Here is the interview I conducted with him that appeared in the Winter 2010-11 magazine issue of Washington Gardener Magazine.
James “Jim” A. Duke, Ph.D, is a botanist and famed herbalist. His numerous publications on botanical medicine include the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Many know him for developing the Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases at the USDA.
I first heard raves about Dr. Duke’s herbal garden from Master Gardener friends who had been blessed to visit it in person. They were tickled pink that he wrote poems, which he set to music, about herbs, their proper and common names, and some of their properties.
Next, I began to hear tales from my herbalist friends about a great, ageless man who was the very font of plant medicine wisdom and lived right in our own community.
Then came the challenge: How do you write about someone who’s been profiled by everyone from The New York Times to People Magazine? Well, I reached out to him and let him say it in his own words.
Tell us about you and your background. Are you native to DC?
While born and raised in the deep south, Alabama, my first seven years, my formative years in Carolina, I have lived over half my 81 years here in Maryland. That includes 40 years here at 8210 Murphy Road in Fulton, MD, in Howard County. It is a lovely six-acre farmette with about three acres of woodland and three open acres where two small streamlets flow together about a half mile from the Lower Patuxent Reservoir.
How did you start the Green Farmacy Garden?
I retired from the USDA a few years early to write my book, The Green Pharmacy (TGP). That was a wise decision. The book was one of Rodale’s better sellers, selling over a million copies and leading to five derivative books, some of them having been translated into about 10 languages. The last chapter of that initial book is rather autobiographical. And I repeat some of that here. The book sold so well that I saw the opportunity to create the Green Pharmacy Garden (GPG), rather patterned after the book. There are some 80 plots in 4 long terraces, each named after an ailment, and including the best available herbs for those ailments. Even today, I am medicating a cough with garlic from the garden and candied ginger. And I tolerate mini-tours when it is sunny and above freezing.
The garden was laid out in 1998, by John Snitzer and Kerrie Kyde as landscapers who mixed some of my ideas and theirs, and got the garden off to a good start. Gradually they turned over the garden management to the first director, Holly Vogel. Early this decade, Holly co-directed the garden with Helen Metzman, biologist, herbalist, and graduate of the MSc Herbal Medicine program at the Tai Sophia Institute in Columbia, MD. The Institutes is about a mile as the crow flies from the Institute. Early in the 2000s, Helen assumed the directorship. Helen is very talented and creative and she really keeps the garden running. I would be lost without her.
In 2005, Peggy (Mrs. Duke) and I obligated the garden property to the Tai Sophia Institute in a Life Estate Arrangement. Conveniently, Peggy is both a botanist and illustrator and she illustrated TGP. Meanwhile, Tai herbal students attend hands-on classes in the garden, studying and observing some of the many plants in and around the garden in at least three of the four seasons. We sometimes call the garden the Tai South Campus. The Institute web site is Tai.edu; the garden is also featured online at GreenPharmacy.com.
What is a typical day like?
There is no typical day. Almost every day a new challenge arises, and these are admirably managed by director Helen; would you believe spearing a mother black snake while pitching mulch; huge spurting leaks in the drip irrigation system; floods washing out recently applied mulch; 40 inches of snow last year, more than I have ever seen, our beautiful rosemary surviving wrapped in burlap, and under an igloo created by a beach umbrella, but probably killed by this atypically cold December closing 2010; the floral clock plants opening according to their, not my, schedule; a summer windstorm littering the garden with summer green leaves on the day of an important tour; an infestation of cicada-killers scaring all the hymenopteraphobes on a summer morning; a dead three-footed deer in the middle of the garden, almost too heavy to lift out of the garden without a wheelbarrow. etc., etc.
