Folk medicine is more popular than ever, and Jim Duke is a happy man. Duke, 47, is chief of the plant taxonomy laboratory at the Department of Agriculture Research Center in Beltsville, Md. He is also one of the country’s leading experts on herbs who has hunted the Western Hemisphere for medicinal varieties. On one expedition Duke brought back 10,000 plants from Panama, 50 of which were unknown to science. One of them is named Dukea in his honor. A Ph.D. in botany from the University of North Carolina, Duke likes to taste and experiment with plants to see what effects they have and what they may be good for. He and his wife, Peggy, 46, also a botanist, live on a small farm outside Washington, D.C. with their 15-year-old son, John, and a daughter, Cissy, 11—along with two goats, a horse and more than a hundred herbs. Dr. Duke discussed herbal medicine and its mythology with Barney Collier for PEOPLE.
How important are herb medicines?
Many of our most important drugs are derived from herbs: quinine, opium, cocaine, scores of others.
Do you call yourself an herb doctor?
No. I am a doctor of botany, a life member of the Organization for Tropical Studies, and the International Association for Plant Taxonomy. But I’ve seen myself called an herbologist, herb devotee, herb connoisseur—or herb freak.
Do you prescribe herb potions?
I don’t prescribe. I’ve always been very careful not to, because I think it’s against the law for anyone but a medical doctor to prescribe medicine. But still, at the office I get calls from frustrated taxpayers who want to find out from the Department of Agriculture what kind of herbs are good for what ails them. I’m the only one in the USDA crazy enough to try to answer their questions.
How did you get familiar with herbs?
When I was 15 or 16 years old, I got hooked on a book called The Harvester about a young man who gathered herbs in the bush. I wanted to be a harvester.
And you still grow herbs on your farm?
Yes, plus 50 varieties of grapes and a hundred blueberry bushes. I also have odd vegetables like Jerusalem and globe artichokes, spaghetti squash, hot peppers, kohlrabi, asparagus and rhubarb. My wife and children pack the station wagon and take them to market. I never go. I’m the harvester, not the seller.
Is munching, smoking or drinking unusual herbs a growing hobby?
No question about it. But you should not experiment with herbs unless you know what plant you have. You’re taking your life in your hands, even if somebody before you has done it with no ill effects.
Are many plants deadly poison?
An ounce of seeds from any of dozens of plant varieties can kill a man if swallowed. The bean family, for instance, has many poisonous seeds. There are at least 10 to 20 accidental deaths from poisonous plants each year.
What are some of the more dangerous herbs?
There were nine additional deaths in Florida within the past year of kids messing with a tropical plant called datura. It is related to jimson weed, which induces a trance. Where it grows in the warm parts of the U.S., it’s aptly called angel’s-trumpet, which it may turn out to be for those who fool with it.
Do you believe in “elixirs of life” which are said to postpone aging?
I certainly would rank three herbs as elixirs of life: ginseng, gotu kola, which grows in the tropics near the sea, and golden seal, which is regarded as a poor man’s ginseng in Appalachia. I’d use them in case I wanted to live a really long time.
What herbs do you regularly consume?
I drink herb tea as a tonic. In fact, I have completely replaced coffee and ordinary tea with herbs from my garden. I mix them all up together in a paper bag. The most important are apple mint, spearmint, orange mint, ordinary thyme and lemon thyme, lemon balm, lemon geranium, basil, rosemary, lavender, catnip, horehound, oregano, fenugreek and bergamot. I also use tansy and wormwood, but very sparingly because of their toxicity.
Do you get a lift out of any herbs?
The only one that works on me is coca leaf from which cocaine is derived. I tried it in Peru where it’s legal to grow and chew. If it were legal in the U.S., I’d chew it as the Indians do, to cut down my appetite and lose a few pounds.
Do you prepare herb concoctions?
Very good ones, and I consume them all. I particularly enjoy herb liqueurs.
What are the main ingredients?
Any herb or combination of herbs you like the taste of, mixed with alcohol. I use the cheapest brand of vodka or gin. If you want a sweet taste, a vodka base is best. With bitter herbs, gin is better. I keep different herbs steeping in little bottles, and I dip into them for a drink each night.
What are some of the up-and-coming herb fads?
Catnip is getting popular among trippers who both drink and smoke it. It’s a sedative, and people think it really works. Some say it’s as good as second-rate grass. It also turns cats on.
Why don’t doctors prescribe catnip tea anymore?
Many doctors don’t want you to know what you’re taking, especially if you can grow it in your backyard. I don’t want a doctor giving me something for $10 that I could get for free out the back door.
Do you believe that plants contain good and bad spirits?
If you want to put it that way, yes. I saw some supernatural plant worship among the Cuna Indians in Panama. They regard certain fairly common trees as sacred. Some blacks there use voodoo plants to make hexes. I know the Chinese believe that the ginseng plant can move around at night.
What is ginseng good for?
The Chinese believe it’s good for everything. In this country, it’s very popular in health food stores. Policemen in Washington are chewing it as a pepper-upper.
How expensive is ginseng?
The real McCoy should be at least $5 an ounce, which is why I and a Chinese friend of mine are suspicious about the combination of Korean ginseng and chicken soup that is currently being sold in some health food stores for $1.75 an ounce. Incidentally, of the 86 herbs I priced at a local health food store, the cheapest was flax seed at 70 an ounce.
Have you used ginseng?
Yes, but nothing happens. They say it’s a sex stimulant, but I wouldn’t know what to do with it in the middle of the day.
If you had cancer, what herbs would you eat?
Mandrake root. It does have something in it that is active against cancer, according to Dr. Robert Perdue’s extensive cancer screen program at USDA. I’ve eaten the mandrake fruit, but I’d be better off, they say, with the roots. I’d also eat the seeds from inside the pits of peaches, plums and apricots. These contain small traces of an organic chemical called amygdalin that may act to fight or prevent cancer. But the seeds also contain small traces of cyanide, and I’d take only little bits of them at first to make sure the cyanide didn’t do me in instead of the cancer.
What do we know about amygdalin?
It’s a natural substance that bears a relationship to the patented product Laetrile, which at one time was regarded as a cancer cure but has since been banned from the country. So Americans are smuggling it in from Mexico. If I was in the same boat, I’d try peach pits and not forget to be careful about the cyanide.
What should a person who is serious about herbs read?
I’d read Economic Botany, which comes out four times a year. I’d also read anthropology journals. Some of the counterculture freaks read old herb books, and every time they see the word “narcotic” associated with some herb, they want to go out and get high on it. They don’t understand that not long ago “narcotic” did not mean hallucinogen. It meant a deadly poison.