When I first met Jim Duke sometime in the 70s, he was talking about retiring. Whenever I saw him in the 1980s or the 1990s, Jim Duke talked about retiring from his USDA career, in part so he could do, and more importantly, write and say, what he wanted to without the eye of a monolithic government bureaucracy staring over his shoulder, and slapping his wrist when he got out of line. Duke got his wrist slapped from time to time, not only because he knows too much about the subject of medicinal plants to keep quiet, but also because of an endless passion for the subject matter. He was the government's spokesperson on plant medicines when plant medicines were a subject the government did not wish to talk about. As of September 1995, Jim Duke is indeed "retired" and The Green Pharmacy is the first fruit of his post-USDA careen If his CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs (1986) is his magnum opus, then The Green Pharmacy is his romance novel, endowed with Duke's "lifetime of loving plants ."
The extremely frenetic and sensational direct mail pieces of the publisher, along with the book's cover, tout Duke as the "world's foremost authority on healing herbs." I feel that I have come to know most of the experts in the herb field and have a sense of their breadth of knowledge. Pound-for-pound, herb-for-herb, continent-for-continent, added all together, it is indeed true that there is no other individual in the world who knows the uses of more plants from more traditions than James A. Duke.
That type of acclaim can lead some individuals to believe that they know it all. Jim Duke's breadth of knowledge carries more than information, it is imbued with experience with a flock of wisdom. Duke is as sure of what he doesn't know as what he does know. The Green Pharmacy is as much about opinion as it is about facts. That opinion is invaluable in our contemporary sea of herb information babble.
The book is arranged alphabetically by condition, covering over 120 afflictions from aging to yeast infections. Since the cold and flu season is on, I turned to that section. As with all chapters in the book, the cold and flu chapter begins with personal recollections or quotes from colleagues. Here, Duke has an opportunity to tell a lifetime of stories or anecdotes. The reader immediately becomes comfortable and engaged. A simple medical explanation of the condition follows, enumerating the symptoms, how it develops and strategies for prevention and treatment. Duke's "Green Pharmacy" entries are next. For colds and flu he covers nineteen herbs, with a few milligrams of vitamin C and a bowl of chicken soup mixed in for good measure. In "choosing the herbs that heal" Duke has used a three leaf rating system. Those herbs achieving his highest score get three leaves.
If you are looking for a reference book to find information on individual herbs, this is not that book. Echinacea, for example, is treated under two dozen different conditions, on 30 pages throughout the text. If you want a book that cautiously recommends herbs that are useful for common ailments, with Duke's own honest assessment of their safety and effectiveness, this book is for you. The Green Pharmacy is a book that is friendly, accessible, easy to read, authoritative, and engaging. It serves both as pleasure reading and a wealth of information. If you ever wanted to sit down with Jim Duke and pick his brain, you don't have to look any further than the pages of The Green Pharmacy. You will come away enriched.
Article copyright American Botanical Council.
By Steven Foster