Normal days in season would include the director and a volunteer or two, or an intern tackling different chores, some routine, with me crippling up rapidly due to spinal scoliosis, spondylosis, and stenosis, spending less time in the garden and writing at the computer, especially working on a database. But at noon, we join in the gazebo for a vegetarian soup or such, with some fresh veggies and culinaries from the garden, some canned or dried, fleshed out with the usual starters like cabbage, carrots, garlic, onions, potatoes, from the kitchen cabinet; sometimes serenaded with herbal country music from the HerbalBum. And Thursdays, the weekly volunteers’ open house, we close with flower-watching (vespertine opening of such flowers as Oenothera or Datura), herbal snacks, live country music, sometimes with great classical guitarist, Bruce Casteel, and the herbal folks discussing tall herbal tales and aching herbal tails.
What mistakes and triumphs have you encountered in herb-growing?
Most of the mistakes have been mine, due to my impatient hastiness, and the triumphs thanks to Helen and her helpers, blessed be they: getting the flowering passionflower to shade the Banisteriopsis; keeping the ginseng alive in its cupola with a wire cage; getting rid of two of the three kudzu; getting the castor bean to reseed itself; pruning the spiny aralia; manually and organically battling the plagues; etc.
What advice would you give to beginners/amateur gardeners in the greater DC area?
Depends on what I think of the person’s aptitude. Don’t do it if you think it is easy! Think small! Do not anticipate making big bucks! Visit the herb gardens at the National Arboretum. Visit the National Botanical Garden. Visit Brookside Gardens. Visit all the major gardens before you launch your own. Do not expect tranquility; rather, disasters due to garden visitors like deer, groundhogs, rabbits, raccoons, chipmunks for the greenery and birds for the fruits and seeds, and snakes for the birds, eggs, and frogs, and the biting insect pests that sometimes haunt the organic garden, a United Plant Savers preserve. We have to cage many of the rare specimens, like ginseng, goldthread, schisandra, and many of the medicinal vegetables in the cabbage family.
What plants are your favorite to use in the greater DC area?
I must confess that, in many cases, my successes turn out to be invasive weeds whose allelochemicals also serve as both antifeedant and medicinal. Aromatic mints are often too easy and invasive, and seem to be ignored by most of our herbivores. While I do not recommend them to discriminating gardeners, I like the idea of aroma-theme gardens. The herbivores rarely plague the highly aromatic plants. And, if I were to dedicate a second garden, easier to manage, it would be of highly aromatic species. It could provide medicinal teas almost all year round, not just the evergreen ones, but the perennial twigs provide aromatic teas all year. The mint family, which includes catnip and lavender, is loaded with antioxidants and choline-preserving chemicals probably safer than and as effective as Aricept for Alzheimer’s.
And I am rather proud of my various Hypericums, including the invasive weed Hypericum perforatum, which was shown superior to Zoloft as an antidepressant. To that I add the Biblical saffron, proven better than the antidepressant imiprimine; the Biblical turmeric, with proven antidepressant activity; and the Biblical walnut of Solomon’s garden, one of the richest sources of serotonin. And don’t forget the Biblical pomegranate, which overwinters but has not yet borne fruit for me. I have not counted therm, but I have dozens of species mentioned in the Bible. I have had Sunday School classes focusing on such Biblical medicinals.
What herbs do you think grow best in the greater DC area?
We have about 300 species in the garden, and most of the temperate herbaceous annuals and perennials are easy to grow. On the other hand, we have dozens of tropical individuals squeezed into our Noah’s Ark of a greenhouse, including many tropical spices .like bay (subtropical), cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, zedoary. They are a challenge in the winter. We would lose them all if our electricity were off for a day, so I shudder each time the electricity flickers. We have a pretty good track record here in Howard County. And we survived that blitzkrieg 40-inch Snowmageddon early this year (2010) and so far this winter with no outage. Maybe one of your garden readers near me ,with a four-wheeler could dig out this medicinal plant doctor (PhD) — me — and bring a portable generator to rescue me and my tropicals. Let me hear from any of your good readers on whom I might call for rescue in case of outage. Will guarantee him or her and a small circle of gardening friends a free tour of the garden in warmer weather.
