Cold-Blooded Investigator Targets Herbal DNA

| By Steven Foster

Ginkgo leaf; Ginkgo biloba; Ginkgo leaf close-ups horizontal (landscape) aspectTuesday February 3, 2015, the New York Attorney General, Eric T. Schneiderman, issued a press release on an action taken the previous day in which his office delivered “cease and desist” letters to four major retails including GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart alleging that they were selling herbal dietary supplements that did not contain the plant materials listed on the product labels. The herbs included Echinacea, Garlic, Ginseng, St. John’s Wort, and Saw Palmetto. According to the Attorney General’s press release 79% of the products tested, either did not contain the plant material claimed on the label or contained other plant materials not listed on the label. All of the products were “store brands,” made by contract manufacturers.

“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “The DNA test results seem to confirm long-standing questions about the herbal supplement industry. Mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal.” “Seem” is the operative word here.

Schneiderman has apparently been watching too many episodes of CSI “city du jour” in which the DNA always solves the crime. DNA analysis for plants is great for botanicals or plant specimens in which intact DNA still exist, but if you are testing an extracted plant ingredient—PRESTO—the DNA except in rare cases no  longer exists!

Every qualified, experienced plant analytical laboratory that authenticates botanicals day-in-and-day-out, knows that DNA alone is unreliable for testing plant extracts. Instead validated chemical analytical methods along with other validated lab methods are used. See link at the end of this article to see the American Herbal Pharmacopeia’s 54-page response to Attorney General Schneiderman which includes the appropriate lab methods to i.d. of the plant extracts in question.

A retired plant scientist friend mused, “if DNA testing is required for validating plant ingredients claimed to be in any product, the supermarket shelves would be empty.” If Schneiderman had applied the same DNA method to the brown liquid in the cup of coffee he might have drunk before his news conference, the test would have likely shown that his cup of coffee contained no detectable DNA of the coffee plant!

This is a case in which a public official, under the guise of science, has made allegations without confirming the validity of the science. Curiously, no plant genomic scientists I know had heard of the lab or researcher who did the testing! Turns out they hired a DNA lab specializing in reptile and dinosaur identification! I suppose that New York Attorney General Eric T.  Schneiderman decided to hire this lab after he had heard that the lab was run by “cold-blooded scientific investigators.”

A version of this story was published in the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper in the Nature of Eureka column on 11 February 2015.

See response to the New York AG from Roy Upton, Founder and Executive Director of The American Herbal Pharmacopeia, which supplies a rational response to an irrational action.

This is a continuing story.

Happy 85th Birthday to Jim Duke

In honor of Jim Duke’s 85th birthday (April 4th, 2014), and the release of the 3rd edition of our Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (release date: April 8th, 2014). A personality profile first published in Otober 2001, updated April 4, 2014,
Jim Duke at Herbal Vineyard, 2013. Helen Lowe Metzman photo.
Jim Duke at Herbal Vineyard, 2013. Helen Lowe Metzman photo.

Jim Duke leaned over to me and warned in his Alabama drawl, “You’re going to get the tropical bug.”

My forehead stiffened with a worried glance. I pulled out my immunization card. ”What do you mean? I’ve got all of my shots. And here’s my malaria pills.”

“No,” Duke comforted, “I mean, after you come here once, you will want to come back as much as you can. If it wasn’t for the fact, that I can’t get Peggy [Jim’s wife] to live down here, I would move here myself.”

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 the 1993  new age mystery novel The 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.” I was traveling to the Amazon for the first time with the American Botanical Council’s “Pharmacy from the Rainforest” program in the fall of 1995. Since our group numbered over 100 people, the instructors got bumped-up to first class. I sat 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 leading a kid to a candy store.

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.”

Steven Foster  Jim Duke, 1993, Ozark Folk Center
Steven Foster Jim Duke, 1993, Ozark Folk Center

After a night in Iquitos, the 120+ participants loaded into boats and went down the Amazon River to Explorama Lodge, a rustic, but comfortable facility featuring all the creature comforts a rainforest camp can offer (with emphasis on “creature” as a tarantula-sized spider crawled across my room).  “You get it out,” I told my roommate Larry Wilson, the herpetologist on the trip. You’re the animal guy. I’m just a plant guy.” He grudgingly obliged. Explorama Lodge served as the main camp for the trip. Two other locales were featured, Napo Camp, and ACEER Camp, up a major Amazon tributary—the Napo River.

