The healing powers of plants

Jim Duke speaks out on behalf of botanical remedies, scientific testing

Medicine

Health & Fitness

June 24, 2005|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Special to the Sun

Jim Duke grows a medicine cabinet in his back yard. The elegant, tiered garden, created by the retired government botanist, contains hundreds of plant species grouped for treatment of some 80 diseases and ailments. Engraved stones mark each section: Bronchitis, Diabetes, Glaucoma, Addictions, Wrinkles, Parkinson's Disease, Obesity and on and on.

For the 76-year-old Duke, an authority in the field of herbal medicine and a prolific author on the subject, the garden at his Fulton home in Howard County, where he holds dozens of tours a year, is his main venue for educating the public about ancient herbal traditions and new botanical discoveries. It's also the stage for Duke to spread his message that the health care establishment in the United States needs to get serious about researching the medical capabilities of plants and herbs.

Specifically, Duke is calling for more clinical comparisons between botanical remedies and pharmaceuticals. He's testified before Congress on the subject and has written several books and scholarly works on the topic as well.

"My goal in life is to get people to get Congress to urge serious comparisons, because until they're compared we don't know we're getting the best medicine," he says in a soft, Southern drawl. "We just know we're getting the most expensive pharmaceuticals."

With complementary and alternative medicine departments now in operation at many major research centers and medical schools, the views of herbal medicine advocates like Duke are slowly gaining more acceptance in the mainstream medical community.

"Despite what pharmaceutical companies would have us believe, herbal medicine is the medicine of 70 percent of the world population, and the vast majority of people do not have the resources to buy penicillin tablets or high-blood-pressure pills," says Dr. Sharon D. Montes, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine and the director of clinical services at the school's Center for Integrative Medicine.

"Jim Duke has been incredibly influential in educating people in all walks of life about the importance of this type of medicine and getting the word out that it's important to pay attention," Montes adds.

Dr. Robert A. Schulman, an assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, supports Duke's opinions on botanical medicine studies.

"It is clear from the peer-reviewed medical literature that herbs are a valuable, safe, inexpensive and reliable source of medical intervention and treatment," he says. "Herbal treatment deserves to receive continued high-level scientific evaluation."

Decades of research

Duke's conclusions about botanical medicine are the result of four decades of research into the medicinal uses of plants and herbs, mostly as a botanist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from which he retired in 1995 to write his most well-known book, The Green Pharmacy.

His work has taken him around the world, including 49 trips to the Amazon rain forest -- his 50th is slated for October. A member of the faculty at the Tai Sophia Institute for the Healing Arts near Columbia, Duke is also a frequent speaker at conferences, many of them geared to medical doctors who want to learn more about botanical medicine.

Duke believes that botanicals are safer and as effective as commercially produced drugs. In the past, he has taken antibiotics for infections, and as a preventive measure to ward off Lyme disease after finding ticks on his body. And although he takes an occasional aspirin, he generally avoids pharmaceuticals.

In his garden, Duke distills his knowledge into lively and informative lectures, sprinkled with equal parts plant biology and herbal humor.

On a recent Saturday morning, barefoot and wearing a straw hat, he led a group of about 25 on an aromatic tour. They sniffed as Duke shared information and stories from his life's work.

"If I had a long drive to make, I'd have a large bag of rosemary beside me because it stimulates the central nervous system," he says.

Duke said he has taken celery seed every day for nine years -- a practice he believes has kept the gout in his big toe in check.

When he came to a fava bean plant during the tour, he talked about his hopes for a clinical trial to compare it with Eldopa, a drug used to treat Parkinson's disease.

"There's no proof that one is better than the other," he says. "That's why I'm arguing that we should be comparing these things."

A balanced approach

Roy Upton, an herbalist and executive director of American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, an organization that promotes the responsible use of herbal remedies, says that Duke's USDA career and his work with the National Cancer Institute to develop potential cancer drugs from natural products put him at the crossroads of the folkloric herbal tradition and the scientific investigation of plants.

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