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Clues to cures: ‘Plant detective' expands from NPR radio show to coloring book
Clues to cures: ‘Plant detective' expands from NPR radio show to coloring book

When Lewis and Clark expedition member William Bratton fell ill with back pain and coughing on Feb. 10, 1806, the explorers were down one of their most valuable adventurers.

The disease persisted for months, weakening him slowly as each day passed.

On May 24, Lewis described Bratton as "so weak in the loins, that he is scarcely able to walk, nor can he set upwright but with the greatest pain."

After exhausting the medical resources the expedition had, another crew member, John Shields, suggested a Native American remedy that combined sweat baths and a tea brewed from horsemint, a prolific member of the mint family with a range from the American Southwest to Canada, including Montana.

According to expedition records, Bratton was up and walking the next day, never to fall ill from the disease again.

Horsemint is just one of the dozens of medicinal plants that have been covered over the 11-year run of "The Plant Detective," a Montana Public Radio short-form show aired across the nation. Some of them, such as echinacea, can be found in Missoula's backyard.

Missoula's Beth Judy, the show's producer, as well as the voice of the show's film-noirish personality Flora Delaterre, makes no claims to being a medicinal plant expert. With an English degree from Harvard and master's degree in fiction from the University of Montana, plants weren't exactly her thing.

"When the show started, I didn't even know what a medicinal plant was," she said. "I think about the story and what's interesting to the lay person. That's where not being an expert comes in handy."

The show had its genesis in 1995 when UM pharmacy professor Rustem Medora heard Judy on the air during MPR's Spice Chest. Being a medicinal plants expert, Medora approached Judy with the idea of doing a similar show for the numerous plants with medical uses. According to Judy, Medora provided the science and she provided the narrative.

"I don't come up with the facts," Judy said. "I make up the stories."

The show has changed a lot since its first 1996 airing. According to Judy, what was once a five-minute production that opened with the Peter Gunn theme, is now a pared-down, 90-second show that airs on community and public radio stations from Galena, Alaska, to Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Medora's role with the show ended several years ago and now the facts are checked and provided by four professors from Seattle's Bastyr University, a naturopathic medical school.

With each new plant, the show provides historical uses, current uses, and other interesting tidbits. But, Judy says, the show isn't intended to get everyone to their local herb shop or picking echinacea in the Bitterroot.

"I'm not really promoting use," Judy said. "The boom in phytomedicinals is causing a lot of stress for these plants."

As much as the show is about the panoply of medical plants, it's also about the danger that some plant species are in due to habitat reduction and other threats, Judy said.

"We may not need them now, but we've got to think about the future," she said.

To spread the conservation message, as well as information about medicinal plants, Flora Delaterre moved off the airwaves and into a coloring book for kids ages 7 and up called Medicinal Plants of North America several months ago.

The book, illustrated by DD Dowden of Helena, and written by Judy, features 14 plants and information about their respective uses, ranges, and conservation status.

Judy said she wanted to get kids to know about the useful plants around them as well as understand their importance and the danger that some are in.

"I'd love to make kids into little activists," she said.

According to Judy, natural medicine is very much making a comeback. After years of relying on standard, prescription medication, many people are now turning to alternative approaches.

"The side effects can be huge with magic bullet-type drugs," Judy said. "But you can get a lot of the same positive effects without the side effects with some plants."

Judy said she uses a combination of modern medicine and age-old natural cures and treatments.

"I think the perfect health professional would be a medical doctor that also knows about herbal medicine," she said.

According to Judy, the Missoula area is home to many plants with medical uses. Among them are camas root, willow, stinging nettle, horsetail and evening primrose.

Judy will be giving a reading and coloring party for her new book July 28 at Chapter One Books in Hamilton.

One of the native Montana plants in the medicinal garden is echinacea. According to Judy's coloring book, echinacea is also called coneflower and it "boosts immunity and fights infection."

MARY HAYES/Missoulian

Murphy Woodhouse is an intern at the Missoulian. He can be reached at 523-5241.

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