Sowing Seeds of Health: Jim Duke Sings the Praises of Medicinal Herbs, Curative Plants

Article excerpt

FULTON, Md. - The world is beating a path to botanist Jim Duke's door.

"If only the right people would come. They could bring a hand trowel," says the renowned medicinal plant and herb specialist in the midst of juggling interviews with Time, People, CNN and the New York Times about his Herbal Village in bucolic Fulton.

The visitors he would most like to see are people suffering from the ailments that the fruits of his outdoor laboratory are intended to help cure. As volunteers, they could work directly with the plants.

"I'd like them to talk to the plants," he says. "Those suffering from diverticulitis, for instance, could tend the herbs that might help them the most."

This is no pie-eyed, late-middle-age hippie grown soft, but a scientist with a commanding message who looks like Santa Claus and talks like a scholar with the common touch. He created his organically run "village" strictly for teaching purposes.

Since retiring after a 30-year career with the Department of Agriculture, he has been working to elevate the debate about the nature and value of so-called alternative medicine - especially the curative power of herbs, many of them from the Amazonian rain forest.

His aim - no small ambition - is to enlighten a civilization he feels has gone berserk in its dependence on pharmaceutical drugs and palliatives.

The affable, low-key scientist also loves gardening for its own sake and believes firmly in both the pleasure and the health-giving properties of tending the soil.

His "farmette," as he jokingly calls his 6-acre property in Howard County, just happens to contain hundreds of "safe" medicinal plants, many of them rare and extremely valuable.

They are arranged on a terraced slope outside his home under 80 names of well-known ailments. Each plot is marked by an engraved white stone, and together they resemble a "graveyard" of the living.

The more herbs there are in each plot, the more options a sufferer may have to find relief from that particular affliction.

Ever the optimist, Mr. Duke has a stone marked "aphrodisia" for problems with sexual dysfunction, and he is investigating the curative potential of an Oriental plant called horny goat weed. (He insists that he didn't invent the name.

He suspects that it would give Viagra a run for that pill's money and would be a considerably less troublesome and far less expensive alternative.

When he is on research and instructional trips in South America, he carries two guitars, one of which is emblazoned with the words "El Brujo" (the witch), the name he is called by indigenous peoples in the Amazon, who aren't impressed by academic credentials. …