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Specializing in Herbs, Medicinal and Aromatic Plants—Photography, Consulting and Publications




Ode to Jim Duke: America’s Chief Herbalist

by Steven Foster © 2007

We were on a flight from Miami to the humid heat-laden air of the ancient rainforest city of Iquitos, Peru. You may remember the main character in Celestine Prophecy “driving” to Iquitos. The fact is, there’s only two ways to get there — by air or via the Amazon River. There are no roads to Iquitos. “capital of the Amazon.” We had gotten bumped up to first class and I was traveling to the Amazon for the first time sitting next to Jim Duke, who had made the trip too many times to count (up to ten times a year). It was my first trip to the real tropics, besides a short stint in Guatemala during the dry season. The flight was rough. The flight attendants plied us with drinks, and our conversation lasted the length of the flight. Duke treated me like he was taking a kid to a candy store.

Jim leaned over and said, “You’re going to get the tropical bug.”

”What do you mean, tropical disease?”

“No,” Duke comforted, “I mean, after you come to the tropics once, you will want to return as often as you can.”

On the four-hour flight, he told me story after story, and prepared me for what lie ahead. “Every ten feet you walk, you will see something different,” Jim explained. “The diversity is incredible. Near my home in Maryland there are about 30 species of woody plants per hectare. In the Peruvian rainforest there are over 300 woody species per hectare. This unbelievable diversity must be must be experienced to be believed. Words can’t describe it.”

Dr. Duke was the perfect host. One afternoon he took herbalist Amanda McQuade and me to visit a friend of his who lived on the Amazon River’s banks, not far from the lodge. The farmer grew sugar cane, which he turned into a sickly sweet version of white lightening in a battered old copper still. “Rum”, Jim called it. The farmer’s wife made drinks for us — half fresh-squeezed ginger juice and half “rum”. It sure took the cares away, and cured the tourista, too. Why, if an Anaconda had swam by in the nearby rushing waters of the Amazon, I might have just hopped on its back and taken a ride to our next day’s venue — ACEER.

ACEER— the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research— was a couple hours away by boat (followed by a 30-minute hike through the primary rainforest. ACEER is Jim Duke’s home away from home, now that he is “retired”.  At ACEER, Jim Duke, along his local shaman colleagues, freely share knowledge on the ethnobotany of Amazonia. Duke’s infectious love of the Amazon, its people and flora inspire all who travel there, as he plows bare-foot through the jungle, seemingly oblivious to the ants, swarms of insects, and occasional reptile that might lurk beneath the understory. For those who know Jim Duke from North American venues such as scientific conferences, herb gatherings, or a North Carolina bluegrass stage, you know that you are really seeing him at home — where his heart is  — when you see him in the primary rainforest of the Amazon.

Duke was right about his prediction on the plane. I did get the tropical bug. Since traveling to the Amazon with him nearly 15 years ago, I am committed to taking a trip to a tropical location at least once a year. I thank him for that.

I met Jim Duke in the autumn of 1978 long before his fame had traveled from the halls of relative academic obscurity to herbal celebrity. We met in the backyard of Dr. Paul Lee, then Executive Director of the Herb Trade Association, which was hosting the Second International Herb Symposium at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Jim had just walked to Paul’s house from his hotel, with notebook in hand, documenting varieties of opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) whichgrew as ornamentals in people’s yards. At the time I was 21 years old. I had just left the Sabbathday Lake Maine Shaker Community where I had been for four years. Having grown up in Maine, that trip to California, was my first trip west — west of New York City. Here, I was meeting some of the giants of medicinal plant research for the first time.

First impressions are everything. I didn’t even know how to start a conversation with someone of the stature of Jim Duke. After all, he was one of the few medicinal plants researchers at the time, and certainly the only scientist in the Federal government researching herbal medicines (at least clandestinely if not officially). At the time he was Chief of USDA’s Economic Botany Laboratory in the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland.

Humility rarely follows success. Duke, as he refers to himself, turned out to be a Southern gentleman first, a famous scientist second. His interest in poppies grew out of his second stint with USDA starting in 1971, which took him to Iran to study species diversity in opium poppies as part of his professional role in researching crop diversification and medicinal plant studies in developing counties. His passion for how humans use plants as medicine, rolled from his tongue like a kid licking a lollypop. At once, he put me at ease. Here was a man who was more interested in what I might have to say to him than in what he might have to say to me. He stood next to a Mullein plant in Paul Lee’s garden. I snapped a picture. Jim Duke recited his Mullein poem.

“Mullein leaf is one herb that they use
As an innersole lining for shoes
From what people tell
It cures asthma as well;
And helps when the bowels are loose”

The picture of him I took that day, along with the poem on mullein, are in one of Duke’s more obscure of over twenty books, Herbalbum-An Anthology of Varicose Verse, published in a staple-bound photocopied edition in 1985 — a collection of over 400 herbal poems and a couple dozen songs set to bluegrass melodies. In case you are wondering how the syllables breakout for pronunciation, that’s “herbal-bum” for the poems. The songs were released under the same Herbalbum title, but in this case pronounced “herb-album”— a vinyl record of bluegrass songs written and performed by Jim Duke and his bluegrass buddies (later released on tape and CD).

