwood, Oregon grape, swertia, yarrow, ginger, and horehound.

I suspect if you ask 100 herbalists for their favorite bitters, you will end up with an even longer list. I shall resume chewing my simple mugwort as another approach to bitters; or sip on Helen’s very interesting complex of yellowroot, goldenseal, wormwood, dandelion leaf, dandelion root, chicory, boneset, feverfew, skullcap, fennel seed, anise hyssop, sweet cicely, hops, and brandy.

Chicory, Cichorium intybus

Chicory, Cichorium intybus

Another great book I should mention is Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health (2010), written by a friend I admire, Aviva Romm, MD. She also happens to be, first, an herbalist, second, a midwife, and finally, a physician. Dr. Romm cites the usual bitters yarrow, wormwood, mugwort, barberry, centaury, boneset, gentian, goldenseal, horehound, chamomile, rue, tansy and last dandelion (They were ordinated by scientific names and dandelion was alphabetically last, not necessarily last.) Perhaps all of these share the beneficial activities she (and many other authors, including us) cites for bitters:

• Stimulate appetite;

• Stimulate release of digestive juices from pancreas, duodenum, and liver;

• Stimulate flow of bile, aiding in liver detox;

• Help regulate pancreatic secretions that regulate blood sugar, insulin and glucagon; and

• Help the gut wall repair damage.

Having accentuated the positives, Aviva also wisely discusses the cautions of counter indications, including gallbladder disease, gastritis, GERD (with which I have been diagnosed, rightly or wrongly), hiatal hernia, kidney stones, peptic ulcer, and pregnancy.goldenseal bloom

Hydrastis canadensis, Goldenseal roots

Hydrastis canadensis, Goldenseal flower above, roots below

Before Beginning With Bitters…

Because of the possibility of counter indications, I appreciate Wright’s cautious approach (p. 155) to identify first the cause of the problem before beginning with bitters. He tabulates some common causes, listed here, and to which I’ve added a few also suggested by the 2012 issue of the CRH as no-no’s. They are: alcohol; allergens; carbonated beverages; chocolate; citrus fruits and juices; coffee; fats; fried food (from CRH); garlic (CRH); mints (although I disagree; I think peppermint settles my upset stomach); onions (which I love); pizza (which I love; CRH); salsa (another love; CRH); spicy foods (more favorites) and tomato based foods (uh oh, my absolute favorites). There are so many things on this hit list that I love, I will try to moderate them and move on to bitters therapy without giving up my favorite foods.

If, after identifying the cause of your problem, eliminating potential causes does not do the trick, Wright and Lane suggest trying bitters, saying, “It is always preferable to try bitters before moving on to acid replacement therapy with HCL and pepsin.” If the bitters do not help, you could also try 1-2 tsp cider vinegar or lemon juice, perhaps with a little water, near the beginning of a meal. Then they suggest proteolytic enzymes. If you are still failing to help yourself, try to get an accurate measurement of your gastric acidity levels, which is, admittedly, easier said than done. A simple test with bicarbonate of soda, repeated three mornings in a row, suggested I was hypoacidic, just because I did not burp.

Ultimately failing with these gentle herbal approaches, it is best to see a gastroenterologist to check for serious esophageal or gastric problems. I suppose that even at age 83, I’ll do that if the bitters have not done the tricks I need. Nutritionists have advised me that for my rare and serious GERD attacks, I need proteolytic digestive enzymes like bromelain from pineapple, papain from papaya, and zingibain from ginger—a pleasant tropical, proteolytic, anti-GERD vegetarian fruit cocktail. Dr. Wright recommends non-vegetarian pancreatin after, not before, meals. All can help break the proteins down into needed amino acids.

A final rant! Those “ambulance-chasing” lawyers one sees advertising these days on TV always amuse me. Something like, “If you have taken drug X, recently reported to cause disease Y, call us right way if you have been hurt by disease Y. You may be entitled to compensation.”  And the same or another hungry law firm might say, drawing on the CRH report (p. 5), “If you have taken a PPI and experienced one or more of the following problems (bone fractures, Clostridium, diarrhea, enterosis, muscle spasms, osteoporosis, and/or pneumonia), call us right away! You may be entitled to compensation.”

Those lawyers ought to love Wright & Lane’s book, which indirectly accuses all the antacid drugs so widely advertised on TV as possibly being partially responsible for a host of conditions, including acne rosacea, Addison’s disease, aging, allergic reactions, bacterial infections, celiac disease, childhood asthma, cholera, chronic autoimmune hepatitis, depression, dermatitis, diabetes (type 1), eczema, gallbladder disease, gallstones, gastric cancer, graves disease (hyperthyroid), hepatosis, lupus erythematosus, macular degeneration, multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis,  osteoporosis, pernicious anemia, polymyalgia rheumatica, Reynaud’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, Sjogren’s syndrome, ulcerative colitis, urticaria, and vitiligo (p. 41, p. 103). Conversely, and still somewhat facetiously, dandelions (and/or other bitters) may help prevent such, trivially or significantly.

Bitters taken three times a day
Might keep your heartburn away
Cheaper than OTCs and PPIs

Taraxacum officinalis, Dandelion seed head

Taraxacum officinalis, Dandelion seed head

Bitters better than you realize.
A bitter a day
Keeps the doctor away,
A PPI a day

May put you away.


Twice or thrice a day
It’s worth the trying
Keep heartburn away.
~Anon. poet (the bitter end)

Additional Sound Bites On Bitters.  By Helen Lowe Metzman

Bitters are difficult to take—a bitter sorrow, a bitter winter, the bitter Jim Duke, the bitter election, the bitter pill, the bitter truth. But, as Jim Duke rants above, when it comes to stimulating digestion, bitter herbs are exactly what to take. I concur with Jim but also want to dig deeper to understand. Why are plants bitter? How do bitters work in our bodies to promote digestion? Are we in the midst of a bitter revival?

Due to their immobility, some plants protect themselves from predation by secreting unpalatable natural anti-fungal, anti-parasitic, anti-microbial and pesticidal compounds known as secondary constituents. Some of these secondary metabolites that help to deter herbivory are of a bitter flavor and classified as monoterpene iridoids, sesquiterpenes, diterpenes, triterpenes, alkaloids, and phenols. Several members of the Gentian family (Gentianaceae) and the aster family (Asteraceae) contain many of these bitter constituents. Gentian (Gentiana lutea), one of the most bitter and widely used plants in digestive bitters, contains monoterpene secoiridoid glycosides. The bitter qualities in wormwood (Artemesia absinthium), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and artichoke (Cynara scolymus) are from sesquiterpene lactones. Bitter alkaloids such as berberine and hydrastine are found in goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). Hops obtain their bitterness from resin glands containing alpha acids such as humulone on the female flowers called strobiles.

As two-legged hungry omnivorous mammals, we evolved in a world filled with tempting plants. By necessity, our early ancestors discerned by trial and error what to and what not to eat. There were no field guides to edible and medicinal plants, simply self-discovery or knowledge passed from tribe to tribe. While some people learned to plump up on sweets from fruit or from proteins from nuts and seeds, some perished by ingesting harmful quantities of extremely fatal plants like poison hemlock, castor beans, or jimsonweed. But centuries ago, others learned that in the right dose and by regulation of intake, plants with bitter tastes not only warn of potential toxicity but also aid with belly aches. Thanks to Jim Duke and Steven Foster for writing the Peterson Guide to Medicinal Plants of Eastern and Central North America, so people like me, whose parents never taught us how to use plants as medicine, could learn how to differentiate between the look alike poisonous hemlock and the edible carrot.

It has been a longstanding belief that bitters must be tasted before meals to activate the salivary glands, increase appetite, and stimulate digestion. I was fortunate to receive an email from Kerry Bone containing a 2011 paper by Marco Valussi, “Functional foods with digestion-enhancing properties,” in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition (PubMed: 22010973), which shed new light on the physiology of bitters and our guts. The paper points out that when we eat plants containing bitter compounds, taste buds on the tongue and throughout the gut are notified of the potential toxins. Signals from the tongue’s bitter receptors are sent directly to the central nervous system (CNS) alerting the brain to fire the vagus nerve that innervates the gut to promote gastric secretions.

Another signal originates from human taste receptor cells, G-protein-coupled receptors, the T2Rs, located on the tongue and throughout the gut. These T2R’s, when activated, trigger enteroendocrine cells to secrete gut peptides, particularly cholecystokinin (CCK). With the release of CCK, the gut gets the message for bile secretion, gastric motility and secretion, pancreatic digestive enzymes, and a reduction of gastric emptying. The action, originating from the release of CCK, is to maximize the digestion of complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids and vitamins, and minimize the absorption of bitter compounds. The paper suggests that since there are bitter receptors located throughout the gut lining, bitters may not need to be tasted on the tongue in order to be effective and could possibly be administered in the form of a tablet or capsule and delivered directly into the gut.

Although Jim Duke often speaks of his yin/yang valley with its yang south facing slope and its yin north facing slope, this intelligent western trained 83-year old botanist has never fully embraced the notion of plant energetics. (I must confess that I have a far greater grasp of plant energetics than Jim, but at times am still baffled by the application of the terms and usage.) Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) herbalists and many trained in the use of North American herbs view plants energetically as either yin, yang, hot, cold, dry, moist, neutral, and with tastes of salty, sweet, bitter, acrid, and sour.

Bitters are energetically considered cold, drying and yin. Simon Mills, in Out of the Earth: The Essential Book of Herbal Medicine (Viking, 1991), writes that bitters are directed by the spleen to the heart and flow downwards in the body, and help to treat “deep-seated clinical problems.” He also expresses that bitters are to “sedate, dry and to harden.” Bitters “sedate” a hot temperament as in a fiery individual or in an inflammatory health condition; bitters “dry” damp-heat in a boggy condition (think of a long lasting congestion with lots of mucus); and bitters can “harden” or “consolidate” by “improving assimilation and nourishment.” Cooling and drying bitters such as goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), barberry (Berberis spp.) and Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) with their alkaloids stimulate and help sluggish digestion and the healing of mucous membranes and chronic damp infections. Keep in mind that since bitters are cool energetically, in situations where the person may be cold, it is important to add warming herbs like Angelica (Angelica archangelica) and ginger (Zingiber officinale)to debilitating illnesses and digestion.

History is still in the making, and a bitter revival continues—bitters not just as a digestive aid, but also with the young and hip connoisseurs of food and beverages. Van Gogh’s famous drink of absinthe made with the bitter wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is not only a main ingredient in vermouth and drank as an aperitif, but was also used in ancient Egypt and included in Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1550 BC) as a medicinal. As far back as two thousand years ago, Mithridates and his herbalist companion, Crateuas, are thought to have included the bitter gentian and possibly thistles in their formulas that served as antidotes for poisons. Dr. Phillipus Paracelsus first formulated the time-tested Swedish Bitters, containing up to 14 herbs, in the 1500’s. The formula was lost but eventually resurfaced in the 1800’s by the Swedish Claus Samst. The bitters went through yet a third revision in the 20th century by Austrian herbalist Maria Treben and her book, Health Through God’s Pharmacy, which highly promoted and touted them as panacea for many ailments.

