The December 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine has a fascinating article called “Masters of Ecstasy” by David Stern on mystical priests, practitioners of intervening between the seen and the unseen in matters of money, health, the future, and the past. These are the shamans of various ethnic traditions of Mongolia, Central Asia, and Siberia. The article tells the story of how these ancient traditions are seeing a strong revival following the downfall of atheistic communist regimes that fell like dominos nearly 25 years ago with the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Shamanistic traditions evolved in what is now Siberia and spread throughout the world thousands of years ago. Suppressed by Christian, Islamic and Buddhist religions, then by communist governments, their traditions went underground for centuries. Now shamans openly practice in north and Central Asia. Many work alone while others have organized, like the 10,000-member-strong trade union at the Golomt Center for Shamanic Studies in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. The word shaman comes from a Siberian people known as the Evenki. Santa Claus is a shaman.
Celebrating St. Nicholas
This is the backdrop, the canvas that begins to paint of the visual depiction of the origins of the personage that has morphed into the modern American concept of Santa Claus. One of the elements adopted in various Western European countries is celebration of a monk named St. Nicholas, who was born into wealth in Patara, in modern-day Turkey around 280 A.D. St. Nicholas, known for helping the poor and sick, celebrated for his kindness and generosity on his feast day of December 6. He was seen as a protector of sailors and children. The veneration of St. Nicholas, the most popular saint of Renaissance Europe, survived through Dutch traditions.
Celebrations of the anniversary of St. Nicholas’s death (December 6) came to America with Dutch immigrants to New York, and noted in newspapers in 1773 and 1774. The Dutch nickname for St. Nicholas was “Sinter Klaas”, the source of our name “Santa Claus”. The now familiar images of stockings filled with toys come from engraved woodcuts distributed in New York at the annual meetings of the Dutch Sinter Klaas Society in 1804. The tradition was further cemented in America’s mind in the writings of Washington Irving (1783-1859). Best known for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle, he also wrote A History of New York, From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker, published in 1809 which described the New York Dutch immigrant’s celebrations of “Sinter Klaus.”
We don’t know what sources Clement Clarke Moore drew upon to create his fanciful vision of Santa Claus. A 2012-2013 exhibit at the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnatiinformed us of possible influences. The exhibit, “What Makes Reindeer Fly?” was devoted to the role of mushrooms, particularly the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) in cultural traditions. The Fly Agaric is the most iconic of all mushrooms. Its bright red cap, dotted with white cottony spots, is depicted in children’s books such as Alice-in-Wonderland, children’s toys, and even yard ornaments.
Gift giving for children, and the tradition of Christmas shopping were promoted with in newspapers advertisements in the 1820s, and by the 1840s, separate advertisement sections for Christmas shoppers appeared. In 1822, an Episcopal minister, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote a long poem for his three daughters called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”. Initially the poem was not meant for public consumption, but once published it became the iconic “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It introduced the concept of the “right jolly old elf” with a red suit, lined with white fur, knee-high black boots, rolled down at the top, and the magical ability to descend chimneys and deliver presents on a sleigh led by eight flying reindeer.
We don’t know what sources Clement Clarke Moore drew upon to create his fanciful vision of Santa Claus. A 2012-2013 exhibit at the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnati informed us of possible influences. The exhibit, “What Makes Reindeer Fly?” was devoted to the role of mushrooms, particularly the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) in cultural traditions. The Fly Agaric is the most iconic of all mushrooms. Its bright red cap, dotted with white cottony spots, is depicted in children’s books such as Alice-in-Wonderland, children’s toys, and even yard ornaments
In Clement Clarke Moore’s day in the early nineteenth century up to the creation of steam pleasure ships, such as the Titanic, readers experienced the world by reading travel literature. One book featured in the Lloyd Library and Museum’s exhibit by English naturalist Aubyn Trevor-Battye is “Ice-Bound on Kolguev” (1895).
Kolguev is a 1900-square mile island in the Barents Sea, at 69 degrees north latitude. In other words its climate is Arctic. Home to an indigenous tribe once called the Samoyed people, today they are properly known as the Nenets. In Trevor-Battye’s day they were nomads whose economy was entirely dependent upon reindeer for food, clothing, shelter, and mobility. Trevor-Battye planned a month-long birding trip to the Island in July of 1894. Arctic ice blocked passage of boats, so his month-long expedition turned into a year’s journey. He described the reindeer as fleet-of-foot, and when crossing a snow-packed ravine at a gallop, the Nenets’ reindeer-drawn sleds would literally become airborne.