Dr. James A Duke, a key figure of the “herbal renaissance,” a phrase coined by Paul Lee, is a renaissance man in the broadest sense. Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929, Jim Duke became a bluegrass fiddler by age 16, even appearing at the Grande Ole Opry. An interest in plants was not far behind his interest in music. In 1955 he took a degree in botany from the University of North Carolina. In 1961 the same institution conferred a doctorate in botany upon him. Postgraduate work took him to Washington University and Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. It was there that he developed what has become to this day, as he puts it, “my overriding interest — neotropical ethnobotany.”

Early in Duke’s career with Missouri Botanical Garden, his work took him to Panama where he penned painstaking technical descriptions of plants in eleven plants families for the Flora of Panama project, published in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. During his years in Panama he also studied the ethnobotany of the Choco and Cuna native groups. The Choco are a forest people who lived scattered along rivers. The Cuna live in villages. Another fruit of these years was his first book — Isthmanian Ethnobotanical Dictionary, a 96-page handbook describing medicinal plants of the Central American isthmus.

In 1963, Jim Duke took a position with the USDA in Beltsville, Maryland, focusing on tropical ecology, especially seedling ecology. From 1965 to 1971, he worked on ecological and ethnological research in Panama and Colombia for Battelle Columbus Laboratories. Jim Duke doesn’t talk about this work. However, if you put some of the pieces of the puzzle together his more obscure scientific publications of this nine-year era reveal the focus of some of the research. Many of his publications were prepared for his employer on behalf of the former Atomic Energy Commission. The work was akin to environmental impact statements on the effects of radiation on tropical organisms. President Kennedy, in his infinite wisdom, had an idea. He initiated a feasibility study to widen the Panama Canal, or perhaps excavate a new canal to accommodate super tankers. The project was called the Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal. America had a tool that would easily accomplish the excavation work — nuke the Central American isthmus to create a new canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific! I hope George W. Bush doesn’t resurrect this mothballed idea. Duke’s studies may have helped to show that such a canal was not such a good idea.

After that stint, Duke returned to USDA in 1971 where he worked on crop diversification, creating a database called the “Crop Diversification Matrix” with extensive biological, ecological and economic data on thousands of cultivated crops. His interest in medicinal plants never waned, no matter what unrelated tasks government bureaucrats pushed his way. In 1977 he became Chief of the Medicinal Plant Laboratory at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland, and then Chief of USDA’s Economic Botany Laboratory. At the time, USDA was under contract with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to collect plant materials from all over the world for screening for anti-cancer activity.

One NCI scientist with a vision to explore the plant world for potential anti-cancer compounds was the late Dr. Jonathan L. Hartwell (1906-1991). His pioneering work on the common mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) resulted in the isolation of podophyllotoxin and several other compounds known as lignans, which eventually led to the development of drugs used in chemotherapy for the  treatment of testicular cancer and small cell lung cancer. In July 1960, a contract was established with NCI for USDA to begin collections of plant materials for screening potential new anticancer compounds. Over the next twenty-years, about 35,000 species of higher (flowering) plants were screened for activity against cancer. About 3,000 of those demonstrated reproducible activity. A small fraction of these (including mayapple and yew derivatives) were eventually chosen for clinical trials. Jim Duke supervised these collections in the later years of the program.

Jim Duke continued his work at USDA as Chief of the Germplasm Resources Laboratory, collecting data and plant material on food crops from around the world. He continued his association with the National Institutes of Health and the NCI working on potential anti-cancer and anti-AIDs drug leads. Later, from 1990-1992, he consulted with NCI’s Designer Food Program (to document plants with potential cancer-preventing activity) under the direction of the late Dr. Herb Pierson. During the Reagan Administration, he was also charged with the unenviable, and as Jim Duke himself admits, “impossible” task of finding a replacement crop in the Andes for coca, the ancient Inca stimulant and source of its abused alkaloid, cocaine.

All the while Duke not only continued his personal interest in medicinal plants — increasing his database to include over 80,000 plant species — but began a flurry of publication activity which continues unabashed. Works from this era include many of his important scholarly books such as the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, (CRC Press 1985), a standard technical reference on medicinal plants, yet still a good read for the layperson.

After more than 30 years of service, Dr. Duke retired from USDA in September of 1995. “Retirement” is hardly a word that applies in the traditional sense. It was more like a coming out party. What retirement meant for the herb world was that Jim Duke could write what he wanted to write and say what he wanted to say. Retirement for him, by fate not design, was the beginning of a new career as America’s herbal guru, tempered by a dose of Alabama charm.

When Dr. Duke is not on the lecture circuit (which includes 100 or more venues a year) or leading groups to the Amazon, he is at his rural farmette in Maryland — Herbal Vineyard — with wife of many decades, Peggy Duke, a noted botanical illustrator and teacher in her own right. There you will find “the barefoot doctor” pulling weeds in his vast organic herb garden, perhaps the largest private medicinal herb garden in the country, with over 80 plots of plants arranged by disease condition, representing hundreds of species of medicinal herbs.