Amanda McQuade and Jim Duke enjoying rum and ginger juice along the Amazon.
Amanda McQuade and Jim Duke enjoying rum and ginger juice along the Amazon.

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’s banks. 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 colleague, Don Antonio, 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 tromps barefoot 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 his is really at home — where his heart is  — when you see him in the primary rainforest of the Amazon.

Duke was right about his prediction. I did get the tropical bug. Since traveling to the Amazon with him, 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 Paul Lee PhD who had been unceremoniously dismissed from a teaching position at Harvard (along with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert aka Ram Dass) after publication in the Harvard Crimson of an exposé on LSD experimentation co-authored by an undergraduate student later to become guru of alternative medicine—Andrew Weil, M.D.

Jim had just walked to Paul’s house from his hotel, with notebook in hand, documenting varieties of opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) which grew 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. We were attending an international herb symposium at U.C. Santa Cruz organized by Paul Lee.

First impressions are everything. I didn’t even know how to start a conversation with someone of the stature of Jim Duke. 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 plants 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 photograph as  Jim Duke recited a poem.

 The photo of him I took that day along with the poem on mullein, are in one of Duke’s more obscure of over thirty  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).

Jim Duke performing at the Ozark Folk Center in May of 2009.
Jim Duke performing at the Ozark Folk Center in May of 2009.

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, April 4, 1929, Jim Duke was 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 where 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 much about this work. However, if you put some of the pieces of the puzzle together, his more obscure scientific publications of this era reveal the focus 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 had an idea. He initiated a feasibility study to widen the Panama Canal, or perhaps excavate a new canal to accommodate supertankers. The project was called the Atlantic-Pacific Interoceanic Canal. America had a tool that would easily accomplish the excavation work —nuclear devices— nuke the Central American isthmus to create a new canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific! Duke’s studies may have helped to show that the excavation technique may not be 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.

On October 2, 1981, the Board of Scientific Counselors, Division of Cancer Treatment at NCI decided to abolish its plant-screening program — not enough new drugs came from the research. Later in the 1980s new automated laboratory technologies emerged, with better cell lines targeted toward human cancers resulting in the NCI reforming its natural products screening program. This time, however, collection contracts were given to major botanical institutions such as Missouri Botanical Garden and the New York Botanical Garden, rather than USDA.

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.

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, 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—no more government sensors. 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.

Ten years ago Dr. Duke  lecture circuit included about 100  venues a  and he led nearly 100 trips to the Amazon. He now spends most of his time at his rural farm 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.

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 23 years [now for 36 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. Sometimes having too much is worse than having too little!

At a seemingly ageless 85 years young , Jim Duke is still in producing new books. 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. Duke has some catching up to do, though. My shelf of John Uri Lloyd books is three feet wide. My shelf of Jim Duke books is a mere two feet wide. I expect Jim Duke will make up the difference, and I hope one of the titles that fills that space will be a Jim Duke memoir [hasn’t happened yet].

The Duke Lexicon up to 2001

A selection of Jim Duke's many books
A selection of Jim Duke’s many books

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.

Breaking News: You Can’t Fool Mother Nature

I think it’s great that the Eureka Springs City Council is proposing Ordinance No. 2201, which aims to “update and expand City beautification and to eliminate health and safety issues.” Citizens asked the Council to update the current code so as to “keep privately owned areas clean and safe. . . .”  Good idea?

The proposed ordinance includes item “A” of Section 1, which involves my specialty “plant vegetation.” When human nature is compelled to legislate Mother Nature, I think God puts his hands on his hips, raises an eyebrow, frowns and shakes his head in disbelief.  “How am I going to explain this to Mother Nature?” God muses. “She’s not going to like it.”

The ordinance contains well-meaning and ambitiously ambiguous definitions of broad categories of vegetation that grow where you live (property ownership not required!)—“owner(s) or occupants(s) of property” within Eureka Springs will be required to “maintain, cut, and/or remove weeds, grass and/or any other non-cultivated plant(s) (flowers, shrubs, vegetable plants etc.), which exceed the height of eight (8) inches. Bamboo may be cultivated with in the city limits, but should not encroach upon another citizens/city property or become an obstacle to vision while driving.”