The misunderstood bitter dandelion greens, despised by suburban homeowners and caricatured on TV while being sprayed with pesticides like Roundup, are now being sold at exorbitant prices in health food stores and local chain groceries. Chicory (Cichorium intybus) roots roasted and ground make a delicious alternative to coffee (minus the caffeine) and are used as a bitter beverage after meals. Coffee (Coffea arabica) is not just a wake-up beverage, but also a digestive aid for foods and a primary medicinal in the Middle East and throughout the world. Europeans have had longstanding culinary practice of eating a salad with endive or arugula and taking a little squirt of bitters with their cocktails before meals to stimulate digestion.


Humulus lupulus, Hops strobiles

Hops (Humulus lupulus) are a bitter relaxant found in beer and also in sleep formulas. Gentian (Gentiana lutea), found in the high Alps, is one of the most popular of classic bitter remedies and an essential ingredient found in many bitter formulas like Angostura. Urban Moonshine, made in Vermont, has produced delicious bitter digestive aids made with the addition of citrus and maple syrup. Boston Bittahs – Bittermens are formulated with citrus, chamomile and more citrus. Dr. Adam’s Boker’s Bitters, originally created in 1828, has been reformulated and released in August 2009. Bitter Truth Bitters, with their myriad flavors, are a retro apothecary of cocktail tonics. Herb Pharm’s Digestive Bitters dependably are found on the shelves of most health food stores. Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery in Maine sells Bitter Blueberry to accompany bitter drinks, bitter humor and bitter cold.

We, at the Green Farmacy Garden, have gotten onto the bitters’ bandwagon. This past autumn, in anticipation of a class focusing on this subject, we made a brew of “Dr. Duke’s Bitters” to serve to the students and to take before our noontime soup. The brew’s ingredients include goldenseal root, yellowroot, dandelion root, chicory root, wormwood leaf, dandelion leaf, hop strobiles, boneset leaf, feverfew leaf, skullcap leaf, fennel seed, anise hyssop leaf, sweet cicely root and brandy. Come by the garden, visit these bitter herbs, and take a sip of this concoction. We guarantee this is a very easy bitter to swallow.

IMG_1881 jim duke bitter

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The HerbalBum, HerbAlbum, and Basilio Day

From the HerbAlbum:

Basilio Day

A memorable Basilio Day. Oct. 10, 2012, has come and gone. I already miss the warm feelings, on our first day of frost. Only a handful of my Amazonian friends will know what the blazes is Basilio Day. Basilio Day commemorates Basilio Sahuarico, one of the many excellent guides who has led thousands of American ecotourists thru the forests surrounding four remarkable camps near Iquitos Peru; Ceiba Tops, Explorama, Explornapo (where they have a labeled medicinal plants garden called the ReNuPeru Garden) and the most remote camp, near the very impressive Canopy Walkway.

Basilio in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Anna Wallis 2012

Since 1991, I have spent more that 50 weeks visiting these camps with somewhere between 7 and 108 tourists thirsty for knowledge about the flora and fauna of Amazonias. I was there to help them sort out identifications and uses, especially medicinal uses of the flora . Most of my tours specifically requested Basilio as our guide, not only because of his knowledge of the Flora and Fauna, but because of his musical and organizational talent, rounding up local musicians playing and singing various Andean and Amazonian and some North American tunes. His singing is phenomenal and brightened many of the nights at the remote camps, where some novice tourists may have felt a little homesickness. Not me. Since my first trip in 1991, when I discarded the cervical collar (for cervical problems, alias slipped disks), I have always felt at home on these camps, more so than anywhere else in the world, except my current home of 42 years, at the Green Farmacy Garden in Fulton.

Basilio in the Amazon at Explorama. Photo by Jess Holt. 2012.

Surely thousands of gringo tourists have thousands of photos and recordings of Basilio and his great tenor voice. Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Andrea Ottesen, now with the FDA, Basilio was able to come to the Green Farmacy Garden and reciprocate, filming the quaint culture of the gringos, their music, their flora and fauna. But thanks to my love for Mexican mariachi music, we got him to two excellent local Mexican restaurants. First we took him to La Palapa , only one mile from here as the crow flies. On the 5th of every month, they have a full fledged mariachi band to celebrate the famed cinco de Mayo festival, independence day of the Mexicans. They had the usual small Mexican guitar, a regular guitar, the overgrown guitarron (almost a hybrid between the upright bass and the guitar,) and the trumpet. Basilio filmed the whole show, concentrating on the guitarron. Years ago, Helen Lowe Metzman, director of the Green Farmacy Garden, had mailed Basilio with specification details of a guitarron. Basilio’s uncle in Lima fashioned and made a guitarron, which I played more than once on ecotours after Basilio’s uncle completed it. That guitarron on which the specifications were measured belonged to my good friend Bruce Casteel, a great classical artist himself. He plays every Sunday night at a local Tapas Restaurant, Rana Azul, like the famed blue frogs of Latin America. That puts Peggy and me in a quandary every Sunday night when we have to choose between dining tapas-style to Bruce’s classical guitar of going mariachi at La Azteca. But this Sunday with Basilio here, we opted for La Azteca, where Basilio not only filmed the mariachi duo, Los Trovadores (Salvador Rivas Najera from Salvador and Rogelio Valdes from Mexico). Yes, Sunday Oct. 7, Andrea and Peggy and I took Basilio to hear Los Trovadores.. They were as always good; but they benevolently and generously acceded to Basilio’s request. They let Basilio sing along with them as a group we jokingly called El Trio Los Panchos (suggestive of another long famous Latino trio). But the Trovadores, and patrons of the restaurant, specially with my table, the management and waiters and waitresses, were all delighted with the trio. The management agreed to cater food for 30 for Oct. 10, Basilio Day. Coincidentally, Helen Lowe and Eric Metzman, himself also a good guitarist, came from another room in the Restaurant, to listen to Basilio singing with the Trovadores. Helen and Eric were there with both their mothers and fathers, and Helen’s daughter, Elana, who flew to Thailand on Oct. 9. Also Helen’s niece Elise. We captured some of that Sunday Night mariachi music on film which Basilio can take back to Peru..

For Basilio Day, proper, we had Bruce Casteel playing classical guitar on the patio, all the while being filmed by the 3-person videographer team Stephen Dignan drove down from New York City. Stephen plans to publish on-demand with Apple applications a mini book we are working on, an illustrated booklet on wild flowers of Catoctin State Park. Turns out Peggy and I helped my son John Carl and his wife Sandy buy a home near the park about twenty years back.  John and his son, John James, came over to help clean up the garden for Basilio Day and to jam with Basilio when we moved into country music. Bruce played classical 8-string guitar from 3-4 PM. Beautiful and often tear jerking for me. Later I joined Bruce, me trying to play tremelo bass for my favorite of his songs, Recuerdos del Alhambra, always lachrymatory.

Bruce Casteel playing Recuerdos del Alhambra for Jim

I was pleased to see the Trovadores, the aforementioned mariachis from Restaurante La Azteca, arrive on time at 4:00 dressed up like mariachis and with Rogelio’s own camera. Helen was pleased to shoot material of their performance on Rogelio’s camera. I backed them up on the bass fiddle on about half of their more familiar numbers. (I have been listening to Salvador’s duo, in three or four pre-Rogelio versions, all good, for about five years. So I am pretty used to their repertoires and renditions. Towards the end they did my favorite mariachi song,  the Antonio Aguilar song Albur de Amor. As they filmed that, we had a Cuna Indian mola depicting Antonio Aguilar. I brought this very elegant mola from the Cuna Indians of Panama back in the 1960’s, more than 50 years ago.  The few times I looked at their screen (depicting what their cameras were seeing), I felt that they were getting some good video footage. Hope they the NY videographers and Rogelio will share some good clips with us for the website.

Jim playing bass, The Los Trovodores playing guitars, and Basilio (in all white) singing

By five o’clock, with Los Trovadores still playing great mariachi music, the new Howard County Dumpsters country musicians started dribbling in. Howard County Dump was a name we selected maybe 40 years ago when there was a bumper sticker out saying Dump the Howard County Dump. Mike Schenk, our usual regular banjo picker and his wife Ann and friendly dog Shadow, were here. Shadow posed well later when I howled with the SJW song. My son John Carl Duke, and my grandson, John James Duke had been here all along, enjoying the classical and mariachi music, but they were getting anxious to play themselves. Then young Jared Guilford, an excellent mandolinist, dropped in, making critical mass for country and bluegrass. Like my son John, Jared is a good upright bass player as well. And our intern Sara Saurus has picked up picking the bass pretty well herself this summer. She is more picturesque than I, and always happy to spare me on the bass fiddle. Last guest to arrive was Brian Dorothy , expert fiddler with whom I once played professionally, ca 3 decades ago. (You can see Brian, John, Mike and Sara backing me up on the Sogera song the following youtube site and read the words at the bottom of this blog.)

Jared, Yukon John, Mike, Little John, Jim and Victoria

You’ll even see a snippet of Anna Wallis, another of our garden interns playing guitar on the El Sogero song out by the ayahuasca vine in the garden. Anna was here for Basilio Day. So was Holly Chittum, another intern who replaced Anna. Holly brought one of my favorite foods, cornbread. Victoria Aurich, fresh back from a great diving trip to Bonaire, as always brought organic goodies and served as my music stand, holding up my words for me. A shame when I do not even know my own songs!. Victoria had been on a U. Md trip to the Amazon with Andrea and me about five year ago. Also in attendance was Dr. Gail Moreschi, MD, with the FDA. Gail had been on one of our Amazon trips and accompanied Helen and me to Cuba in March of 2012. That’s why I was pleased when the Trovadores plated Guantanamera for Basilio Day.

