There are "greener green" slushies at the Natural Food Expo. Carb-busting canine weight-loss pills, juice for joints, medicinal mushrooms for the mind. "These are absolutely going to change your mind about soy nuts!" a crew-cut man promises as he thrusts dirt-brown packets at passersby streaming past vegan baklava and gluten-free protein brownies.
Amid 1,700 exhibitors at the Washington Convention Center yesterday, a man sits in a booth made of bamboo and built to look like a thatched hut. Strands of silver snake through his lush brown curls, his tawny skin colored by the sun in all five continents. He comes from the hills of western Massachusetts. He is Medicine Hunter.
"We tried to get him to wear a long grass skirt," someone says. The khaki-clad, 52-year-old Chris Kilham breaks into a smile. "You gotta know your limits," he says.
Kilham, an ethnobotanist and "Explorer in Residence" at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has tirelessly promoted the use of herbal healing through his travelogue writings about exotic locales. He has come to this weekend's expo to promote "Hot Plants," his 13th book about holistic health -- and his latest product line, billed as the herbal Viagra.
The Hot Plants capsules -- for him and for her -- are the natural solution to a sexual crisis for millions: American DINS, "dual income, no sex," Kilham says.
Kilham teaches ethnobotany at the university and has been studying herbal remedies for 30 years. So he has come to know a few things about how to get his point across. Citing science is important. Having the products available at a growing circuit of pricey alternative health food stores is important. Like Columbus before him, Kilham has learned that there doesn't necessarily have to be a new discovery. But the herbs have to have a story.
Usually the tale involves testimonies from earnest natives in distant lands; in the case of Hot Plants, places like Russia (Rhodiola rosea), China (Horny Goat Weed), India (Ashwagandha) and Brazil (Catuaba). You need lush descriptions of dangerous landscapes where the herbs are harvested. There's got to be a fearless, brawny protagonist to bring the narrative -- and product -- to the folks stateside.
"I've done the research," says Kilham, who traces the folkloric history of 11 herbs that make up the cocktail in his capsules. "I've climbed the mountains, ridden the rivers, hiked the forests. . . . People want to believe that these things work, but they also want to be entertained."
His latest book, "Hot Plants: Nature's Proven Sex Boosters for Men and Women," opens with a childhood reminiscence of Medicine Boy, enticed at 16 by a indigenous Puerto Rican woman on a balcony, peering down at him with hungry eyes. "A man could fall hard for a woman like that," Kilham writes. "Like a grand piano pushed off a roof."
Kilham passes on the overture, but a lifelong sensuality is awakened in the young explorer. The closest Medicine Hunter gets to some action comes in the "Heart of Darkness," a chapter on his quest for the Pausinystalia yohimbe, a Ghanaian herb that has been used as an aphrodisiac there.
A couple of native Ghanaian women are attending to his every need. They are dancing so hard he is getting drenched with salty sweat droplets. "Come, you are hot," one of the women tells him. "The moon shone down onto our private spot as we reclined," Kilham writes, then concludes the story cryptically: "The night wore on, happily and delightfully."
This raises the question: Exactly how extensive was Kilham's research? "I want to focus on my investigation and not my sex life," says Kilham, who nevertheless recently bragged to one magazine writer that he has "woken up [aroused] on every continent."
Sitting at the booth, Kilham continues, indignant. "I'm a medicine hunter. There is a sexual health crisis and people are trying some dangerous drugs."
Karen Lyons, a 54-year-old native of Bluff City, Tenn., attests to that. She works at a health food store that distributes Hot Plants, created in partnership with the Wisconsin company Enzymatic Therapy. Since she had a hysterectomy a year ago, she says in a telephone interview, she found her libido and her sex life in shambles. She says she tried another herbal supplement and "all it did was make my heart race like a heart attack." She has been taking Hot Plants for a month now, she says, and her husband, a Baptist minister, is thrilled with the results. "I get tingly just to look at him now," she says.
Experts don't doubt such personal testimonials but say the effects have never been proved. "None of these have been shown in humans to have aphrodisiac effects," says Norman Farnsworth, a professor of pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which runs a National Institutes of Health-financed center on alternative medicine. He said his database shows over 2,500 plants and herbs that have folkloric claims as sexual enhancers.
"I think it's kind of a shot in the dark," agrees Tod Cooperman, who runs ConsumerLab.com, an independent testing service for alternative medicinal products. "The clinical evidence is not compelling. When you have a kitchen-sink kind of product, I think typically there haven't been clinical studies done with that combination" of herbs.
Kilham dismisses the critics. People around the world have been using these products for thousands of years, he says. And he has done enough traveling to know the real thing.
"A man doesn't need a study to know if he's feeling amorous," he says. "There is no such thing as a placebo erection."