I'm not a weed! See, I'm cultivated, and less than 8 inches tall! I am immune from proposed Ordinance No. 2201.
I’m not a weed! See, I’m cultivated, and less than 8 inches tall! I am immune from proposed Ordinance No. 2201.

I have to cut “any non-cultivated plants to a height under 8 inches?” Is the Council aware that trees are plants? I am thoroughly confused about the bamboo provision. Bamboo is a grass—a member of the Graminae or Poaceae—the very clearly defined grass family. But grasses are already covered elsewhere in the ordinance. Does the  bamboo provision in the absence of a definition pertain to plants to which the common name “bamboo” is applied, such as Nandina domestica, commonly grown in Eureka Springs and known as “heavenly bamboo”? It’s not technically a bamboo therefore not a grass; it’s just called “heavenly bamboo.” Maybe the Council really meant hellish bamboo for purposes of the ordinance. Heavenly bamboo like hellish bamboo is an “obstacle to vision while driving.” What’s with the blatant discrimination against bamboo as “an obstacle to vision?” What about all of the other plants that are obstacles to vision while driving?

In the Building Inspector’s job description, I ask is he or she qualified or competent to distinguish grass from bamboo, heavenly bamboo from hellish bamboo,  non-cultivated plants from cultivated plants, weeds from weed?

Thank you City Council for providing my comedic introduction for a summer lecture tour on how humans relate to plants.

You can find the draft of the proposed ordinance at the official City of Eureka Springs website. Just click on the “Ordinances” menu tab, then click on “Proposed Ordinances.” Whoops—that link doesn’t work — “sorry for any inconvenience.” Seems like updating the website has gone the way of updating the street sweeper.

As Mother Nature said to God, “You created this human problem. Please fix it.”

Mayapples Rising

“That botany is a useful study is plain; because it is in vain that we know betony is good for headaches, or self-heal for wounds unless we can distinguish betony and self-heal from one another.” John Hill, The Family Herbal, 1812.

Mayapple; American Mandrake; Podophyllum peltatumNames are reference points, symbols — vehicles for communicating and distinguishing one thing from another. The nature of a person, place, or plant does not change because of its name. As Juliet reminds us, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. . .”.

Although the plant doesn’t care what you call it, people do. Confusion inevitably arises if simultaneously more than one name is applied to a person, place, or plant. Similarly, if the same name is given to several plants or persons over a period of time, ambiguity may persist. With a name like Steven Foster, I lived with quips about “my” songs, taking such comments with a smile and my standard response, “I haven’t written any songs for a hundred years.” What am I to say if someone asks if I’m the real Steven Foster? Yes, I’m real.  But so was the other one.

Recently, a user posted a picture of mayapples beginning to emerge from a Chinese garden in Portland, Oregon. She asked what the plant could be.  It was Himalayan Mayapple! Beyond the identification and taxonomy, several genera in the Berberidaceae (barberry family) are among THE classic examples of disjunctions in plant geography. There are  only two species accepted in the genus Podophyllum, including the American mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and an eastern Asiatic counterpart Podophyllum hexandrum (also known as Podophyllum emodi). In 1979 a Chinese botanist proposed a new separate genus and renamed P. hexandrum  as Sinopodophyllum hexandrum. The most recent expert work on the plant group keeps the Chinese species as Podophyllum hexandrum.  Taxonomy is like law — it is based on expert opinion (and there’s no taxonomic “supreme court”). There are several mayapple cultivars floating around in the nursery trade that have meaningless made-up names. Other small genera in the barberry family with only two to three species ALL have their closest relatives a hemisphere away! For example, in the genera Diphylleia, Jeffersonia, Caulophyllum (blue cohosh) there are only two to three species each and their closet relatives are on the other side of the world! The “interrupted Eastern Asiatic–Eastern North America range, involving up to 150 plant genera” is the classic series of disjunct populations in biogeography.

The resin of mayapple contains the toxic lectin podophyllotoxin which is used as the starting material for three anti-cancer drugs used in chemotherapy. Globally, the drug of choice for topical treatment of HPV (human papillomavirus) genital warts, also known as venereal warts are over-the-counter or prescription drugs (depending upon country and regulations) made from podophyllin resin. Most of the commercial raw podophyllin resin in world wholesale natural product ingredient markets comes from the Asian rather than American mayapple.