If you have the opportunity, go to a lecture presented by Dr. James A. Duke, or better yet, sign-up for an ecotour with him to the Amazon. The rewards will be unforgettable. Many of the databases he produced during his decades as USDA, such as Father Nature’s Farmacy, are available on-line at (http://www.ars-grin.gov/duke/). There, you will find a wealth of information on the phytochemistry, ethnobotany, and biological activities of thousands of medicinal plants.

How do you write a story about someone you’ve known for nearly 30 years who’s been profiled by everyone from People Magazine to the New York Times (and more than once in each) without sounding glib? When I started writing this profile, I decided to go through my Duke files. That search netted a pile of correspondence, articles by him or about nearly two feet tall.

At a seemingly ageless 78 years young, Jim Duke is still in the prime of his output. My library is arranged by subject; except for two authors — famed nineteenth century Cincinnati pharmacist, John Uri Lloyd and Dr. James A. Duke — both the only authors in the medicinal plant field prolific enough to warrant their own shelves.  Perhaps the future will bring a Jim Duke memoir in the collection . . .

The Duke Lexicon, 1972-2001

  • Duke, J. A. 1972. Isthmanian Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Fulton, Maryland: Author.
  • Duke, J. A. 1972. Lewd Latin Lexicon. Fulton, Maryland: Author. [A dictionary of colloquial slang in various Central American languages and dialects]
  • Duke, J. A. 1981. Handbook of Legumes of World Economic Importance. New York: Plenum Press.
  • Duke, J. A. 1981. Medicinal Plants of the Bible. Buffalo, New York: Trado-Medic Books.
  • Duke, J. A. 1985. Culinary Herbs: A Potpourri. New York: Conch Magazine, Ltd., Publishers.
  • Duke, J. A. and E. S. Ayensu 1985. Medicinal Plants of China. Algonac, Michigan, Reference Publications, Inc.
  • Duke, J. A. 1985. CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Boca Raton, Florida, CRC Press, Inc.
  • Duke, J. A. 1985. Herbalbum: An Anthology of Varicose Verse. Fulton, Maryland: Author.
  • Duke, J. A. 1986. Handbook of Northeastern Indian Medicinal Plants. Lincoln, Massachusetts, Quarterman Publications, Inc.
  • Duke, J. A. and A. A. Atchley 1986. CRC Handbook of Proximate Analysis Tables of Higher Plants. Boca Raton, Florida, CRC Press, Inc.
  • Duke, J.A. 1986. Isthmanian Ethnobotanical Dictionary, 3rd ed. Jodhpur, India: Scientific Publishers.
  • Duke, J. A. 1987. Living Liqueurs. Lincoln, Massachusetts, Quarterman Publications, Inc.
  • Duke, J. A., A. Atchley, K. Ackerson and P. Duke. 1987. CRC Handbook of Agricultural Energy Potential for Developing Countries. 4 vols. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, Inc.
  • Duke, J. A. 1989. Ginseng: A Concise Handbook. Algonac, Michigan, Reference Publications, Inc.
  • Duke, J. A. 1989. CRC Handbook of Nuts. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, Inc.
  • Foster, S. and J. A. Duke 1990. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Duke, J. A. 1992. Handbook of Edible Weeds. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, Inc.
  • Duke, J. A. 1992. Handbook of Phytochemical Constituents of GRAS Herbs and Other Economic Plants (and Database) Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, Inc.
  • Duke, J. A. 1992. Handbook of Biologically Active Phytochemicals and Their Activities (and Database). Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, Inc.
  • Duke, J. A. and J. L. duCellier 1993. CRC Handbook of Alternative Cash Crops. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, Inc.
  • Duke, J. A. and R. Vasquez 1994. Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, Inc.
  • Beckstrom-Sternberg, S.M. and J. A. Duke. 1996. CRC Handbook of Medicinal Mints (Aromathematic): Phtyochemical and Biological Activities. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, Inc.
  • Duke, J.A. 1997. Green Pharmacy. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press.
  • Castner, J. L., S. L. Timme, and J. A. Duke. 1998. A Field Guide to Medicinal and Useful Plants of the Upper Amazon. Gainesville, Florida: Feline Press.
  • Duke, J. A. 1999. Herbs of the Bible; 2000 Years of Plant Medicine. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press.
  • Duke, J. A. 1999. Dr. Duke’s Essential Herbs: 13 Vital Herbs you Need to Disease-Proof Your Body, Boost Your Energy, Lengthen Your Life. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press.
  • Foster, S. and J. A. Duke. 2000. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs. 2nd Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Duke, J. A. 2000. The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook: Your Comprehensive Reference to the Best Herbs for Healing. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press
  • Duke, J. A. 2001 The Green Pharmacy Anti-aging Prescriptions - Herbs, Foods, and Natural Formulas to Keep you Young. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press.