In Memoriam: Dr. James Duke (1929-2017)
written by Emily Ruff
Dr. James A. Duke, a devoted ethnobotanist and champion of the green world, passed away December 10 2017 at the age of 88. He is survived by his wife Peggy, a botanical illustrator with whom he collaborated on many of his books. He is also survived by his two children, many grandchildren, and a countless assortment of herbalists who count Jim among their elders.
The list of accolades one could recount about Jim’s life is without end, and many articles have paid tribute to his vast contribution to the botanical academy during his life. He was a prolific author, well known for his 1997 bestseller, The Green Pharmacy, among dozens of other herb books. Down here in the South, his most cherished contribution is very likely the Petersen’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants, co-authored by Steven Foster, which has been a critical manual for understanding local plant medicines in a bioregion that is often excluded from other wild plant field guides. A botanist with a long career at the USDA, he developed “Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database,” which to this day continues to make a vast amount of his research accessible to any interested student of the plants.
Yet to summarize his contribution to herbalism merely by recalling his professional works would be incomplete. Duke, a native of Alabama, was always a Southern boy at heart, and a musician by hobby. His “Herbalbum” offers a glimpse at the way he weaves the passion of stringed instruments, poetic phrases, and the plant kingdom together. Songs dedicated to species he adored, such as Chamomile, Mountain Laurel, and Ginseng, tell the listener personal and unique stories about his relationships with these plant allies.
Jim collected friends like he collected plants, and one friend among many whose adoration was reciprocal and strong was Frank Cook, legendary forager and advocate for wild plants. Jim and Frank were close friends and traveled often together to faraway lands. A photo of Frank resides on the table at the entrance of Jim’s office, an homage to the influence Frank had on Jim’s life and work. Jim wrote the song “La Soga” as an honoring to Frank and the many plants like Ayahuasca which they both loved and revered. (Watch the song “La Soga” and be sure to enjoy his sharing after the end of the song)
I have had the blessing of spending time at Jim’s Green Farmacy Garden in Maryland with him for the last five years. Each visit was full of songs, stories, and of course, time with his diverse collection of herbal species, categorized by ailment in his sprawling gardens. Without knowing how timely my visit would be, I scheduled a short trip to see him this fall, just about a week before his passing. When I arrived, Jim was no longer venturing out into his backyard garden, or even downstairs to his robust library, but his famous wit and wisdom was still as present as ever. Though he was ailing and ready for the next step in his journey, the spark returned to his eyes when speaking of the plants.
We shared about some of our favorite plant allies, and he spoke details of them as clear as he would have recalled them decades before. We talked about his countless trips to the Amazon jungle of Peru, and he shared that it was the place on the planet where he felt the most at home. Before leaving, I thanked him for the generous gifts he gave to herbalists like myself, for whom his work has been pivotal in gathering an understanding of the subtropical Materia Medica we are surrounded by in Central Florida. He in turn, like the true Southern gentleman he always was, thanked me, and my students, for carrying on his legacy.
The lyrics of “La Soga” include a verse that seems fitting now for Jim. May he be soaring on his freedom flight, looking down and smiling upon the many passionate plant people who carry on his legacy thanks to his inspiration.
He’s a poet, he’s a prophet
He’s a walking contradiction, kinda low when flying high
He’s a brujo, a soguero
With celestial connections, he now navigates the sky.
Happy 85th Birthday Jim Duke by Steven Foster
Green Farmacy Garden, Maryland