Shamans of the Nenets (and other nomadic indigenous tribes of northern Europe) wore red-dyed reindeer coats, with white fur trim along the bottom, neck, and sleeve edges. High black reindeer skin boots, rolled down at the top were their footwear. Today the Nenets wear rubber boots of the same design. Their red caps were also trimmed with white fur. The colors honor their sacred mushroom the Fly Agaric. The Nenets nomadic dwellings, a cross between a teepee and a yurt, called a “choom” had an open smoke hole at the top. During summer months, Nenets shamans collected the red and white Fly Agaric mushrooms. They dried them, and during the deep snow of winter, shared them with the community, entering the choom through the “chimney” hole at the top. They also shared the mushrooms with their reindeer herds, who relished them and would prance and jump under their influence.
Roger Tory Peterson (1919-1996) wrote and illustrated A Field Guide to Birds: Eastern and Central North America, now in its 6th edition, first published in 1934. He invented the modern 20th century concept of field guides, introducing generations of Americans to the flora, fauna and natural features of North America. Peterson Field Guides have now been for published 80 years.
The third edition of the Foster and Duke Field Guide to Medicinal Plants is expanded to include 60 new species not found in previous editions. The book includes 531 species accounts with information on 588 medicinal plant species. With 705 color photographs by Steven Foster, over 88% of the images are new. Over 66% of the plants in the book are native species, while 33% represent non-native, mostly European and Asian aliens.
Medicinal plants and herbs are all around us
Whether hiking along a remote Appalachian mountain trail or simply observing plants in one’s own yard, medicinal plants can be found everywhere humans live and travel.
Can we control invasive alien weeds by finding a use for them? Many homeowners attempt to eliminate weeds from their yards—dandelions, English plantain, and chickweed. Some call them weeds. We call them medicinal plants.
Some garden plants, such as English Ivy, are registered as ethical drugs in Europe, in this case for the treatment of coughs and upper respiratory tract infections.
Inspiring Conservation awareness:
A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs provides a glimpse of the human experience with plants. Native medicinal plants from the eastern deciduous forest, including black cohosh, goldenseal, and American ginseng are among more than 150 native species that are still harvested from the wild and enter international commerce. Sustainable use of these valuable resources is paramount for future generations.
Conservation of these important genetic resources is informed by awareness of their medicinal value.
“Without knowledge there is no appreciation. Without appreciation there is no conservation.”
New Research, New Details—Reconciling tradition with science:
Uses have been thoroughly updated and revised, with more nuanced detail on historical use in pre-21st century America and elsewhere, including ethnobotanical details by specific native American groups, traditional use by American physicians and herbalists, and information on historic or modern use in Europe, China, and elsewhere.
Details on the latest scientific developments that in many cases reveal a rational scientific basis for traditional use.
Rather than use the internet or secondary references, the authors went to great lengths to scour the original references from which the information is derived, whether a 17th century renaissance herbal or the latest original scientific studies.
Since the publication of the second edition in 2000, worldwide research on medicinal plants has increased by a factor of at least 5-fold. Prior to the year 2000 a PubMED search for Echinacea in the title of a scientific paper returns 80 unique studies. A search for Echinacea in the title between 2000-2013 yields 443 studies.
Names, Distribution, Descriptions, and Flowering Times Updated:
The last decade produced a dramatic increase in the study of plant genetics leading to changes in plant taxonomy and family associations. New taxonomic designations are provided along with the synonyms of familiar scientific names from earlier works.
Plant biology and plant geography is dynamic, not static. We have revised and updated geographical distribution and occurrence details. Many non-native species have greatly increased in distribution, a disturbing but important data set.
A surprising aspect of revising data was the need to readjust the range of blooming periods. With the effects of climate change, some plants are blooming earlier (or in some cases later), which may reduce or extend flowering or fruiting, depending upon species and distribution range.
Updated Information on safety, toxicity and drug interactions:
The book contains appropriate warnings on those plants that can lead to poisoning or toxic reactions, sometimes even by handling the plant. Some plants, such as St. John’s wort are known to interact with enzyme systems that interfere with the absorption of prescription drugs, sometimes increasing or decreasing the drug’s effective dose. Important examples such as St. John’s wort are update to reflect that new research.