Conversely, what plants and herb varieties would you advise others to avoid growing in our area?
Admitting that lazy medicinal gardeners like me prefer dealing with invasives, I would urge that careless gardeners avoid most hardy mints, most true bamboos, and Dang Gui (Angelica), Goutweed (Aegopodium), Hot Tuna (Houttuynia), Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera), Kudzu (Pueraria), Mexican Bamboo (Polygonum), Mugwort (Artemisia), Plume Poppy (Macleaya), Stinging Nettle (Urtica, unless you love it as food and medicine; we do), and Trifoliate Orange (Poncirus). There are many, many more. I have merely named some that are particularly bad for one reason or another. The chemicals that make them weedy are often responsible for their distastefulness and their medicinal activities.
What are your favorite plant purchasing sources?
When I am in a hurry, I race to local garden centers. I got the Behnke habit when I was working in Beltsville, MD. But director Helen cautiously orders in winter and she seeds many things herself. Richo is the first we check when trying to get new material of rare herbs proving to help one of our 80 indications. And, if I hit the Lotto, I will be working on a new book, Gaps in the Green Pharmacy Garden, and a new garden to cover many types of cancers and many other ailments that were omitted, accidentally or on purpose, in the first The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997).
Is the Green Farmacy Garden open to visitors and are you selling your plants?
We welcome garden groups and have had several tours by Master Gardener groups; also FDA, NIH, acupuncture mentor groups, aromatherapy groups, area biology classes, etc. We are open from April through October, and require a minimum of $300 for the first 1.5-hour tour of up to 20 people, no more than 8 cars. We do not normally list plants for sale, but like to trade, or give volunteers some starts from the garden. Like many private and public gardens, we are short on cash. We can arrange special tours for special supportive groups, Music in the Green Pharmacy Garden, with an hour of excellent classical guitarist, and/or my herbal guitar-accompanied doggerel; two hours of your choice, between dawn and dusk. This requires a $2,000 donation to the garden.
What do you do when it is not the growing season?
I spend too many hours at my computer and too little time outdoors. I spent several hours on Christmas Eve, my son’s birthday, compiling several pages of data on the culinary costmary, Tanacetum balsamita, which will go into the culinary and spice database of some 250 spice-like medicinal plants in my collection of 2,750 medicinal plants. When this database is completed, it will contain many more data and species than my very useful USDA phytochemical database, which is online free at http://www.ars-grin.gov/duke.
Once completed, this database will tell researchers which of the 2,750 medicinal plants in the database have the best evidence for alleviating, attenuating, “curing,” or preventing nearly 1,000 indications, including dozens of cancers. By FDA dictate, James A. Duke, PhD (Botany) cannot prescribe, much less prescribe unapproved medicines, even if they are well-known as “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS herbs, spices, and vegetables. But the database will enable an enlightened FDA to see which of the herbs have the best evidence for a given indication. Then the FDA will have a pretty good idea of which herbs should be clinically compared with which dangerous but FDA-approved pharmaceuticals so that an enlightened public will finally see which is better for their health, the garden or Big Pharma.
Most of my wintertime is spent accumulating such data. But for the last couple days, I alternated compiling for the database, with working on a new chapter and/or plot for the New Green Pharmacy book. I was recently working up the food farmacy approaches to Retinitis pigmentosa.
At age 81, I doubt I will hit the lottery and start a second GPG for “orphan ailments” not covered in TGP. But I predict that an enlightened FDA will soon save the American public from the pharmaceutical poisons with safer, gentler medicine from the gardens, food “farmacy” from the veggie gardens, herbal medicine from the herb gardens, spice medicines from the spice gardens, aromatherapeutics from aroma gardens; even mint medicine from mint gardens, and, yes, weed medicines from the invasives that plague our gardens.