The filming crew

Basilio seemed to enjoy the catered Mexican foods, and the potluck items brought by his American friends and students, the wine and the beer in moderation, but most of all he enjoyed singing along with the eclectic Mexican music and North American bluegrass and country. He had taken a lot of pictures himself, a fair turnaround. Thousands of American visitors touring the Explorama lodges have taken thousands of pictures on Basilio, playing Amazon and Andean and North America music. On this trip Basilio took thousands of pics of mariachis and gringos playing Mexican and North American songs. Last Saturday, 6 Oct., an aromatherapist, Eileen Cristina, and her husband Eric, who had traveled to south France with Peggy and me on an aromatherapy symposium, took a lot of pictures of Basilio. They now plan to go to Explorama, having seen and heard Basilio.  But she forgot her camera when she left. We could mail her camera to her. But on the morning of Basilio’s  flight out of Dulles, Oct 12, I got a frantic call from Andrea at 6:50 AM. who had gotten himo to Dulles Airport for the first leg of his trip home to Panama, thence to Iquitos. But without his camera, full of his week’s footage. Basilio was devastated, he feared correctly that he had left his camera on our living room table. I verified. We cannot trust the mail to get his camera from here to Iquitos. Peggy just called down that someone in a red shirt had come by and picked up Basilio’s camera. That was probably Elmer, Andrea’s friend from Guatemala. I hope they got it to Dulles International before Basilio’s flight took off. He really treasured all the footage he himself had taken.  I hope they got it to Basilio by flight time If not, we may have to wait until we can get a reliable courier, someone we know and trust to handcarry it to Basilio. Or maybe Andrea can somehow open his camera, and copy on to something else what will be just as useful to Basilio. And hopefully with some of the shots Stephen’s crew took of Basilio Day and maybe even some of Rogelio’s footage from Basilio Day. Basilio had some of the travel problems that we elderly gringoes often experience. I hope he is waking up this AM in the warmth of Panama, where I have spent an aggregate of some 4 years. This morning, Oct 13 we had our first frost. I am glad Basilio missed the first frost, always depressing to me. And as I close this rant, my stomach still churns. It is 6:00 PM on our first day of frost. And I am not sure his camera caught up with Basilio. We all hope so and will somehow replace or overwhelm him with our own film of basilio Day. Basilio, thanks for enduring this; friends of Basilio, hope you treasured and enjoyed Basilo Day as much as I did.

Basilio at the White House. Photo by Andrea Ottesen 2012.

We will include some of the words to a few of my songs that we used below: I post my revised words to Guantamera, revised when I disappointingly realized that the real Guantanamera was a male peasant from Guantanamo, not a county girl from Guantanamo.


GUANTANESPANTA (my parody on Guantanamera)
Yo soy un gringo sincero
Estudio hierbas entero
Y es claro que quiero
Vivo Guantanamero
Guantanamera, me busca Guantanamera,
Siempre creiendo, que es mujer, la Guantanamera.
Yo soy un gringo llorando;
No hay la Guantanamera
Mi miente mi engaño
Hay Guantanespanta

Paradise Lost
(Parodyzing Paradise)
words by jim duke

(Can be sung to the tune of John Prine’s paradise)

I praise you John Prine, and I hope you don’t mind,
If I mimic your song, to help the forest along.
Even while I am singing, the axeman is swinging,
Choppin’ down all that green, to plant corn, squash and bean.

Chorus(male): Daddy won’t you take me to the primary forest
By the Amazon river where Paradise lies?
I’m sorry my son, but the forest is gone!
I’ll show you some slides, that’ll have to suffice!

If you’ll not name me, there’s something I’ll mention
And where credit is due, I’ll quote Peter Jenson.
There may be stronger reasons, but I can’t think of any,
We may lose the forest “because we’re too many”!
Basilio would sing us a John Denver song
And the gringos enchanted would sing right along;
And two decades later still singing away
He will be singing for Basilio Day
Oh axeman unkind, you are blowing my mind!
Camu-camu and brazilnut, they can help fill your gut.
But year after year, once the forest is clear,
You’ll have less and less food, and you’ll run out of wood.
The Jason tv, caught the shaman and me;
The kids could all see, he could talk to a tree.
Must’a been quite a scare, for the mahuna there;
For them the tv’s, like a spaceship to me
Never thought ecotours, could be one of the cures;
Taking “green” bucks from gringos, getting mud on their toes.
If the ecotours thrive, indian cultures survive,
And the children will strive, to keep tradition alive.

Chorus (female) Momma won’t you take me to the primary forest
On the Amazon river where Paradise lies?
I’m sorry my daughter, but I don’t think I oughta‘
We’ve waited too long, now the forest is gone!

No place I’d rather go, than to cruise on the Napo;
Hoping some of my pleas, kinda’ help save the trees.
I’d rather you’d find me, sunnin’ with the tree huggers
Than back in DC, arunnin’ from muggers!

It’s quite element’ry, our praise for Al Gentry,
Whose conserving career really helped at ACEER.
The best botany brain, went down with Al’s plane,
And although he is gone, we must still carry on.
Cacao, camu camu, cat’s claw, and dragon’s blood
The forest’s the best, for your medicine chest.
Aware of these goods, you still chop down the woods.
You’d best spare that tree, cause it might help spare thee.
DNA helices, ayahuasca the species
It’s the true vine divine. and a good friend of mine
Wondrous visions are seen, thru its telepathine
Like I’ve been told, ‘tis the vine of the soul

Jim telling stories of La Soga, Banisteriopsis caapi.  2007


(Parody on The Pilgrim [aka Going Up was Worth the Coming Down]-Kris Kristopherson)




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Plant Rant: An Elder Spokesman on Elders

Our elder, Jim Duke, waxes poetic on the lovely elderberry in the below ditty:

Elders for the Elders  (ca 2009) Parody on Bobby McGee

Elderberry, like black cherry, it’s extraordinary, very good for you, and tastes good too.
My elders kinda think, that an elderberry drink, might even help to stop the avian  flu
Can an elderberry tune, strengthen your immune, if you sing as you sip that brew divine
Good medicine for sure, the elderberry cure, as a jam or juice or wine, it works out fine.

Elderberry’s best, for the herbal  med’cine chest, and might frighten the avian flu to flight.
It has a killer factor for Helicobacter, untweaks your twisted tummy ‘til it’s right
Like an elderberry pill, I really think it will, cool the tummy and tame an ulcer down
And elder flower brew, is a good cosmetic too, and whitens skin that’s turning brown.

I remember from my scouthood, the flowers taste real good, when baked into pancakes, round and brown.
Elder syrup from last year, beats that elder beer, to top off that precious pancake, best around
What a breakfast, what a treat, kinda hard to beat, and you don’t really have to have no meat.
Elder syrup tops the cake, best cake that you can make, almost too beautiful to eat

Elder flowers in June

Selections from: Sambucus: Herb of the Year 2013 (American and European Elderberry) Family: Adoxaceae  By James A. Duke

“Are Europeans more interested in their elderberry than we are in our American elderberry? Last time I checked, early in 2012, there were 536 PubMed citations for the European, only 12 for the American. This is clearly a well-studied species. But I still seem to dig up more new activities and indications from the earlier literature I had ignored than from the recent PubMed citations.”

“Optimistically I submit a tentative key to the European nigra and the American nigra canadensis. It will help sometimes but definitely not always.

Leaflets mostly 5…….. S. nigra nigra (European)

Leaflets mostly 7…….. S. nigra ssp. canadensis (American)”

Peggy Duke’s illustration of elder – now classified as Sambucus nigra spp. canadensis

“Steven Foster and I are updating the Foster/Duke Peterson Eastern Medicinal Plants Field Guide which should see light late this year or early next year. Foster and I agree that the European and American taxa differ in leaflet number (almost always five in S. nigra, almost always seven in S. canadensis), fruit color, and pubescence. “There seems little justification for uniting them.” (S. Foster, personal communication, 2012). I agree! Both good medicinal species!!”

“Both cultivated S. nigra and wild S. canadensis fruits demonstrated significant anticancer chemopreventive potential as inducers of quinone reductase and inhibitors of COX-2, with anti-initiation and antipromotion implications, respectively. American elderberry extracts also inhibited ornithine decarboxylase.”

“Some Local Folk Usages:

  •  Algonquins use the bark infusion (scraped upward) as emetic, (scraped downward) as purgative (DEM)
  • Carrier, Cherokee, Gitskan, Iroqiois and Ojibwa use bark or root as emetic (DEM; HNI)
  • Cherokee used berry tea for rheumatism, the floral tea as diaphoretic, and other parts in decoctions and salves for dermatosis, dropsy, infection, fever, nephrosis (DEM)
  • Menominee use dried flowers for fever (AUS)
  • Meskwaki use inner bark of young stalks as a purgative, bark infusion as diuretic, expectorant, and for difficult childbirth, and as a fly and insect repellent
  • Micmac use bark, berries, and flowers as emetic, purgative and soporific
  • Penobscot Indians reportedly use the elder for cancer, Georgians using the branches (JLH)
  • Seminole use root bark decoction as emetic and purgative, for stomachache (DEM)”

Keep an eye out for Elder flowers in late May to early June to know where to gather the berries mid-summer

For a demonstration on how to make homemade elderberry syrup and other herbal remedies, come to our “Growing Your Immunity” workshop in the garden on Saturday October 6 from 1-4 pm. Email if you interested.

3 sept 2012 ~ Garden Director’s notes on respecting her Elders:

Sitting here on this end of Labor Day evening with the late summer sounds of katydids, snowy tree crickets, and a distant great horned owl wafting in my window. I had hoped to write this blog earlier in the week, but instead have been harboring a late summer illness. Fluctuating flu like symptoms, laryngitis, intense pressure headaches, nausea, cough, and aches have been with me almost a week.  Since I spend so much time outdoors and have been bitten repeatedly by mosquitoes, these symptoms could be caused by the West Nile virus, an influenza virus, the common cold virus, or worse yet, the spirochetes of Lyme’s Disease. Regardless the source of my illness, I have been reaching for Elder flower tea, elderberry syrup, and elderberry sub lingual lozenges to help combat these ails. Recent research suggests that elderberries help curtail the influenza virus from adhering to cells. Herbals also recommend Elder flowers for fevers and colds. I figure that I made it to this place in human history not only by procreation, good decision making and smarts, adequate food and shelter, the virtue of my ancestors’ ability to withstand and evolve with microbes, but also from plant medicines of the earth. My plant medicine arsenal of elderberries and Elder flowers is based on modern science and thousands of years of human experience.

Hippocrates is considered the “father of modern medicine” as he taught that diseases naturally occur in response to food, lifestyle, and environment. It is written that he called Elder “the medicine chest of the people.” Hippocrates worked as a physician, and his beliefs’ on medicine were in opposition to the prevailing thought of his time during the 4th and 5th century BC that promoted a mindset of disease as a punishment from the gods and evil spirits.

“Our food should be our medicine. Our medicine should be our food.” ~Hippocrates

Hippocrates’ philosophy on medicine did not travel to all corners of human society.   Centuries of folklore and superstition of healing from spirits remained until recent times in many cultures regarding Elder. Elder was so revered that it was planted near homes for protection from bad luck, illness, and against getting struck by lightning. Elder was never cut by European farmers for fear that a tree dryad or goddess residing in the soul of the tree would impose evil spirits and bad luck upon them. Only with permission from the dryad, one could cut part of the Elder for protection or for medicine.  The spirit Hylde Mkoer, the “Elder tree mother,” was thought to haunt anyone who cut down an Elder.  Amulets containing Elder branches were believed to aid in rheumatism. Some cultures felt that lying down by an Elder would help cure epilepsy. Others rubbed warts with Elder leaves, buried the leaf, and believed that when the leaf would rot, it would remove the wart. If one’s dream contained Elder, it was considered an omen that illness was imminent. Elder was gathered at the end of April to ward off witches, but others thought Elder would attract witches and avoided going near the plant after dark. Some folks placed pieces of Elder into wedding ceremonies for good luck. As Christianity spread through Europe, the worship of trees, such as Elder, was prohibited. However, to aid in the conversion of pagans to the new religion, many of the pagan beliefs were integrated and blended into Christianity. Elder was said to be the tree of sorrow that Judas hung himself on after betraying Jesus. It is even thought that the wood of Jesus’ cross was made of Elder.

