The sores on Jim Duke's shins were raw and open, and as their owner put it, in his lush Alabama accent, "They been itchin' like a son of a gun." Duke clearly had a fairly serious case of psoriasis. But he also had a special way to treat it.
On the dining room table sat a box, postmarked Florida, courtesy of a friend. In the box sat an aloe frond, the "leaf" of a plant that is said to have soothing effects on skin raches and infections.
Jim Duke cut the sword-shaped frond open and rubbed some aloe slime on his sores. Almost immediately, he said, they felt better.
"I don't claim this is a cure," Duke said, "and I'm not sure I'd want my daughter to try this. But it could be just as effective as what the drug compaines have on the market. All I'm saying is, let's not leave any stones unturned in research."
Don't worry about Jim Duke doing that. He is paid to make sure the stones are turned.
Since May, Duke, a 49-year-old PhD in botany, has headed the Medicinal Plant Resources Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beltsville research station. That is a fancy-pants way of saying that Duke is the federal government's chief herb tester -- when he isn't relaxing by playing bass with a bluegrass band called the Howard County Dump.
For Duke, herbs are far more than something to hack apart in a lab. Duke, his wife Peggy and their two children live on a sixacre farm here named Herbal Vineyard. Much of it is given over to more than 200 species of plants. If you called Jim Duke and his family "herb freaks" -- as People Magazine once did -- "well, we wouldn't mind a bit," Duke says.
That does not mean the Dukes are growing exotic plant that will get you higher than a kite if you chew or smoke them. In fact, most of Duke's garden contains nothing more exotic than salad greens or spices -- although most are too rare to be found at the Safeway.
Duke himself says he much prefers "redneck wine" to any other means of getting high. Indeed, he grows 60 varieties of grapes on his spread -- and they aren't for jelly. If marijuana or anything zippier is growing on the Duke property, "I sure as hell didn't put it there," says the proprietor.
But Duke has planted spiny ginseng root, foeniculum, rainbow fern and yellow ladyslipper, just to drop a name or two. And he planted them all, as well as their brothers and sisters, for his own amusement.
Duke's herbs are to fondle, spindle and mutilate. They are there to be traded, reproduced and fretted over. Occasionally, they serve as sources for herbal medicines. Above all, they give the Duke farm a color (green) and smell (vaguely fruity) that sets it far apart from its horsey neighbors.
Commercial forces occasionally take hold on the Duke spread -- or at least they have tried to. In the spring and summer, the Duke children -- John, 17, and Cissy, 13 -- take some of the family crops to the nearby farmr's market in Columbia. On a good day, they have been known to clear all of $12.
A large part of Jim Duke's work for the USDA consists of collecting "new" herbs. He has traveled all over the world on collecting tours (Panama last month, China last summer). This year, he is heading up a special collection of herbs that will be tested by the National Cancer Institute as possible cures for cancer.
"We've already been through 10 percent of the plants in the world. One in 10 has some effect on cancer in the test tube," Duke said. But the excitement lies in the "hundreds of plants that have never been tested." At Beltsville, Duke says wryly, "We're not worried about unemployment."
Duke is concerned, however, with the public attitude toward herbal medicines.
He and his colleagues jokingly call the Beltsville lab "Ye Olde Quacky Shacky," because they know that's how many people view them and their work. And Duke is forever being urged by someone or other to "come out of the closet" and declare that herb medicines are great and patent medicines awful.
In fact, Duke is ambivalent about which, if either, is better.
"You get some strong advocates of herbal medicine, but you seldom get scientific proof," Duke said. "A lot of it is really dangerous. You can overdose.
"On the other hand, there are more people hit by falling airplanes than are poisoned by herbal medicine. I'd say more than 10 percent of the old wives' tales have some truth to them."
Jim Duke knows those tales by heart.
Out in his greenhouse, there grows a jojoba. "Supposed to cure baldness," Duke says.
Two shelves over is a batch of euphorbia lathyris -- the so-called "petroleum plant." Its milky sap "is similar to the hydrocarbon content in petroleum," Duke said. "It's supposed to produce 50 barrels of oil per acre. Some people believe it'll cause cancer instead."
Catnip, ornamental kale, jimson weed -- Jim Duke is growing them all. And he firmly expects there will soon be more like him.
"there are more people interested in nature, in back-to-the-earth movements, in backpacking movements," he said. "I think herbal medicine is going to have much more interest.
"Remember: In my grandmother's day, that was all there was."