Plant identification is always more than meets the eye. It bridges generations; past, present, and future; human diversity and continents!

Mayapple; American Mandrake; Podophyllum peltatum

Ozark Roots in the Ukraine

by Steven Foster |

Echinacea-Ukraine-web

What do the Ozarks and Ukraine have in common? Echinacea—a genus of nine species native to  central and eastern North America. Three species are used in commerce, one of which is the common Echinacea purpurea grown as a garden perennial, but it also occurs wild in and is native to the Ozarks. Echinacea purpurea root is the most commonly used herb in the Ukraine, both in terms of commercial production and as a home-grown medicinal herb.

In the 1980s I collected seed of wild-growing Echinacea in the Ozarks and in 1984 produced what was at that time the most comprehensive literature review on Echinacea. The work came to the attention of researchers at the Academy of Science of Ukraine. A steady flow of letters arrived from several scientists in Poltava, a city about 200 miles southeast of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Seed of wild-collected Echinacea purpurea from Izard and Stone counties in Arkansas was supplied to agronomists in Poltava. By the early 1990s, the progeny of that wild Ozark Echinacea purpurea was cultivated in the Ukraine on a large scale.

My correspondence with botanist Viktor Samorodov and agronomist Sergei Pospelov of the Botany Department, Academy of Science in Poltava, and Victoriya F. Pochernyayeva, professor of clinical pharmacology, with the Public Health Ministry of Ukraine, began a few months after April 26th, 1986, the date of the catastrophic nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. Ukraine was still part of the former Soviet Union.  The Chernobyl disaster prompted scale-up of commercial cultivation of Echinacea after research by Dr. Pochernyayeva showed that extracts of Echinacea purpurea have a protective effect on free radical damage of organs and tissues exposed to ionizing radiation, a protective affect on the male reproductive system (from radiation exposure), and were useful in treatment of mouth and gums lesions (also associated with radiation exposure). In relatively short order they developed various preparations and modes of delivery. One of the flagship products was an Echinacea vodka.

In June of 1999, an International Echinacea Symposium, hosted by the American Herbal Products Association, was held in Kansas City. I helped arrange for my three Ukrainian colleagues to come to the symposium as featured presenters. Following the Symposium, they piled into my car and came back to my home in Fayetteville, Arkasas and spent a week in the Ozarks. My Ukrainian friends dubbed me “the king of Echinacea in Ukraine.” I trust they will survive the current crisis another chapter in Ukraine’s turbulent history.

Guide to Prime Time Ginseng Poaching

By Steven Foster |

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng roots, 西洋参, xi yang shenHey Y’all! You don’t have to be a bearded blowhard bigot chokin’ on duck call drool to make piles of money on a cable network. Nope, no need for swamp water squishin’ between ‘yur  toes! There’s a new opportunity in them ‘thar hills to show the world just how much of a thrill-seekin’, not-too-bright, thief you can be in your quest to show how every conceivable aspect of greed can drive a conservationist to drink. Join the fun! Just plop yourself in front of the boob tube with a can of your favorite brand of American-made world’s-worst-beers and point the satellite dish to the History Channel on Thursday nights, 10 p.m. eastern, 9 central, to see a new episode of Appalachian Outlaws. The show premiered on January  9, 2014. Seems like them big city producers don’t get out of their offices much. Youins would think they never heard the word “stereotype.”

The first episode, “Dirty Money” follows the exploits of ‘sengers in the field trying to steal Actaea pachypoda, doll's eyes, white baneberry, baneberryroots from Federal lands or posted private lands better suited to pot farming. In the first six minutes of the show, a generic ‘seng hunter, shows the viewer just how adulteration of herbs occurs in the real world through plant misidentification in the field. He misrepresents a doll’s eye plant in fruit (Actaea pachypoda) as black cohosh (Actaea racemosa). A landowner  shows how to make mini-landmines from a shotgun shell to catch ‘seng poachers tiptoeing down his path to steal his patch of wild ginseng. Tune in next week to see if they can blow a big toe off a poacher’s foot !  The next episode, “Ginseng Fever,” due to air January 16, 2014, will show how ruthless ‘seng hunters and dealers will go to great lengths to protect their interests. Praise the lord and pass the roll of cash!