Elder – Magic, folklore, religion, science or a bit of it all?

From the time of the Roman Empire to the present, Elder found its way into nature’s medicine chest by virtue of the following attributes: Elder leaves were combined with other herbs and made into ointments for piles; leaves and bark were purgatives and emetics; teas were made of the flowers as a diaphoretic and sudorific to promote sweating for fevers and colds; the flowers were also used as a diuretic and considered important to rid the body of waste in the case of arthritis; flowers were used for allergies, ear infections and improve  immunity; elderberries not only make a fine wine but also are high in flavonols, anthocyanins, vitamin A and C. These days one can also find fine brews made with elderberries.

Magic Hat’s Elderberry brew – Elder Betty…Brews, Breasts and Berries!

Elder was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1831 to 1905. Recent research on elderberry extracts have been conducted on the ability to inhibit flu viruses and cancer. Such papers include: Randomized Study of the Efficacy and Safety of Oral Elderberry Extract in the Treatment of Influenza A and B Virus Infections (pubmed 15080016);  Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro (pubmed 19682714);  Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses (pubmed  PMC3056848).

Scientists have been focusing their research mainly on the elderberries – but not on the other parts of the plant. One should avoid eating unripe berries, as well as using branches, leaves and roots of Elder for medicine since they contain cyanogenic glucosides. Consumption of these parts of the plant may cause nausea, diarrhea and disorientation. !!!!!*!!

Elder (Sambucus spp.) got its common name from the Anglo Saxon word Aeld, which means fire. Clip a branch and you will notice that it is hollow inside. These hollow stems have been made into pipes and to blow air into smoldering flame as well as whistles and flutes.  The Latin Sambucus is reported to possibly be derived from Sambuke, a musical instrument thought to be made from Elder wood.

Elder wood has a hollow pith that can be cleaned out for pipes and flutes

one of the Elder sticks hollowed out for a primitive flute

By mid-summer, Elders demand respect as they hang their heavy heads of deep purple berries in the warm steamy air. These berries are a distant reminder of the white, lacy flower inflorescences of late May and early June. Elderberries can be made into wines, immune syrups, and lozenges for the cold season ahead. Consider finding an Elder growing  near the water’s edge or in low lying areas and pick of its berries as others before you have done for centuries. Perhaps even meet one of the dryads hanging out within. (just checking to make sure you readers haven’t fallen asleep yet). Make a syrup to store in the refrigerator, and at the onset of a cold or flu, take one tablespoon 2 – 3 times a day or even one tablespoon an hour.

Show respect to our Elders, and may their spirits be good.

Elderberry syrup made with cloves, cinnamon sticks and ginger

For a demonstration on how to make homemade elderberry syrup and other herbal remedies, come to our “Growing Your Immunity” workshop in the garden on Saturday, October 6 from 1-4 pm. Email if you interested.


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Plant Rant: Jim Duke’s Herb a Day on St. John’s-[Wort] Day

Celebrating Saint John, June 24 (adapted, edited and updated from Jim’s “electronic online newsletter” archives from 2001 and 1989)

The week spanning Father’s Day (June 17, 2001) to St. John’s Day (June 24, 2001), stresses a saintly plant, St. John’s-wort, Hypericum perforatum, and its relatives St. Andrew’s Cross and St. Peter’s-wort, a real saintly combination. As best I can determine, Hypericum was not mentioned in the Bible, though St. John’s-wort does grow in the Holy Land now as a weed. And I have seen it there, cultivated as a medicinal. Poor Israel, with little forest and little fresh water, is better off with a sun-loving weed, like Hypericum perforatum, than a moist forest species like Hypericum punctatum.

Overgrowth of introduced forest-tolerant weeds, like bittersweet, honeysuckle and multiflora rose, are choking out important forest medicinal plants like black cohosh and wild yam, and the subject of today’s rant, Hypericum punctatum. The latter does better in forest, and has more active ingredients (I think), than does the introduced European weed, Hypericum perforatum. Hence, methinks, the forest species may be potentially more medicinally important than the Klamath Weed, another name for Hypericum perforatum, which once had a price on its head in California.

Native Hypericum punctatum, Spotted St. Johnswort, with larger leaves and smaller flowers

Along Highway 29, Howard County, Maryland, and probably along most highways in the U.S., in full sun, you’ll find the introduced weed, Hypericum perforatum. But drop out of the heat of the highway into the cool of the eastern deciduous forest, and you’ll find the shade-tolerant native American medicinal plant, also known as St. John’s-wort, Hypericum punctatum, with bigger leaves and smaller flowers than the European weed. More importantly, analyses provided me more than a decade ago (see below) that my Hypericum punctatum contained more of the active ingredient, hypericin and related compounds, than the weed. This tells me, if not the FDA, and the merchants of Hypericum perforatum, that our Native American species would be more medicinal for those activities based on hypericin than the better studied weed.

Non-native Hypericum perforatum, Common St. Johnswort, smaller leaves and larger flowers

From my database at the USDA (, here are the biological activities for hypericin:  *HYPERICIN: Antiadenomic IC>80= >5 uM BO2; Antianemic IC50= 5 ug/ml FT66(1):66; Anticytomegalic FT66(1):65; Antidepressant 411/; Antiflu PM56(6):651; Antigliomic IC50=<10 uM/l HG40:23; Antiherpetic FT66(1):65; AntiHIV PM56(6):651; Antiinflammatory HG40:24; Antileukemic HG19:19; Antileukotrienic HG40:24; Antiproliferant IC50= 1.7 ug/ml FT66(1):66; IC74=10uM BO2; Antiretroviral 50 ug mus iv EMP5:221; Antistomatitic PM56(6):651; Antitumor (Brain) IC74=10uM BO2; Antiviral 5 ug/ml (with UV) FT66(1):66; Anxiolytic 411/; Apoptotic HG40:23; Bactericide; Cytotoxic CD50=1.2ug/ml; Herbicide; Insecticide; Larvicide 438/; MAO-Inhibitor 411/; Melatoninergic QRNM 1997:292; Photodermatotic JBH; Phototoxic 30-40 mg ivn man SHT56; Phototoxic 3g/kg HG19:30; Protein-Kinase-Inhibitor IC50= 1.7 ug/ml FT66(1):66; 10-100uM BOI; IC50=4-12 uM BO2; IC72=2.5 uM (under light) IC50=0.02uM (w high light) BO2; PTK-Inhibitor 10-100uM BOI IC50=0.02-0.4 uM BO2 (w high light); Tonic CAN; Tranquilizer CAN; Tr! emorigenic AFR27:212; Viricide EC50=0.8 PM56(6):651;

And those are just the data accrued for hypericin, one of dozens of biologically active compounds in Hypericum punctatum and the better studied H. perforatum. Yes, I am suggesting that from a commercial view, Hypericum punctatum might be a poor man’s generic equivalent, cheaper and more potent, than the processed standardized Hypericum perforatum extract. But yes, I also believe that those who can afford the processed standardized St. John’s-wort are more likely to get the a specified dosage of hypericin. Remember these secondary metabolites like hypericin often vary 10-fold, sometimes more than 100-fold. So without analyzing my Hypericum perforatum anew I don’t know how much hypericin it contains. Nor would I know how much the weedy species along Highway 29 contained, without analysis.

Hypericum, mixed with my Father’s Day flowering evening primrose; serotoninergic tryptophan rich, Oenothera biennis, would seem to me to be the herbal mixture of choice for PMS and PMDD, after reading Brown (2001). Of course, allopathic Dr. Brown in a mass distribution medium, sponsored by Eli Lilly, dismisses the hypericum and doesn’t even mention the evening primrose, herb of choice for PMS (premenstrual syndrome) if not PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder).  “The only pathophysiologic factor that has been demonstrated to be associated with premenstrual symptoms in clinical trials is a serotonin deficiency. .” But Brown adds that healthy diet and regular exercise have benefits with low risk of adverse events (and should be recommended to virtually all women). Pharmacologic therapies carry a greater risk. Options are available: dietary modifications, vitamin and mineral supplementation, exercise, psychotherapy and relaxation [diet with ca 60% complex carbohydrates, 20% protein, and 20% fat. Limit intake of sodium and caffeine. Eat smaller and more frequent meals.] Supplements include vitamin E, vitamin B6, and calcium. Vitamin E, at 400 IU daily ameliorates breast tenderness. Vitamin B6 is required for the synthesis of serotonin. Increased B6 intake may increase serotonin concentrations. Dosages of vitamin B6 should not exceed 300 mg. Calcium relieves physical and emotional symptoms (1200 mg daily) (GI tract cannot absorb more than! 500 mg at one time). “Several herbal remedies, including St. John’s-wort, have also been suggested for the treatment of PMS and PMDD, but published data to support these uses are scarce. [Here she recites the pharmacy Party Line]… Psychotropic agents used include anxiolytics, tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotoninreuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) (in women who experience severe emotional symptoms). Then Brown names the pharmaceutical alternatives, e.g. alprazolam 0.25 to 0.5 mg tid; buspirone 10 mg tid; nortriptyline, 50 to 125 mg daily, and clomipramine, 25 to 75 mg daily and some of their side effects: cardiotoxicity, seizures, anticholinergic effects, weight gain, and possibly more serious effects in overdose. SSRIs are her choice for PMDD. Fluoxetine (SarafemÔ), the most extensively studied for PMDD, and is the only SSRI approved by the FDA for PMDD. A meta-analysis found treatment with SSRIs was favored over placebo for PMDD. That’s the pharmacy party line. Here’s! my party line. I’d recommend to my daughter instead, St. John’s-wort and evening primrose seed (oil approved in Great Britain for PMS). St. John’s-wort, has been compared favorably with many of these pharmaceuticals, and tends to have fewer side effects. Evening primrose oil is a major source of GLA, also useful for the symptoms of PMS and the seeds after extraction of the oil are rich in tryptophan, dietary precursor of the serotonin which Brown mentions is deficient in most PMS and PMDD females. [Brown, C. 2001. Helping Women Cope with Premenstrual Symptoms. Highlights Newsletter 4(2):1-6.]