First published in 1990 Steven Foster and Jim Duke’s A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (Softcover: ISBN 0-395-46722-5) featured information on the identification and use of about 500 medicinal plants of eastern and central North America. It was the first modern comprehensive field guide to medicinal plants. The book included pen and inks by Roger Tory Peterson, Lee Peterson and Jim Blackfeather Rose. A 48-page color insert had nearly 200 photographs. With 366 pages it was the 40th title in The Peterson Field Guide® Series. If you have the first edition, you don’t have the third edition. Simple as that.
In 2000 we produced a new edition of the title, this time calling it A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Eastern and Central North America, with no line drawings, illustrated with photographs. Herbs had come of age by the year 2000. In 1990, annual herb product sales were about $250 million, and by 1990 they had surpassed $3 billion largely the result of the dietary health and supplement act on 1994, which created the regulatory category of “dietary supplements” and moved herb products from health and natural food stores into the mass market. A few years earlier, the infant internet also began to play a role in marketing and distribution. If you have the second edition, we think you will enjoy the all new third edition.
It is a time of renewal—Spring. The spring equinox arrived along with a new moon, a moment of perigee (the moon’s closes point to the sun), and to top it all off, a total of solar eclipse, mostly seen in northern Europe. The cosmos screamed—“time for a change.” Roadsides, woodlands, and yards are beginning to green-up after a dreary winter. We enjoy the delight of jonquils and a chorus of songbirds by sunrise. It’s also a time for new books on natural history topics.
Imagine what European settlers arriving in the early 1700s thought about their first American spring. A wide-eyed, well-educated English naturalist of means, Mark Catesby (1683-1749) arrived in Virginia in 1712. Tuesday March 24th 2015 was his 333rd birthday. Catesby collected plants, particularly seeds, along with specimens of fauna and minerals then sent them back to England received by scientists eager to describe the new finds.
Much of what Catesby saw was new to science. He took up watercolor painting to record his observations. In 1719 he returned to England and wealthy sponsors encouraged his return to America in 1722, this time to South Carolina, where he stayed until 1726. Upon returning to England, he spent the next seventeen years illustrating and writing his monumental large-folia two-volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands: Containing the Figures of Birds, Beats, Fishes, Serpents, Insects, and Plants. . . ” (first published in ten parts from 1731-1742). One of the great classics of American natural history literature, it includes watercolors and descriptions of flora and fauna, many depicted for the first time, such as the exceedingly rare or extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and extinct birds such as the Carolina Parakeet and Passenger Pigeon. The original watercolors are in the Royal art collection at Windsor Castle. The first edition of 160 copies, with hand-colored plates many from the hand of Catesby himself, are quite precious. You can find an occasional copy for around $640,000.
The spring of 2015 brings with it a new book The Curious Mr. Catesby published by the University of Georgia Press. Lavishly illustrated and a fascinating read, it features 23 chapters on various aspects of Catesby’s work. Like a new spring, Catesby’s contribution to American natural history, continue to inspire. Like the first edition of his “Natural History”, The Curious Mr. Catesby, is an enduring example of why e-books will never replace the printed bound book as a physical object to hold and enjoy.
If you don’t have a spare half-million plus, you can view Catesby’s Natural HistoryVolume 1 and Volume 2at the Biodiversity Heritage Library. These are just two of the nearly 160,000 volumes available at this incredible resource. Viewing a digital copy is one thing. Seeing the first edition in its physical form is a thrill for anyone interest in natural history. On April 19, 2015 the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnati in partnership with the Cincinnati Nature Center, the Cincinnati Museum Center, and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, will hold an opening and book release party for The Curious Mister Catesby at the Cincinnati Museum Center. The opening will feature panel lectures by leading Catesby experts including Dr. Charles Nelson and David Elliott, editors of The Curious Mr. Catesby, along with botanist Prof. W. Hardy Eshbaugh (Miami University, Ohio) and Leslie Overstree, Curator of Natural History Rare Books at the Smithsonian Library. For more information on the extraordinary life and travels of Mark Catesby visit the Catesby Commemorative Trust.
The Lloyd Library and Museum’s rare first edition of Catesby’s Natural History will be on display along with the Cincinnati Museum’s second edition.
In my Eureka Nature column, August 16, 2012, in the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper, I posed the question what’s in the name Leatherwood (as in Lake Leatherwood and Leatherwood Creek) and whether that name referred to a small shrub known as Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) or some other plant, person, or place. The plant had not been collected in Carroll County since the early 20th century. In fact it is absent for Carroll County in the new Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Arkansas a publication of the Arkansas Vascular Flora Project, just released a few weeks ago. The Atlas has county range maps for 2,892 species of vascular plants known from Arkansas. Of course, it reflects what we don’t know as much as what we do know. It presents the opportunity to fill gaps in knowledge. Trained field botanists working in Arkansas are an extremely rare species. There’s simply not legions of botanists doing systematic field botany and collecting herbarium specimens— dried, pressed, physical specimens — the scientific foundation for plant geography and taxonomy.
