By Tanya Brown, Farm Service Agency
To the untrained eye, a trip through Jim Duke’s Herbal Village in Fulton, Md., looks like a homestead for weeds and other unwanted vegetation. But for a group of master gardeners from the People’s Garden initiative, it was a journey through the land of healing.
“It gave me a deeper appreciation for the work done at USDA,” said Linda Parker, master gardener from Forest Service. “It’s a different part of USDA than what I’m used to seeing.”
As former chief of the Medicinal Plant Resources Laboratory at USDA, and now a world-renown author and ethnobotanist, Jim Duke, Ph.D., has traveled the globe introducing himself to roots, plants and invasive weeds, and taking time to get to know their personalities and healing properties.
“When I took a Panama sabbatical from USDA for seven years, my family lived in Panama City while I spent much of my time working with Indians,” said Duke, who worked more than 30 years at USDA as a researcher. “My family had access to the best doctors and medicine in the Panama Canal. The Indians had witch doctors and the forest for medicine. The Indians were as health and happy as my family. That was my “aha” moment.”
That “aha” moment has turned into a searchable database with information on more than 3,000 medicinal plants along with a personal herbal garden of more than 300 plants, many of which have been tasted, tested and used by Duke as herbal remedies.
In fact, Duke touts these remedies over many over-the-counter drugs. “I truly believe that herbs are better than Zoloft [for depression], that rosemary is better than Aricept for Alzheimer’s and cinnamon is better than Avandia [for diabetes],” said Duke. “Thanks to Iranian studies we are told that saffron is better than Imipramine as an antidepressant and kudzu looks better than HRT for osteoporosis.”
Walking barefoot through his garden, he cited a study in the April 2002 issue of JAMA in which Zoloft was compared to Hypericum perforatum L., a plant also known as St. Johns Wort, and a placebo for the treatment of depression. “Nowhere other than depression is there much more benefit than a placebo,” said Duke. “Neither St. Johns Wort or Zoloft was better than the placebo in serious depression.”
Yet, not all plants or drugs work the same for every person. Duke said he used celery seed extract to get rid of gout. It took 10 years, but it worked. “My brother’s gout was helped more by Michigan cherry juice,” he said. “We all differ in our response to herbs and pharmaceuticals.”
But Duke stands by his herbs as the safer alternative. According to a study in JAMA, nearly 140,000 Americans die each year from pharmaceutical side effects. Duke said he almost became a part of that statistic last year when an over-the-counter drug he was prescribed put him into anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction.
“It almost did me in,” said Duke. “The last fatality list I read had no fatalities due to herbs.” Yet Duke admits that there are herbal fatalities, but they are often caused by wrong identification, which further supports his mission of clinically comparing promising plants with over-the-counter pharmaceuticals.
Ultimately, “I want to be proven right…or wrong,” said Duke. Only by comparing the two could the real truth be told.
“Right now we don’t know if Zoloft is better than walnut, turmeric or St. Johns Wort, or if saffron is better for depression,” said Duke. “Nobody knows if we are getting the best drugs. I wager that half of the herbs are better and I guarantee the one’s I recommend are safer and cheaper.”