The FDA  announced that St. John’s-wort was a detoxifier, as herbalists have long maintained. And they were right when they said grapefruit juice could potentiate many medicines. As a matter of fact, grapefruit can potentiate Viagra enough that you could halve your dose, saving $5.00 a pop. But St. John’s-wort reportedly detoxifies the same drugs that grapefruit potentiates. So if you are taking some pharamceutical poisons, you may not wish to use St. John’s-wort, either the weedy species or the woodland species. (Or as Herbal Ed Smith quipped, when he heard about the depotentiation of potent pharmaceutical poisons, he was going to give up the poisonous pharmaceuticals instead of the St. John’s-wort.). It may detoxify that medicine, nullifying or reducing the intended medical effect.  Here are some things I published a decade ago relating to the same subject, but long before it was proven than hypericum was a detoxifier. And before JAMA “proved” (according to their questionable standards) that St. John’s-wort was no better than placebo for serious depression. Respectable herbalists who have published on the subject, almost unanimously have qualified that St. John’s-wort is for mild to moderate, not serious, depression. The JAMA article tended to denigrate the numerous clinical trials that showed that St. John’s-wort was as effective as many of the more often prescribed pharmaceuticals for mild to moderate depression, cheaper and with fewer side effects. Small wonder that St. John’s-wort outsells Prozac and other prescription antidepressants in Germany. I think America will be a happier and healthier country when the natural outsells the synthetic antidepressant in our country too. ~Jim Duke

Jim Duke singing “Hush Puppy” with Jerry Cott discussing his study:

Evening Primrose opening at dusk:

From the 1989 Archives:

St. Peter’s Cross. The Bu$iness of Herbs 7(4):6-7, September/October. Hypericum (A decade ago)  With Gordon Cragg, National Cancer Institute (NCI), and his associates, I collected several vouchered specimens of Hypericum, including Hypericum hypericoides, the St. Andrew’s Cross, a.k.a. St. Peter’s-wort. Evenly divided samples were submitted independently to Drs. Neil Towers and Leon Zalkow for hypericin  analysis. Their analyses, while varying quantitatively, showed  reasonably good qualitative agreement, with H. punctatum being highest and H. hypericoides being lowest by both analyses. Strangely and unexpectedly, Gordon Cragg (personal communication) wrote that only the H. hypericoides showed any activity in the NCI  AIDS screen. Dr. Cragg even reported that synthetic hypericin showed no activity. This goes against what we had expected from the National Academy of Science (85:5230?4, 1988): “Hypericin and pseudohypericin display an extremely effective antiviral activity when administered to mice after retroviral infection.” In view of the unexpected inactivity of Hypericum perforatum and H. punctatum collected after flowering in 1988 and the surprising activity of H. hypericoides, Dr. Cragg has requested flowering specimens this year. Perhaps the folklore regarding phenology (the timing of biological phenomena) is correct. Maybe these plants are more active when flowering. Around St. John’s Day, June 24, I obtained flowering material of Hypericum perforatum for analysis. Parallel flowering material of H. hypericoides will perforce come later since it is phenologically different. H. perforatum, supposed to peak flowering around the summer solstice and St. John’s Day, is reported to possess more biological activity and antiretroviral hypericin at flowering time. H. punctatum, at least at Herbal Vineyard, starts flowering a bit later than H. perforatum, but well before H. hypericoides. The St. Andrew’s Cross flowers later. St. Andrew’s Day is much later than St. John’s Day, too, falling on November 30, well past the flowering time of H. hypericoides, mostly July and August here in Maryland. While pondering phenology of various Hypericums, it is appropriate to quote from Chris Hobbs’ excellent review of the St. John’s Wort, “Some early Christian authors claimed that red spots, symbolic of the blood of St. John, appeared on leaves of Hypericum spp. on August 29, the anniversary of the saint’s beheading, while others considered that the best day to pick the plant was on June 24, the day of the St. John’s feast.” (HerbalGram No. 18/19). Farther south, Hypericum hypericoides can be found in flower on St. Andrew’s Day (November 30) or St. Peter’s Feast (January 18), so I’ll appeal to my Florida colleagues to collect a kilo of flowering St. Andrew’s Cross on specified days. In Hartwell’s Plants Used Against Cancer the St. Andrew’s Cross, under the name Peter’s Wort, is mentioned as a South Carolina “remedy” for tumors. According to Moerman (Medicinal Plants of Native America, 1986) the Alabama Indians used the whole plant infusion as a collyrium (eye medication) and for dysentery, the decoction for children who were too weak to walk. Choctaw took the root decoction for colic, also using the infusion as a collyrium. Houma packed the bark into aching caries, using the scraped root decoction for fever and for pain. Other references suggest folk astringent, hemostat, lithontriptic (dissolving deposits such as gallstones and kidney stones), purgative, resolvent and tonic activities.  It’s clear that phytochemical profiles and bioactivities of plants and people vary phenologically, ecologically, and even show diurnal (day to night) and possibly lunar variations. Poppy alkaloid profiles are different by night and by day. Certainly, photoactive compounds like hypericin must show diurnal variations as well. Is it possible that photoactive plants collected at midnight might have different activities than the same plant collected at noon? Stay tuned until St. Andrew’s Day. We may have some answers. Hopefully, the Peter’s Wort will show anti-AIDS activity, sparing us from the anaphrodisiac “safe sex” syndrome.  ALL-SAINT’S TEA (alias SynergisTea) Jim Duke  Perhaps we should call it Dispari-Tea because it was contrived for a desperate man, dying of AIDS. His money was almost exhausted and a friend had come to me. What can we do? We’ve tried everything! And his T-cell count was still going down. I gave him my standard answer. I am a botanist. I do not prescribe!  “But Jim, what would you do if you were dying of AIDS? There must be something you’ve learned after nearly a decade of watching the AIDS literature and collaborating with the National Cancer Institute.” Well, I said, if I were dying of AIDS, I would try a mixture I would call the All-Saints-Tea which would contain St. Andrew’s Cross (alias St. Peter’s-wort) (Hypericum hypericoides) and St. John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum and Hypericum punctatum), generously mixed with all-heal or heal-all (Prunella vulgaris). Matter of fact, I’d mix in any species of Hypericum I came across. I’d sweeten my All-Saint’s Tea with licorice, (watching my blood pressure and potassium levels.) I’d add in some hyssop which has shown some antaAIDs activity. I’d take the better proven immune boosters (like coneflower, Echinacea spp, and Huang Qi, Astragalus spp) and I ask Subhuti Dharmananda for his latest immune-boosting Chinese traditional concoctions, which would probably contain the latter.  Further I get a juicer or blender and indulge in a wide variety of vegetable juices and fruit juices. My vegetable juices would have a lot of garlic/onion in them for flavoring and immunoregulation as well. Additionally I have some one growing some bitter melon (Momordica charantia) and eat it every day. I’d eat a pear and an apple a day, or consume the juice of several pears, if they were cheap. Pears are one of the better sources of caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid.  If I were taking AZT I would also consume a few legume nodules (reported to be the best vegetable source of heme). Heme is reportedly synergistic with AZT. My hog peanut is loaded with nodules and almost a weed in my valley.   And I would call every dermatologist familiar with photopheresis for lymphoma or with the PUVA (psoralen plus untraviolet A) treatment for psoriasis, an autoimmune disease. I’d ask them if any AID’s patients had been through their treatment and I would tell them that I wanted to go through the PUVA or Photopheresis, if they knew of no reason why an AIDS patient should not undergo the treatment. If anyone even hinted that photopheresis or PUVA might be helpful, I would go to the Deep Sea area, ingesting seeds of the Bishop’s Weed (Ammi majus) and exposing myself to the sun, getting vigorously massaged with evening primrose oil extracts of Hypericum flowers, collected on St. John’s Day. Israeli scientists tell me that there are synergies of the hypericin compounds. I would have many species of Hypericum in my Hypericum oil, hoping to get several hypericin-like compounds which are synergistically more potent than an equivalent amount of any one or two of them. Even if they didn’t! kill the virus, they might curb my depression, thereby enhancing my immune system.  I’d grow and multiply the endangered Venus-fly-trap, not convinced that the “carnivora” treatment for AIDS was anything more than a scam. But I’d steep a leaf or two of the Venus-fly trap in my tea and I would  contemplate the wonders of this insectivorous plants and God’s (and/or Nature’s) other wonders.

St. Johnswort infused oil

The garden curator’s side note: The red staining pigment found in St. John’s-wort flowers is referred to as hypericin or the “blood of St. John.”  If you observe the flowers growing along the side of the road or in a field, take one and rub it between your fingers and the red pigment, hypericin, will become apparent. One can also use the flowers of St. John’s-wort to make an infused oil for neuralgia, sore muscles, burns, sunburns, strains, sciatica and bruises.  To make the oil, take fresh flowers and buds, place in a quart jar, and cover the flowers with oil. It is often to an advantage to slightly crush the flowers, but not always necessary. Keep the jar covered with a tight lid or with cheese cloth, place it in a warm sunny spot for a couple of weeks – shaking or stirring it daily. You will notice the oil turn deep red. After two weeks or so, strain the flowers out and keep in a cool, dry, dark area. Use topically or make a salve with the oil.

For mild to moderate depression, Jim and I also make a vinaigrette containing the infused oil of St. John’ s-wort, walnut oil for its omega -3’s, seven stigma of saffron due to an Iranian study: Comparison of Crocus sativus L. and imipramine in the treatment of
mild to moderate depression: A pilot double-blind randomized trial
[ISRCTN45683816] Shahin Akhondzadeh*1, Hasan Fallah-Pour1, Khosro Afkham1, Amir-
Hossein Jamshidi2 and Farahnaz Khalighi-Cigaroudi2

Saffron consists of the stigma of the Crocus sativus


Garden report from 7/1/2012:

I just returned from the garden and must report that the derecho of Friday night dumped a huge litter of leaves, branches, large limbs etc. all over the Duke’s yard, but fortunately, nothing was hurt in the storm. The power remains out at the Duke’s, and Jim and Peggy are without air conditioner, water, and obviously anything electric. Fortunately, their neighbor has been bringing over morning coffee for Peggy, and Sara has been out picking and raking up and keeping on top of things.

Tonight, while stopping by for a visit to the garden and to check on Jim and Peggy, we were greeted by the opening of the night blooming cactus, Selenicereus grandiflora or Queen of the Night! Emerging out of the side of the thin and rambling cactus has been an ever evolving shape. This shape initially started out as a bump of a wooly and downy feather looking mass and eventually grew into a bud with the appearance of a long tapering profile resembling a swan neck, head and beak. During the week, the neck portion of the bud grew to almost six inches and the outer rays surrounding the tight large bud started to expand. Just as dusk approached, the bud started to become “Queen of the Night.” The beak point of the bud opened to a small one inch diameter revealing the numerous inner stamens and stellar stigma inside. Within the next fifteen minutes, the bud became a crepuscular star with a huge ivory white corolla and yellow and mauve rays expanding out as the evening drew darker. This beautiful sight helped to usher in the almost full and waxing gibbous moon. As a matter of note, the flower was illuminated and faced the direction of the moon as it rose in the eastern sky. We did not detect any pollinators to the flower, but I have read that in their native environment of Central America, West Indies and Mexico, night-blooming cacti depend on bats for pollination.

