Gardening for Health

Grateful for Dr. Jim Duke

By Maria Price

I was greatly privileged to know the late botanist, Dr. James “Jim” Duke. To this day, I still consider him my mentor after time spent with him. I first met him at the Maryland Department of Agriculture when a short-lived Maryland Herb Association was being formed. We became friends when I nominated the native herb Monarda punctata, spotted horsemint, to be the Maryland State Herb. Even though I don’t believe it ever became official, it perked his ears.

I took a short course on botanical medicine from him at the University of Maryland and I heard him speak on herbal medicine to scientists from across the country at the National Institutes of Health. Jim Duke also appeared every year, barefoot and playing herbal music, at the Herb Festival in Leakin Park in Baltimore.

He was so down to earth, always curious, and full of herbal inspiration. He led eco-botanical tours in ethnobotany. I went to Costa Rica with him on one of those tours to visit the New Chapter facility where many tropical herbs, such as ginger and turmeric were grown. Tarantulas and poisonous snakes in the outdoor pool never fazed him. He even helped me when I forgot a piece of luggage at the airport. He always loved teaching others about the plant world and gave an unforgettable garden tour at my nursery. When I taught in the botanical medicine program at Tai Sophia (now known as Maryland University of Integrative Health), Jim Duke led the program, with his wonderful garden.

Sadly, Dr. Duke died on December 10, 2017. He was 88 years old. I dearly miss his kind presence.

He has written over three dozen books. My favorites that I still cherish are The Green Pharmacy, A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs, Dr. Duke’s Essential Herbs, 13 Vital Herbs You Need to Disease-Proof Your Body, Boost Your Energy, Lengthen Your Life, and Handbook of Edible Weeds.

One of his most famous works is the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs and he developed an online database called Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database at the USDA.

Jim Duke was born in Birmingham, Ala., and received a Ph.D. in botany from the University of North Carolina in 1961. In college, he played in a Dixieland Jazz Band. He wrote poems, which he set to music, about herbs, their proper and common names, and some of their properties. In the late 1970s, he was chief of the Plant Taxonomy Laboratory, Plant Genetics and Germplasm Institute of the Agricultural Research Service at the USDA.

Dr. Andrew Weil, an integrative medicine proponent and physician, called Duke, “a leading authority on healing herbs.”

Jim Duke was a brilliant researcher with a knack for explaining to people how complicated botanical compounds in plants could contribute to health and the prevention of many ailments. He was one of the founding members of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, a peer-reviewed journal on botanical medicine. Mark Blumenthal, who founded the American Botanical Council, said that Jim Duke was a brilliant, dedicated, funny, and humble man who earned the admiration, respect, and love of thousands of scientists and herbal enthusiasts.

I am honored and grateful to have known this gentle giant of the botanical world. I have a cherished turmeric plant from Dr. Duke’s garden that I lovingly carry in and out of my greenhouse every year.