On Sunday May 4th, I was delighted to be invited to tag along with a small legion of botanists at Lake Leatherwood. Led by Theo Whitsel, long-time botanist with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, a group of 12 “brain trust” leading botanical experts from Arkansas and Missouri, did a quick walk through Leatherwood trails just to see what might be there. It was a quick “drive-by” on their way to other locations such as the new Devil’s Eyebrow Natural Area in Benton County, just north of Eureka Springs off of Highway 62, a 2,000 acre research just dedicated a year ago on the cold, snowy morning of May 3rd 2013.
To my surprise, there along the edge of the Hyde Hollow drainage growing in the moist gravel at the edge of the creek was Dirca palustris, the Leatherwood shrub. I had been in that same location many times before, but just hadn’t noticed it. It’s non-showy flowers are among the earliest of the season, blooming long before the leaves unfold.
Leatherwood is a small shrub, about three feet tall; a member of the mezerum family (Thymelaeaceae) found along creek bottoms from New Brunswick, west to North Dakota, couth to Florida and Louisiana. It is found in northwest and southwest Arkansas, but is not particularly common anywhere. Dirca is the only North American genus of the largely tropical plant family to which it belongs. Dirca palustris is an obscure medicinal plant, which like other members of the mezerum family are better known for their toxicity than their medicinal benefits. The fruit is considered toxic, and the fresh root, applied to the skin causes blistering. Tiny doses of the fresh bark causes vomiting and diarrhea. It is among the most obscure American medicinal plants.
Naturalist-explorer C.S. Rafinesque (1783-1840) provides insights into the potential of Leatherwood in Medical flora, or Manual of the medical botany of the United States of North America. 2 vols. Philadelphia, Samuel C. Atkinson. In the first volume (pp: 158-161) he notes:
“The blossoms are scentless and appear very early in the Spring, as soon as the Maples blossoms, long before the leaves are unfolded. The bark is very tough, can hardly be broken, and tearing in long stripes is used as yet in many parts for ropes, a practice borrowed from the Indian tribes : the wood is also flexible. The berries are poisonous, children must avoid them : if eaten by mistake, an emetic must be resorted to. . . . When the bark is chewed it produces salivation, it is so tough that it cannot be reduced to powder, but forms only a kind of lint. The watery preparations are nearly inert.”
In another interesting twist to the Leatherwood, story is the work of the Kansas State University research team of Aaron J. Floden, Mark H. Mayfield and Carolyn J. Ferguson in 2009. A new, single population of “Dirca palustris” was collected in Kansas in 1997. As the researchers looked more closely at the plant, they discovered it was quite distinct from D. palustris, in fact in 2009 they named a new previously undescribed species—Dirca decipiens (meaning “deceptive”). Subsequently they conducted simultaneous surveys of flowering Leatherwood plants in Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas. These field observations resulted in finding the newly named Dirca decipiens in both Benton and Carroll counties in Arkansas. It differs in producing larger fruits, without stalks, and hairy branchlets, among other features. In 2009, this rare plant was only known from three populations. Another major caveat is that it occurs on northeast facing bluffs and slopes above the valley floor in rather dry limestone habitats, rather than along creeks in rich wooded bottomlands, where one finds Dirca palustris. Dirca decipiens blooms about a week later, too (Florden, A.J., M.H. Mayfield, and C. J. Ferguson. A new narrowly endemic species of Dirca (Thymelaeaceae) from Kansas and Arkansas, with a phylogenetic overview and taxonomic synopsis of the genus” J. Bot. Res. Inst. Texas 3(2):485–499, 2009.
To my mind the mystery of where the name Leatherwood originated relative to the lake, park, and creeks of the same name is solved. No more speculation. Case closed.
Adapted and expanded from Steven Foster’s Eureka Nature column, Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper, August 16 2012 & May 7, 2014
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 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 TheCelestine 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.”
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.
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 (Papaversomniferum) 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. 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).
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
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.
“I want to live in a society where people are intoxicated with the joy of making things.” — William S. Coperthwaite • 1930-2013.