According to Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D. (1922), Selenicerus grandiflora  is used medicinally as a cardiotonic  and to increase renal secretions for individuals with palpitations and angina acting as a sedative and a diuretic. (

When I plan to return to the garden in the morning, I know the flower will be limp and exhausted, hanging its spent corolla downward. She is a Queen of the Night for only one night. There is a second bud in queue and yet to be determined as to when it will elongate, expand and open wide. Perhaps during this full moon cycle, perhaps on July 4th. Hard to say. C’est la vie.

to see what else was blooming during June, come visit us on our facebook photo album.

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Plant Rant: Jim Duke on Thebaine of Iran

8 May 2012, Jim Duke writes on Papaver bracteatum ~ Thebaine Poppy

Though this beautiful ephemeral poppy is more appropriately known as the Great Scarlet Poppy, I reminisce about it as the Persian Poppy, as I spent nearly a month circling around Iran, mapping out where it occurred. A long story, back before the Ayatollahs took over the government from the Shah of Iran. The story starts in the US at an FAO meeting with several US government agencies, including the DEA, and the USDA. They strategized that if we replaced commercial Opium Poppy crops with Great Scarlet Poppy crops, there would be less diversion into the illicit heroin market. The opium is the major, if not the only plant that produces two major medicinal alkaloids, codeine and morphine, both of which can easily be converted to illicit heroin. Codeine is a leading antitussive alkaloid (to combat cough) and morphine is a leading analgesic (to combat pain).

[[As my neuropathy worsens dues to sacroilialgia, scoliosis, spondylosis,and stenosis, and all that s…, I find myself taking more and more analgesics. Mrs. Duke finds great relief from a quarter pill of percoset (a morphine related compound) and a glass of wine. At 83, that sounds better to me than a very complex, expensive and dangerous spinal operation that two doctors have told me is the only way to correct my spinal problems An order of magnitude more doctors lead me to believe, that at age 83 such an operation is more likely to cripple than correct me. Just this lovely spring week, my chiropractress said that at my age quality of life and freedom from pain should be my major objectives, rather than intrusive invasive operations. Having seen Mrs. Duke almost killed by iatrogenic sequelae to a usually simple pacemaker insertion, I confess to fear of the iatrogenic results of overprescribed operations. Thus I may be seeking the magic of morphia more that the surgeons scapel to facilitate the pain-reduced passage of my last decade]]

Back to that DEA/FAO/USDA meeting in the early 70s. . I was invited in the presence of many luminaries by some Iranian chemists to go to Iran and collect 20 pounds of seed of this interesting poppy species, seed that might help America in its elusive war on narcotics. The theory being, by growing the thebaine poppy, Papaver bracteatum, we would be producing more thebaine which would be more difficult for illicit interests to covert to heroin. Thebaine is actually an antagonist to heroin and morphine. Thebaine, like naltrexone, might help the withdrawal of innocent babies borne to heroin addicts. All sounds very good, even looks good on paper. So it was not too long before Jim Duke landed in Tehran to begin a frustrating month long stay.

During my first days there, in Tehran, my counterparts belatedly said I would need to get clearance to collect any seed since in fact, trafficking in narcotic materials could be a capital offense, punishable by death. Hmm. Why had that not been mentioned in front of the FAO?. Why indeed? Turns out that my counterpart was selling the seeds for extremely lucrative prices. My seed collections might undercut his sales. External FAO officials advised me not to collect anything until we had written permission. So the FAO official agreed that until permission were attained, I could productively pass the time by field studies of the distribution of the species in Iran, mapping it out so that I could efficiently return to collect seed after permits had been arranged. I was given a vehicle and an Iranian driver (incidentally a Bahai minority) for my studies, and we drove north thru the mountains towards the Turkish border, studying this persian poppy along the way. I even saw natives harvesting the latex in the field much as Turks harvest opium poppy in Turkey.

But my permit never came thru. Alas I came home with no seed of the Great Scarlet Poppy some 40 years ago. I do not know for a fact that it is illegal to grow the beautiful great scarlet poppy  here. I would if I could, if it were legal. I know it is illegal to grow the opium poppy, We do have the oriental poppy in the Green Farmacy Garden. But I dare not try the opium poppy, addictive personality that I am. Best stick to the quarter percoset and white wine, both legal, so far, and admire my legal oriental and california poppies.

FROM USDA Phytochemical Database (Badly Needs Updating from PubMed)

Three Narcotic Alkaloids (Illegal to Grow)

CODEINE: Analgesic 97 mg/kg orl mus, 22.5 orl rat BBE; 0.1% morphine PR14:401; Anesthetic; Anticoryzic; Antidiarrheic M29; Antitussive 2.2 mg/kg orl dog, 42 mg kg orl gpg BBE; Antiviral V&D; Emetic 5 mg/kg orl dog BBE; Myotonic WOI; Narcotic M11; Respirasedative WOI; Sedative LRN-Dec90; Spasmolytic JBH; Spinodepressant 20 mg/kg orl dog BBE

MORPHINE: Allergenic 1 ppm M&R508; Analgesic 5-20 mg/4 hrs/ivn orl scu/man M29, 50 mg/kg orl mus BBE; Anorectic PR14:401; Antibradykinin 1.1 mg/kg scu rat BBE; Antidiuretic PH2; Antigonadotrophic KCH; Antiperistaltic M11; Antitetanic M29; Antitussive M11; Anxiolytic WOI; Bradycardic PR14:401; Cardiovascular 1.1 scu rat BBE; Catatonic 18 ipr , 125 scu rat, 500 orl rat BBE; Constipative PR14:401; Convulsant 160 mg/kg scu rat; Dermatitigenic M&R508; DIAphoretic WOI; Euphoric PH2; Gastrosedative JBH; Hypothermic PR14:401; Myotonic WOI; Narcotic M11; Neurotoxic RJH; Respirodepressant PH2; Sedative PP2; LRN-Dec90; Spasmolytic JBH; Stimulant;LD=1-10 mg man” JBH

THEBAINE: Analgesic JBH; Anodyne 1/6 morphine FEL; Antipolio EMP5:221; Antiviral EMP5:221; CNS-Stimulant; Convulsant M11; X9988096 Hypnotic FEL; Narcotic JBH;

A sampling of the profusion of blooms in the Green Farmacy Garden this week:

Silybum marianum, Milk thistle

Matricaria recutita, German chamomile

Valeriana officinalis, Valerian

Acorus calamus, Sweet flag

Allium unifolium, One leaf onion

Tradescantia virginiana, Virginia spiderwort

Dioscorea sp., Wild yam

Chamaelirium luteum, False unicorn root

Vicia faba, Fava bean

Magnolia tripetala, Umbrella tree

Nerodia sipedon, Northern water snake ~ in the rocks of the waterfall


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Jim Duke’s Cuban Food Farmacy Trip Report

Jim Duke

At the luncheon we enjoyed at the Cuban Botanical Gardens, there was a healthy and delightful array of fruits and veggies, many not emphasized in the handout I sent you before our Cuba trip. Here I enumerate some of the more important items I enjoyed during that marvelous and healthy luncheon.

But first there was the eternal, infernal mojito with its diced spearmint. Ironically spearmint contains several volatile compounds which do what Aricept® does, preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine, the cerebral messenger at the synapses. As of my last tally, my computer listed carvone, carvacrol, 1,8-cineole, p-cymene, elemol, isomenthone, limonene, menthol, menthone, piperitenone, pulegone, gamma-terpinene, terpinen-4-ol, thymol, viridiflorol, count them, 15 natural antiacetylcholinesterase phytochemicals, absorbed via inhalation, perorally, or transdermally (from Duke’s Phytochemical Database). Aricept® contains one unnatural anticholinesterase chemical with lots of side effects.

Mojitos waiting to be made at the Buena Vista Social Club

Your mojito probably contained most of these, all of which have been described from spearmint, and indeed many other mints, e.g., rosemary, sage, and lemonbalm, proven to slow the breakdown of the cerebral messengers (acetylcholine, butylcholine, perhaps choline itself) , and all in my cream d’mentia. Please remember though, easy on the alcohol! It is contraindicated in Alzheimer’s, cerebral plaque, and dementia!!!

And a word about the Spanish paella, which some of us experienced while in Cuba. With many of us approaching the age of dementia, we should recognize that paella with mojitos (remember, very weak or non-alcoholic) might be a double whammy as a dementia preventative.

Paella at La Terraza, the fisherman's bar and restaurant Hemingway frequented in Cojimar, Cuba

Most paella is colored yellow with saffron which has some chemical or chemicals that have been proven to help with both dementia and depression. Iran, a major producer of the labor-intensive saffron, has performed clinical studies showing that very small amounts of saffron have impressive effects. I recommend it. A lot of people come back at me and say they would not believe an Iranian study. I disagree heartily feeling that in most countries the agencies try to help the citizenry. I trust the Iranian study more than the FDA-approved study(ies) that approved the Aricept®. Lamentably, I do not believe that BigcPharma and the FDA are trying to improve the health of the American citizenry.

Ironically, saffron is mentioned only once in the Bible. But scholars do not agree. Some claim it is the Iranian/Spanish saffron, Crocus sativus. Others claim the Biblical saffron is the Oriental turmeric, Curcuma longa, of Asian Indian and Chinese origin, one of the most important anticancer herbs. But, most important for dementia, this unrelated spice also prevents dementia and depression. It seems to curb the so-called Beta-Plaque of the brain, which seems to be more important in dementia than the anticholinesterase activity in our mojitos. What to do? Be generous with both the Crocus sativus and Curcuma longain your paella and other dishes.

Turmeric, Curcuma longa, drying in an organic cooperative farm, Alamar Organoponico, in Havana

Back to lunch at the botanical garden. I have never seen so many cases of the color code in action. To your health, eat as many colorful veggies as possible for better health, the wider the variety the better. They were especially generous with many examples of good sources of lycopene, with four foods or beverages made from guava, Psidium guajava, almost a weed tree in tropical America. And there was the African watermelon, Citrullus lanatus, and, the American tomato, and the pink grapefruit, which, unlike the yellow grapefruit is rich in lycopene. Any and all of these might reduce your odds of hormone-related cancers. But the red hibiscus petals, some of us ingested with our luncheon, were healthy due to anthocyanins and beta-hydroxy acids, also good for the complexion.

Guava, Psidium guajava, for sale at the farmer's market in Havana, Cuba

Many, if not all members of the cabbage family contain cancer-preventing isothiocyanates and indoles and a few contain sulforaphane, the more piquant the better. So do the petals of the nasturtium flowers some of us ate. And the horseradish tree, Moringa oleifera, we talked about in those lovely mountains above Trinidad. The purple cabbages also contain anthocyanins.

