A look inside the healing garden of Howard's 'Dr. Duke'

Botanist and author offers tours in Howard County Conservancy program

July 02, 2014|By Janene Holzberg, For The Baltimore Sun

With its four terraces of thriving plants sloping down toward a babbling lily pond, Jim Duke's garden could certainly be considered a healing place.

And that's precisely what the world-renowned botanist and author's Green Farmacy Garden is.

Featuring 80 plots that showcase 300 plants for whatever ails you — from addictions to yeast infections and everything in between — the garden is a living catalog of herbal medicine.

From 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, the Howard County Conservancy will sponsor a lecture and guided tour of the garden at the Fulton home Jim Duke shares with his wife, Peggy.

Established in 1998 by the couple as an educational tool, the garden wasn't intended for cultivating herbs for sale. Instead, the plants are living cue cards to prompt conversation.

Garlic can help lower cholesterol and ward off colds. European stinging nettle can ease the pain of osteoarthritis. Turmeric is a great antioxidant.

The garden's name is a word play on Duke's popular book on herbal remedies, "The Green Pharmacy," which was published in 1997 and has been translated into 10 languages. He has written or co-authored 30 other books.

At age 85, Duke still works daily to expand his online phytochemical and ethnobotanical databases of plants that affect human health, an ongoing project he calls "the best thing I've done for the world."

He is hoping to sell the additional information he has compiled "before I croak," he says, possibly to one of two corporate suitors that he declines to name.

"I do this work to keep my mind healthy," he says, estimating he has quadrupled the databases since retiring from the Department of Agriculture in 1995. They make up one of the most frequently consulted areas of the USDA website, he adds.

Duke and his garden director, Helen Lowe Metzman, exchange a knowing glance when she affectionately describes him as "100 percent — from the neck up." Age and a nerve condition have limited his physical mobility the past couple of years.

Metzman says that to people familiar with medicinal herbs, Duke is a rock star. His story has been told over the years in The New York Times and People magazine, among other publications.

The address of the garden is purposely not posted on the greenfarmacy.com website, she says, because Duke has such a large following that "people would just show up" to check it out.

Instead, tours are advertised via flier and social media two or three times a month to corral the public's interest into a manageable schedule.

"People love to smell, visualize and learn about these herbs," she said, whether they're knowledgeable about alternative healing or just curious.

Next to a rock engraved with the word "baldness" grows datura, for example, which is also known as angel's trumpet. The large white blossoms, which have a gardenia-like scent, are stogie-like buds that unfold into pinwheels at dusk, then open fully at night, often inspiring flower-watching parties to behold the spectacle.

"It's a one-night-stand kind of plant that opens up its 'skirt' and looks for a suitor" to pollinate it, Metzman said. "Around midday, the skirt falls off [the stem] and it's done blooming."

Duke says his interest in plants was fired at age 5 by a neighbor in his home state of Alabama, "a lonely old man who only talked to his rabbits and me."

He said after his family moved to North Carolina, his mother encouraged his curiosity. He went on to earn his doctorate in botany at the University of North Carolina.

It was a project in 1965 that led Duke to move with his wife and two children to Panama for a few years, and that journey cemented his interest in studying medicinal plants.

"I realized that my own children, who had the best medical care that money could buy, were no healthier or happier than the children playing in the jungle," he said. He has since made many trips to explore the culture and ecology of the rain forest.

When he's not in front of his computer, Duke writes original herb-themed songs as well as song parodies. He sings and plays bass fiddle with his son, John, accompanying him on lead guitar for Wednesday night jams at his home.

He estimates he's written about 1,000 songs, and in the mid-1990s he put out a record titled "Herbalbum" — pronounced "herbal bum" but also "herb album." It was later distributed on cassette tape and CD, and his songbooks have been published.

"I enjoy singing, though I'm prone to cry from sentimentality, and my son has to back [my vocals] up," he says.

His most frequently performed song is "Ginseng," and in a soft voice he sings the first verse, stopping short of some of the lyrics he describes as "risque."

The scientist and musician also has served as a lecturer at the Maryland University of Integrative Health in nearby Laurel, which was formerly called the Tai Sophia Institute.

Andrew Pengelly, director of the herb dispensary at MUIH and adjunct lecturer in herbal medicine, says Duke was a major reason why he came to America.

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