American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng in fruit, American ginseng plant, 西洋参, xi yang shenThis is great reality TV for helping viewers understand what really goes on in the field when harvesting high-value wild herbs.  In a 45 minute episode, the History Channel provides convincing evidence of why the US Fish and Wildlife Service—the Federal Agency charged with assuring sustainability of ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)—should be forced to ban wild ginseng harvest altogether! Current USFWS ginseng resource information plus laws & regulations are found here. This show will be a boon for plant conservationists and an unfortunate boondoggle for the wild ginseng industry. 

If you miss an episode,  just search on-line for the History Channel’s Appalachian Outlaws. Full episodes are available on-demand. Thank you History Channel!

 

 

 

Exciting New Kava Study on Lung Cancer Prevention

By Steven Foster

Kava, Piper methysticum
Kava, Piper methysticum

According to an 8 January 2014 member advisory  release by the American Botanical Council (ABC), in Austin, Texas, researchers from the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy and Masonic Cancer Center reported findings of a study published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research yesterday which found daily consumption of a kava-derived dietary supplement prevented the formation of 99 percent of tumors in a mouse lung tumor model used to predict lung cancer  in humans. Positive animal studies usually suggest further research leads, but this study shows such a significant benefit that further development will be accelerated. The levels of success is reported with a patent-pending extract of Kava components, not currently available off-the-shelf Kava dietary supplement products.

A traditional ceremonial beverage of South Pacific societies, Kava (Piper methysticum) is widely consumed in Vanuata, Fiji and Western Somoa, whose populations have lung cancer rates just 5-10 percent of U.S. lung cancer rates despite similar levels of tobacco consumption. Here are links to our photo galleries of the Kava plant, the root of Kava, and a Kava ceremony.

According to Stefan Gafner, Chief Science Officer of ABC, “The fact that the researchers were able to find evidence of the ability of a kava fraction to prevent the formation of tumors in mice, in support of epidemiological data showing a lower incidence of lung cancer in people living on the South Pacific Islands where kava is traditionally used, makes this study very compelling. If confirmed in human clinical studies, the results could have a big impact on human health and may lead to a greater emphasis on prevention rather than cure.”

Traditional kava ceremony, Kava, kava-kava, Piper methysticumIn the January 8th member advisory  release, the Austin, Texas-based American Botanical Council, quotes Prof. Bill Gurley PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the College of Pharmacy of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock and a leading expert on herb toxicology. Prof Gurley reviewed the study and commented to ABC, “…the findings are both compelling and certainly merit further research in order to translate them into the clinic. The findings are a breath of fresh air for kava, in particular, and botanical supplements, in general. Recently supplements have suffered quite a bit of negative publicity — some of it deserved, some not — but the kava study from the University of Minnesota emphasizes what good science coupled with quality botanicals can produce.”

“This is highly interesting research and suggests a potential new use for certain preparations made from kava root and rhizome,” said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the nonprofit American Botanical Council (ABC).

Rick Kingston, PharmD, a clinical professor of pharmacy at the University of Kava root, kava-kava root, Piper methysticum rootMinnesota and president of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs at SafetyCall International in Minneapolis, commented “This research is truly unprecedented in its potential impact. A 99% cancer prevention efficacy is unheard of with this very sensitive research model and paves the way for future clinical trials to assess human applications. Another fascinating aspect relates to identifying kava components likely responsible for rare cases of liver toxicity associated with kava dietary supplements. Fortunately, the risk of kava liver complications is low, but this will allow development of supplement preparations devoid of [compounds that may cause] adverse liver effects that can be used for both anti-anxiety and wellness applications in the supplement arena.”

Traditional kava ceremony, Kava, kava-kava, Piper methysticumScientists collaborating in this research include lead authors Pablo Leitzman and Sreekanth Narayanapillai in the U of M College of Pharmacy (Chengguo Xing Group), and their peers in the U of M Masonic Cancer Center (Stephen Hecht Group), U of M College of Veterinary Medicine (M. Gerry O’Sullivan) and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (Junxuan Lu). Funding for this research was provided by National Institutes of Health grant no. R01 CA142649.

Those interested in keeping up-to-date on timely,  important developments in herbal medicine research, authoritative information on herbs, and who wish to  receive the award-winning, graphically-compelling journal, HerbalGram, are encouraged to join the American Botanical Council.