William S. Coperthwaite, age 83, was gathered on 26 November 2013 in a one-car accident not far from his home at Dickinson’s Reach, Bucks Harbor, near Machiasport, Maine. Bill Coperthwaite was one of those ageless beings one could not peg to a generation. His lifelong passion was teaching others to learn by connecting their brains with their hands to create useful objects, be that a crooked knife, a dwelling, a boat or a poem.
Best-known as the conceptualizer of the modern yurt, he was inspired by the utilitarian design of the Mongolian yurt seen in a 1962 issue of National Geographic. Bill took the basic design concept—a round simple building whose structure was maintained with a tension band—turning it into a practical modern dwelling for simple living. He built over 300 yurts throughout the world, each one incorporating variations on the basic structural design concept, producing temporary or lasting structures of extraordinary beauty.
A designer, thinker, writer, builder, and student; above all, Bill was an educator. He built his first yurt at Buck’s Harbor in 1964, a simple open weave structure with a birch bark roof. He lived off the grid on one of the last undeveloped bays on the Maine coast. In 1960 he purchased 500 acres, with nearly five miles of coast line. He joked that he only had fifteen-hundred dollars, so at three dollars per acre, it was all that he could afford. To visit Bill, one had to hike in about 2 miles or travel 3 miles by sea to reach his home. He had no phone. He had no email address. In his adult life, he had no electricity (though he was not adverse to stopping by for a visit and catching a movie on TV). It was wise to write a few weeks ahead of time before planning a visit. Bill Coperthwaite traveled the world seeking out the best artisan of a particular knife form, basket, box, boat, chair or other utilitarian object. In the early 1970s, soon after receiving a doctorate in education from Harvard University, he gathered-up Eskimo artifacts from museums in the United States and Canada and took them on a traveling exhibit to Eskimo villages in northwestern North America. William S. Coperthwaite is the author of A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004 hardcover; 2007 softcover).
On a personal note, I met Bill when I was 17 years old, while working at the Shaker Community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. A larger-than-life personality, with thoughtful and energetic inspiration, he had a profound impact on my life. From 1974-1978, I helped in the construction of six yurts in New England, and 35 years ago this month, I met up with Bill to assist at a yurt workshop in Reeds Spring, Missouri. That is how I arrived in the Ozarks. In 2003 he returned to the Ozarks and led a yurt workshop for my son, Colin, and his class at the Clear Spring School. The boat pictured below is named for the Norwegian fjord on which it was built, Son Fjord. Bill built this square-rigged single sail, two person oar-powered, fishing vessel. It was extraordinarily stable, fast and maneuverable. One person operating the vessel with oars could speed past two people pumping hard with paddles in a canoe. He talked me into investing $200 in the boat. Rich memories of Bill flood my mind—his hearty sparkle-eyed laugh and Yankee prudence; conversations now silent, questions unasked. I have an envelope from him in my unopened mail. I can only answer with a joyous smile for having known this extraordinary human.
Sometimes you get beliefs in your head that stick there for decades, which you hold as fact, then discover in a moment of surprise that you were wrong all along. Where does silver maple originate?
The vast library of original works available on the internet is a marvelous world for natural history buffs. I’ve downloaded searchable PDF files of hundreds of books—free books—virtual images of the entire book in its original type face, the paper just as one would see in the original. One can almost smell the leather binding or feel the supple weave of handmade eighteenth century paper.
I came across one forgotten book residing in digital chaos on my hard drive that I had plucked from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (www.biodiveristylibrary.org), Mark Catesby’s 1767 posthumously published work Hortus Europae Americanus “Or a Collection of 85 Curious Trees and Shrubs, the Produce of North America adapted to the Climates and Soils of Great-Britain, Ireland, and most Parts of Europe.”
Catesby (1682-1749) an English naturalist who lived in America from 1712-1719, then again from 1722-1726 is best remembered for his monumental folio volumes The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published from 1731-1742, with color plates of historical importance such as the first illustration of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Find an original set, and you can own it for a half-million dollars, or just follow a link on your computer and you can download or view the entire work. Catesby’s small but more detailed Hortus has always been hidden in the shadow of his great Natural History of Carolina. The internet is the great proletariat rare book reading room.
Flipping through the pages of Catesby’s Hortus led me to other very obscure rare works where I discovered that my notion that the silver maple (Acer saccharinum), is a foreign weed tree turns out to be a belief that is simply a folly of my own mind. This fast-growing tree with wood inelegant for any material purpose is native to much of eastern North America. A circuitous path through digitized old books led to the truth.