The fruita bomba (papaya elsewhere), Carica papaya, and pineapple, Ananas comosus, contain proteolytic enzymes with a lot of proven biological activities. Of course, papaya juice and citrus juice was available at all our breakfasts.

What could be more important to those who are vegetarian (by religion, choice, or for wise fear of red meat) than beans? We have been overpromoted with soy and underpromoted with our native American beans, like butter beans, lima beans, navy beans, pinto beans, string beans and most important of all, the Cuban black beans, the blacker, the better, as far as anthocyanins are concerned. The white navy and pinto beans have little or no anthocyanins. Surprisingly all these American beans have the same estrogenic isoflavones (biochanin, daidzein, formononetin, and most ballyhooed, genistein). Some of the American beans have more isoflavones than the soybean. In moderation, the isoflavones seem to favor anticancer activity. For years soy claimed that it alone contain genistein. Bunk.

Fabaceae, Apiaceae and Brassicaceae displayed at the farmer's market in Havana

Fewer members of the bean or legume family are well endowed with l-dopa which tends to help Parkinson’s disease which has several biological activities [[l-DOPA: Analgesic M29; Anorexic 50 mg/kg scu rat BBE; Antidote (Manganese) M29; Antiencephalopathic M29; Antifeedant SCI181:81; Antimorphinic 100 scu mus BBE; Antineuroleptic M29; Antiparkinsonian 100-8,000 mg/man/day M28 M29 WAF; Antireserpine ED50=400 orl mus BBE; Aphrodisiac M29; Arrhythmigenic M29; Antitremor JBH; Cardiovascular 12 ivn rat BBE; CNS-active 50 ivn rat BBE; Depressant M29; Diuretic 1-2 g/man/day MAR; Dopaminergic 225 orl mus, 50 ipr rat BBE;Emetic MAR; Hallucinogen M29;Hypertensive M29; Hypotensive M29; Insectifuge JAD; Miotic M29; Natriuretic MAR; Prolactin-Inhibitor RAI.

Major Sources:
Fababean Flowers L-DOPA 110,000 ppm PAN
Fababean Pods 500-25,000 ppm L-DOPA PAN WOI
Fababean Seeds 1,500-2,500 ppm L-DOPA JBH PAN
Fababean Sprouts 5,000-60,000ppm l-DOPA SP BAM18:167
Fenugreek 1,590-1,700 ppm l-Dopa SP X17704018; X15331344
Velvetbean Seed 7,810-100,000 ppm L-DOPA MPI RAI JAF44:2638

(from USDA Phytochemical Database). ]] The Biblical fababean (can be allergenic) and fenugreek have been grown in Cuba and the velvetbean (prurient) is apparently native there in Cuba and elsewhere in Tropical America and Tropical Asia. One possible side effect of the l-dopa treatment of Parkinson’s is priapism in a very small fraction of the men taking it. In a sense, that small fraction of men may experience the four-hour erections we hear too much about on TV commercials re some pharmaceutical drugs for erectile dysfunction. We have all three growing here in my Green Farmacy Garden.

As in beans, color is important in native American corns, the white corn, delicious, but lacking the beneficial carotenoids found in yellow corns, and the anthocyanins so prevalent in the so-called blue, black, or purple corns. And the corn silks has many biological activities,

The flesh of the native American squashes and pumpkins are rich in health-giving carotenoids, while roasted pumpkin seeds are a tasty snack for senior dudes like Duke (me), with zinc and three amino acids good for the prostate problems that beset all males if they live long enough. In concert with Amazonian Brazil nuts, richest source of selenium, dare I say, nuts for the prostate. One cousin, two years older than me, was chemically castrated for his prostate cancer, and was suffering, of all things, male menopause. Recent studies show that the sage grown and sold in Cuba can ease menopausal symptoms.

Jim on the streets of Havana

On the streets of Havana, I showed most of you the ubiquitous weed purslane, Portulaca oleracea, which ranges in America from Amazonia to Alaska. It is one of the world’s richest sources of beta carotene, vitamins C and E, all wrapped up with the highest omega-3 composition of any leafy vegetable. One more Latin American herbs with high omega-3s is the chia of chia pet fame. Purslane is to me, one of the most delicious of weeds, raw or cooked or pickled, and if you get caught without your adrenaline kit, ball some up under your tongue and you will get a sublingual equivalent of adrenaline.

A lot of you got more cilantro than you wanted here and there. To me, it is a love/hate herb, and about ten percent of the people in my classes hate it. Fortunately for me, my garden crew likes it. In temperate America, the cilantro flavor and health benefits are due to the temperate herb, coriander, Coriandrum sativum. In tropical America, this is due to a weedy herb that looks like a thistle, called culantro, Eryngium foetidum, and the coriander haters will agree, it smells fetid, like its epithet. Me, I like it. Today (April 20, 2012) I am being visited by a companion-plant master gardener wanting to protect his tomatoes from stick bugs (which incidentally have been aromatically linked to the aroma of cilantro. He speculates that coriander or cilantro might help. I voted instead for pulegone-containing mints, many of which grow in Cuba.

Cobblestone streets in Trinidad, Cuba

I’ll have afterthoughts about our Cuban food farmacy for years to come, and I may be compulsive enough to send more info on to you. I’d like to go again, but only when I can fly straight from Baltimore to Havana, and when I can have more time in the country and less on the quaint cobblestone city tours. Cobblestones and cities are not my element; my element is the greenery.

Jim with guide Andres at Escambray mountains Sierra de Sancti Spiritus - Sendero la alfombra magica


Beans, beans, good for the heart
The more you eat, the less you infarct.

1. Ananas comosus L. Bromeliaceae. “Piña”, “Piña negra”, “Pineapple”. bromelain
2. Annona muricata L. Annonaceae. “Guanábana”, “Graviola”,”Soursop”. acetogenins
3. Arachis hypogaea L. Fabaceae. “Maní”, “Peanuts”. daidzein; genistein; resveratrol
4. Bixa orellana L. Bixaceae. “Achote”, “Achiote amarillo”, “Annatto”. carotenoids
5. Capsicum spp. L. Solanaceae. “Aji”, “Hot Pepper”. capsaicin; carotenoids
6. Carica papaya L. Caricaceae. “Fruta Bomba”, “Papaya (elsewhere)”. chymopapain, papain
7. Cucurbita maxima Duch. Cucurbitaceae. “Zapallo”, “Pumpkin”. selenium, sterols, zinc
8. Elaeis spp. Aracaceae. “Palma aceite”, “Oil Palm”. carotenoids, tocotrienols
9. Lycopersicon esculentum Mill. Solanaceae. “Tomate”, “Tomato”. lycopene
10. Persea americana Mill. Lauraceae. “Palta”, “Avocado”. lutein, MUFA, vit. D (?)
11. Phaseolus vulgaris L. Fabaceae. “Frijole”, “Bean”. daidzein, genistein
12. Theobroma cacao L. Sterculiaceae. “Cacao”, “Chocolate”. caffeine, theobromine, theophylline
13. Zea mays L. Poaceae. “Maiz morado”, “Maiz”, “Blue Corn”. anthocyanins, corn silk

Pineapple, Ananas comosus

(lower bad LDL and up the good HDL cholesterol)

Black beans (XX8489997), black pepper; black rice (X21289511), butterbeans (XX8489997), chickpea (XX1800305), chocolate (X20968113), cinnamon (X22186322 in rabbits), coconut, coriander (X18831331in rats), cumin (HMG-CoA-Reductase Inhibitor `X16822210), fenugreek (X21106928), flax (X21152727), garlic (X16320801), ginger (X20730603), grapefruit (seed extract (X19391322), green tea (X17184499), lemon (see Teuscher), lentils (XX8489997), onion (X 20090891), orange (X11063434, X20729016), peas (XX8489997), peanut (X20456815), peppermint (X21647314), pistachio (X21228801), pomegranate (flowers X18950673), pumpkin seed (X21545273), roselle (X19965962), sage (X21506190), tamarind (`X21989999), tulsi (X20608759), turmeric (XX3215683), walnut (X16193197), watercress (X17980985).

[[Note the numbers are PubMed serial numbers of articles showing that the food raised the good HDL-cholesterol, e.g., after 42 days on dietary baked beans, peas, lentils, and butter beans, HDL-cholesterol levels were raised significantly (XX8489997).]]

Compare the Amazon Food Farmacy, for my Amazonian Travelers:
1. aguaje, Mauritia flexuosa (super source of beta-carotene)
2. annatto, Bixa orellana(unique source of bixin)

Jim holding Annatto, Bixa orellana

3. avocado, Persea americana (best source of oleic acid and good for lutein, maybe even Vitamin D)
4. black beans, Phaseolus vulgaris (great source of estrogenic isoflavones; good source anthocyanins, choline and folate)
5. blue corn, Zea mays (great source of anthocyanins, reasonable source of melatonin and zeaxanthin)
6. brazilnut, Bertholettia excelsa (best source of selenium and lecithin)
7. camu-camu, Myrciaria dubia (best source of Vitamin C)
8. capsicum, Capsicum spp. (unique source of capsaicin, and good source of carotenoids)
9. chocolate, Theobroma cacao (super source of proanthocyanidins, anandamide, xanthines, namesake of theobromine; but better sweetened with non-caloric Stevia)
10. genipap, Genipa americana (source of geniposide)
11. oilpalm, Elaeis guineense and oleifera (oil one of best sources of tocotrienol and good source of carotenoids)
12. peanuts, Arachis hypogaea (daidzein, daidzin, genistin, puerarin, resveratrol)
13. pineapple, Ananas comosus (unique source of proteolytic enzyme bromelain)
14. papaya, Carica papaya (unique source of proteolytic enzymes carpain, chymopapain and papain; good source of BITC)
15. pumpkin, Cucurbita pepo (seed great source of 3 amino acids for prostate [alanine (200 mg/day), glutamic-acid (200 mg/day), glycine (200 mg/day)], linoleic-acid, selenium, beta-sitosterol ([60 mg/day)])
16. purslane, Portulaca oleracea ( the all-around salad herb, super for A, C, E, magnesium, noradrenalin, protein, and alpha-linoleic-acid)
17. stevia, Stevia rebaudiana (unique source of non-nutrient sweetener stevioside)
18. sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas (good source of ascorbic acid, caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid, ellagic acid, quercetin and rutin)
19. tomato, Lycopersicon esculentum (tastiest source of lycopene, good source of zinc, GABA)
20. velvetbean, Mucuna pruriens (major source of l-dopa, seeds up to ten percent, even more than fababean, and second best source of lecithin).

