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Plant Detective Teaches Radio Audiences about Herbs
Plant Detective Teaches Radio Audiences about Herbs

According to Flora Delaterre, herbal gumshoe character from Montana Public Radio’s The Plant Detective, “You spend time in the undergrowth, plants yield their secrets.”

For nearly a decade this clever intro has lured public radio listeners into spending time in the undergrowth with Flora Delaterre. An unlikely hit, The Plant Detective is an educational program about plants for both herbal enthusiasts and the average layperson. Producers use sharp humor and expert scientific information to keep listeners entertained, informed, and glued to the radio for the two-minute slot wedged between regularly scheduled programming. As a result, audiences learn about the world of medicinal plants and their phytomedicinals, the chemical compounds produced by medicinal plants.

The Plant Detective was created to address a perceived lack of public understanding about plants and their medicinal uses. Dr. Rustem Medora, Professor Emeritus of Pharmacognosy at the University of Montana, conceived the idea for an educational radio program about plants. The idea occurred to him after attending “Pharmacy from the Rainforest,” an ethnobotany field trip to the Peruvian Amazon sponsored by the American Botanical Council. During this field trip he noticed cultural gaps in understanding about plants. Dr. Medora attributes this problem to misinformation in the media and the frequent lack of proper guidance in health food stores.

“A goal of the show is to educate the public: make them aware of endangered medicinal plants, intellectual property rights, and … pharmacological properties. To make it interesting, we add a little history,” says Dr. Medora.

Beth Judy, writer and co-producer for The Plant Detective and voice of Flora Delaterre, concurs that there is a need to educate the public about herbs: “The survival and well-being of plants—medicinal and others—benefits both plants and people. And neither of us benefit, in the long run, from their loss,” says Judy.

Each of the 130 episodes already aired addresses a different medicinal plant and covers a variety of issues including history and lore, botany, efficacy, benefits and risks, as well as common misperceptions of phytomedicinals. Scientific information and research about medicinal plants that support the effects of plants on the human body are provided by Dr. Medora and the American Botanical Council’s HerbClip and HerbalGram.

The Plant Detective helps create informed consumers by making them aware of more health options. An episode on Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea [L.] Moench, Asteraceae) relates research findings that show echinacea should be used at the onset of flu and cold symptoms, and that it should not be taken for more than 6-8 weeks at a time, but not because there would be a safety problem. According to the rationale for the therapeutic use of Echinacea for treating upper respiratory tract infections as established by the German Commission E, if the Echinacea treatment has not worked by this time, more aggressive therapy is needed. A different episode on St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum L., Clusiaceae) says that European research, primarily from Germany, indicates that St. John’s wort may be used as an alternative to treat mild to moderate depression.

Other medicinal plants covered on The Plant Detective include black cohosh (Actaea racemosa L., Ranunculaceae [syn. Cimicifuga racemosa]) which historically was used by Native Americans to treat menstrual cramps and ease childbirth. This century, scientists in Europe have discovered that black cohosh is an effective treatment for the symptoms of menopause. The ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba L., Ginkgoaceae) episode tells listeners about the resiliency of the plant—it has been around since the dinosaurs—and lets them know that studies show ginkgo extract promotes healthy blood flow to the brain and extremities and is a powerful antioxidant.

In addition, The Plant Detective teaches audiences how plants contribute to mainstream medicine. The Flora Delaterre website cites a National Geographic article1 which explains the overlap: “plants…have contributed to the development of 25 to 50 percent of all prescription drugs used in the United States, either directly or by providing biochemical models, or templates, used to make synthetic compounds.”

Producers of the program hope that education will help enlighten audiences about the need for conservation. “One of the biggest problems facing herbs today is over-harvesting. We need to conserve useful herbs so that they don’t become extinct,” says Dr. Medora. For example, there is no need to indiscriminately harvest wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens L., Ericaceae) because its oil’s active ingredient, methyl salicylate, can be synthesized. He also notes that goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis L., Ranunculaceae) is at risk because of over-harvesting.

The Plant Detective has struck a chord with radio listeners. It has been a weekly program in Missoula, Montana, since 1996 and was syndicated to 21 public radio stations in 14 different states in January 2003. Now listeners can tune in to hear “the dirt on phytomedicinals” from places like Arkansas, Alaska, or California.

For the past eight years The Plant Detective has been produced by KUFM in Missoula, Montana, in conjunction with the University of Montana’s School of Pharmacy, medicinal plant expert Rustem Medora, and writer/producer Beth Judy.

More information about The Plant Detective is available at Persons interested in promoting The Plant Detective to a local National Public Radio station for possible broadcast can contact Linda Talbot at KUFM, the Missoula station of Montana Public Radio at (406)-243-4931.


1.         Swerdlow JL. Nature’s Rx. National Geographic. April 2000; 197(4):98-117.