Proper consumption of adequate quantities of these Amazon wonders (and echoing the TV commercials, in concert with a prudent and varied diet and exercise regime), harvested renewably, could improve your health while improving the health of the Amazon Rain Forest and our planetary environment. While I am impressed with all of these and think that increased consumption of these (in lieu of reduced animal fats, etc.) by North Americans could do them as much good as going on the Childers, Cretan, or Mediterranean diets, I can also see how using this Amazonian diet renewably and wisely might even help the health of the planet, helping us preserve the vital lungs of our hemisphere (the Amazon rain forest), thereby improving the health of our individual lungs, hearts and other vital organs.

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Plant Rant: Skunk Cabbage – Passing the stink test.

10 March 2012

Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, with newly opened basal rosette of leaves with spathe still present.

Time to get back to the garden begins in early March. One of our two new head gardeners, Anna Wallis, started with me this week, and together we have been cutting down the winter botany stubble, weeding out some of the winter annuals, and getting ready for a class next weekend. Sara Saurus, our other new head gardener, is still on her migration route north and aiming to join us next week. In addition to his daily stroll around the garden and woods, Jim Duke has been holed up in the grotto working on an update to the Peterson field Guide of Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, compiling information about Cuban plants, and nourishing Anna and me with soup.

Leucojum vernum

For the most part, this has been an extremely mild and spring-like winter. Here it is the first week of March with not a drop of snow to speak of except for the patches of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in the valley. Rosemary certainly did not need her burlap bunting this winter and rejoiced with blossoms all season. The winter annual hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) along with crocus (Crocus chyrsanthus), dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), periwinkle (Vinca minor), and lenten rose (Helleborus niger) have dotted the terraces and woods with floral interest for weeks. Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) and butterbur (Petasites spp.) are currently in flower before their leaves appear. Spring snowflakes (Leucojum vernum), golden ragwort

Wood frog Rana sylvatica and gelatinous egg mass.

(Senecio aureus), spring beauties (Claytonia virginiana), and the invasive pilewort (Ranunculus ficaria) are blooming in the yin/yang valley. The red shouldered hawks are feisty, the wood frogs called early with their clicky quacks last week, the spring peepers have been out for over a week, phoebe is back screaming “phoebe” by the barn, the hunkered down nettles are beginning to rise, and the skunk cabbages that Jim transplanted down in the valley are already unfurling their leaves.

Eastern skunk cabbage with torn off spathe to expose spadix in bloom

Skunk Cabbage has been flowering in the bottomlands with stagnant water around the garden for the the last several weeks. One needs to go out to the woods where this native lives, squat down low to the ground, crush the leaves or the flowering parts, and get a mephitic whiff to understand first-hand why its name is so apropos. One needs to sink a bit into the soft, moist muddy earth to feel its habitat. One needs to be chilled by the cooler air in the ravines or the wet low-lying areas to know its haunt. One needs to rub the thick waxy surface of its hooded spathe and the bumpy globular spadix inside to examine its reproductive parts. Hmmm…that last sentence reads a bit kinky, but I am leaving it here for now. One can’t experience skunk cabbage sitting inside with a computer or hand-held device, one must get outside with hands-on and noses-on to experience skunk cabbage.

Skunk cabbage grows in moist bottomlands.

Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus – Family Araceae)  Etymology: symploke meaning connected; carpus meaning fruit; foetidus meaning fetid.  The Araceae family, otherwise know as Arums or Aroids, with 109 genera includes the Jack-in-the Pulpits and Green Dragons (Arisaema spp.), Anthuriums, Monsteras, and Philodendrons. Arums are distinct due to their spadix inflorescences and spathe leaf shaped bracts, as well as calcium oxalate crystals in their roots and other parts. Taste is acrid and bitter, and in large quantities toxic.

Skunk Cabbage is often the first native plant to bloom for the year and pokes it hooded spathe and tightly coiled leaves up and out of the ground sometime during mid-winter here in Maryland. Occasionally, I have been startled to notice them already up in late fall.  In the dead of winter, skunk cabbage comes alive. On most winters, I regularly find snow melted circularly around the emerging flowering parts and unfurled leaves.

skunk cabbage emerged in the snow - not taken 2011-12 winter

This winter, being so spring-like, lacked snow, and at first glance, the emerging plants were camouflaged and not immediately obvious where the skunk cabbage patches were. However, I know where to look since I have been traipsing the woods for decades, and these perennials live hundreds of years old in the same communities. I rarely see just one skunk cabbage and often encounter tens to thousands of plants. Skunk cabbage is thermogenic (heat generating), and according to Roger M. Knutson’s November 1974 paper in Science Magazine, Heat Production and Temperature Regulation in Eastern Skunk Cabbage, “[t]he spadix of Symplocarpus foetidus L. maintains an internal temperature 15° to 35°C (59 to 95° F) above ambient air temperatures of -15° to +15°C. For at least 14 days it consumes oxygen at a rate comparable to that of homeothermic animals of equivalent size.” I consider it a “warm blooded” plant in the winter – with the ability to regulate and adjust temperature to the outside temperature.  According to Knutson, to maintain skunk cabbage’s elevated heat generated during the winter is derived from the “actively respiring tissue of the spadix” as well as from the enormous root’s “inexhaustible supply of respiratory substrate.”

Peering inside the spathe is the spadix in bloom. This is cluster of individual petal-less flowers made of four cuboid sepals. Note the pollen grains from the four stamens surrounding the pistil of the ovary.

The temperature is maintained in the spadix and  Jim Duke writes in the Peterson Field Guide of Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs that the heat is “because of the thermogenesis of salicylic acid and salicylates in the flower.” A more recent paper by R. S. Seymour challenges the salicylic hypothesis as it pertains to skunk cabbage. After discussing this discrepancy with Jim, it appears as if there is still research to be done on the exact mechanism of skunk cabbage thermogenesis and also on the constituents responsible for the odor.

Skunk cabbage hooded spathe family conceal their spadices inside.

Peering inside the mottled mauve and light green speckled and variegated spathe hood, one will see a dark mauve spadix – an inflorescence globe or ellipse of fused petal-less flowers. (see above photos) Each individual flower is cuboid shaped with four sepals. I have noted a variety of color schemes of varying shades of purple to mauve to green on the spathe.  While the spadix inflorescence is bloom, one can note in the center of each fused flower, a tuft of four stamens with bright yellow pollen. The warmth generated by the spadix coupled with the putrid smell of rotting meat attract insects such as honey bees, flesh flies, carrion flies, water lily leaf beetles and predator spiders (Eastman, J. The Book of Bog and Swamp, 1995). After the flowers complete their bloom period, the spathe withers and the leaves uncoil into rosette of large blades.  The brilliant green leaves of a skunk cabbage patch glow conspicuously in the woods by mid-spring and are indicators to me of where the ground is seeping wet and not so easy to walk. By mid summer, when the vernal rain ground water has evaporated and dried, the leaves disintegrate and dissolve leaving only the ripening ovary fruit as a trace. The leaves do not contain many fibers and are mostly water and air. I have read that the plant only propagates via the seeds from the fruit and not from root shoots and takes several years to mature to the point of producing flowering parts.

About this time last year, I took a  microscopy class and brought in skunk cabbage spadix, spathe, and early leaves to examine under the polarizing microscope. The projected image from my slide glowed with needles of calcium oxalate found in all parts of the plant. Calcium oxalate renders the plant difficult to swallow making it not the edible plant that one might assume from the vegetable in its name. Euell Gibbons in Stalking the Healthful Herbs (1966), tells of his horrific experience in following highly recommended recipes for skunk cabbage that claimed to leave “no trace” of the putrid odor. His tale explains that he used the “tightly rolled cones of young leaves” as suggested, and found not only was there a much more than trace of odor, but was aghast that his kitchen reeked with the smell of an “angry skunk.” He also was disheartened to learn that upon consuming just one bite of his dish, his mouth and throat burned with discomfort. He offered his dish to others, all of whom refused to take a second bite. Gibbons was tenacious to find a recipe, and even after the first inedible malodorous cooking episode, he tried to figure out how to use skunk cabbage as the “Indians” did.  He dehydrated the leaves and roots for months, and eventually, after many failed culinary attempts, discovered that with the dried plant material, he could cook skunk cabbage pancakes and Herb Meat Cabbage Pudding. Due to the toxic and burning calcium oxalates in fresh Skunk cabbage is not considered an emergency food and can only be successfully used when dried for an extended period. Bears, however, have been reported to eat the leaves after their hibernation and there are sightings of turkeys eating the flowers.

I personally do not find the smell as offensive as others have described. Upon sniffing several spathes and spadixes, I noted that not all of them reek, some are very mild, and others are fetid. I have not made foodstuff of skunk cabbage but have tried chewing on portions of the plant. After masticating even just a minute amount, the tip of my tongue burned for at over an hour.

Me digging skunk cabbage

Instead of cooking, I once turned to making a tincture of the roots. Years back, I was with in a class that dug the roots down by the Middle Patuxent River. The root was enormous and took several of us to finally get it out the ground. Apparently, skunk cabbage has wrinkled “contractile roots” that pull deep into the soil making the process of digging a root virtually impossible.

Ethnobotanist Daniel E. Moerman, reports that Native Americans used skunk cabbage for purposes such as coughs, pains, epilepsy, swellings, whooping cough, wounds, cramps, pains, headaches, and failing of the wound.  Skunk cabbage was listed in the US Pharmacopeia as Dracontium in the 19th century for use as as an antispasmodic, and for coughs, dropsy and epilepsy. The Eclectics used it as an emetic, for respiratory ailments, diaphoretic, spasmodic asthma, nervous irritability and in fever powders.  My yellowed and oxidized Back to Eden written by Jethro Kloss in 1939, tells of skunk cabbage’s use as a “sudorific (causing one to sweat), expectorant, pectoral, antispasmodic, stimulant [and an] expectorant.” Skunk cabbage is listed in his antispasmodic tincture for cramps in the bowels, snake bites and mad dog bites or even with lockjaw. Personally, I would not try it for rabies or lockjaw, but may follow his recipe for a respiratory expectorant or for cramps.  The late well-known herbalist Michael Moore used it in his formulas for cough, sudorific and catarrh powders and snuff. One must heed caution when using skunk cabbage and use it only in very low doses or with other herbs. It is also important not to confuse it with the similar looking and poisonous hellebore Veratrum viride, which grows in similar habitat.

Odd to think that a woman of rituals is one of the someones I have become. I find myself attracted to rituals that define the year and comfort my yearning to visit markers of time passing. Like others, I embrace rituals with family and friends by celebrating life cycle events and rites of passages. However, I must say that when left to my own, what I truly seek are the rituals of nature and seasonal phenological occurrences.  Skunk cabbage is a ritual for me. I feel empty without going to trusty skunk cabbage stands and seeking the spathe and the spadix when the days are short and nights are long. These days are growing longer now, the leaves elongating, soon the spathe will wither, and by autumn, the spadix will grow into a top heavy fruit flopped over hugging the earth. Sweet.

The time is now to get to the woods before the skunk cabbage flowers are passed.
Time to get back to the garden. Please come by and visit.

Skunk cabbage mature fruit.

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