Remembering Peggy-Ann Wetmore Kessler Duke
By Connor Yearsley
Peggy Duke, a prolific botanical artist and wife of renowned ethnobotanist James “Jim” Alan Duke, PhD (1929–2017), died at home in Fulton, Maryland, on April 1, 2021, at age 90. She produced hundreds of illustrations of plants, including medicinal plants, many of which were published in Jim’s authored works.
Peggy was born on March 18, 1931, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Roland and Hazel Kessler. She was the middle of three daughters (Barbara was the oldest and Gail the youngest). Peggy began drawing as a child in New Jersey. In 1953, she received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, where she became interested in depicting plants.
From 1953 to 1955, Peggy attended the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, where she earned a master’s degree in botany. At UNC, she met Jim, who was earning his PhD in plant taxonomy. Almost every weekend during Jim’s PhD program, he and Peggy took botanists Albert E. Radford, PhD, Harry E. Ahles, or C. Ritchie Bell, PhD, into the field to collect botanical specimens for their Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas (University of North Carolina Press, 1968), a fundamental reference on plants of the southeastern United States.1 Peggy contributed illustrations for this book.
In 1963, Jim took an assignment with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to study tropical tree seedlings in Puerto Rico. One publication that resulted, “Keys for the identification of seedlings of some prominent woody species in eight forest types in Puerto Rico” (Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 1965), included 182 of Peggy’s technical illustrations and reportedly helped with the identification of seedlings after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. After about two years of research in Puerto Rico, Jim took a position as a research ecologist in Panama for about three years and brought Peggy and their two young children, John and Celia. In 1971, the Dukes purchased a six-acre farm, which they called the “Herbal Vineyard,” in Fulton, Maryland.1
Early on, Peggy created precise ink drawings of plants but eventually discovered East Asian brush painting, or sumi-e, which instead involves broad, loose brushstrokes, simplicity, and spontaneity. It focuses on capturing the essence of subjects instead of creating replicas with precise scientific details. In Japanese, “sumi” (墨) means “black ink” and “e” (絵) means “painting,” and subjects typically are painted in many gradations of black, although some artists, including Peggy, also have used color.2
“With the botanical stuff, you have to get every tiny detail,” Peggy was quoted as saying in a 2003 article in The Baltimore Sun. But, with sumi-e, “it’s more free.... They are two very different things, yet I enjoy doing both of them.”2
In the same article, Jim was quoted as saying, “Peggy has a sensitive eye, one that captures the precise anatomical details of flowers and plants with scientific accuracy, as well as their spirit and beauty.”2
Over the years, Peggy contributed artwork for Jim’s authored works, including: “Preliminary Revision of the Genus Drymaria” (Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 1961), “On Tropical Tree Seedlings” (Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 1969), Medicinal Plants of the Bible (Trado-Medic Books, 1983), Culinary Herbs: A Potpourri (Trado-Medic Books, 1985), Living Liqueurs (Quarterman Publications, 1987), Handbook of Edible Weeds (CRC Press, 1992), Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary (CRC Press, 1994), The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997), Herbs of the Bible: 2000 Years of Plant Medicine (Interweave Press, 1999), Handbook of Medicinal Spices (CRC Press, 2002), Herb-A-Day (Eco Images, 2007), Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible (CRC Press, 2007), and Herbistatins: Herbal Alternatives to Synthetic Statins (Eco Images, 2013).3
Peggy was a freelance illustrator for botanists at the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Botany, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, UNC, and the USDA. She was a part-time staff illustrator at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland. In 1989, she held a one-person exhibition at the US National Arboretum in Washington, DC. As a member of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, she exhibited her work in many group exhibitions around Washington, DC. She was also a chapter president of the Sumi-e Society of America, Inc., and a member of the Potomac Valley Watercolorists and the Laurel Art Guild.4
In 1997, Jim and Peggy commissioned the transformation of part of their pastureland in Fulton into the “Green Farmacy Garden,” a teaching garden that highlights the plants in Jim’s book The Green Pharmacy. The garden is a sanctuary for about 300 native and non-native plant species that have been used traditionally and/or researched for medicinal purposes. Thousands of people have visited and many have been inspired by the garden, including students from the Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH), which is about three miles from the garden. After years of collaboration with the Duke family, and at the arrangement of Jim and Peggy, MUIH assumed ownership of the garden as part of a plan to preserve it and carry on its mission.1,5 According to Celia, the garden continues to flourish under the care of the MUIH garden staff, and tours can be scheduled through the Green Farmacy Garden website.6
Peggy donated more than 500 of her original ink drawings, which represent a sample of her 50-plus-year career, to the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. These include her illustrations from Jim’s Medicinal Plants of the Bible, Culinary Herbs: A Potpourri, Living Liqueurs, Handbook of Edible Weeds, The Green Pharmacy, and Handbook of Medicinal Spices, as well as Hollis G. Bedell’s Vascular Plant Taxonomy: Laboratory Manual (Department of Botany, University of Maryland, College Park, 1985) and Steven Hill’s 100 Poisonous Plants of Maryland (University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, 1985–1986).
According to the Bulletin of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation: “Peggy Duke’s clear and concise drawings represent a multitude of plants of economic, pharmacological and taxonomic value and are a welcome asset to the Hunt Institute collection.”4
The United Plant Savers (UpS), a nonprofit plant conservation membership organization, dedicated its Center for Medicinal Plant Conservation, which opened in 2019, to Jim and Peggy Duke for their contributions to botanical knowledge. The center, which is open to the public and sits at the entrance of the 379-acre UpS Sanctuary in Rutland, Ohio, is intended to attract visitors to and ensure the long-term future of the site, which is home to many Appalachian medicinal plants. The facility includes a museum, a classroom for the organization’s educational programs, a commercial kitchen that is used as a teaching apothecary, a library, an herbarium cabinet, and a gift shop.7
Susan Leopold, PhD, executive director of UpS, first encountered Peggy’s work when she learned about the children’s botanical coloring books Peggy created. “I was blessed to get to know her and Jim while spending two weeks in Maine taking Jim’s ethnobotany course,” Leopold wrote (email, June 21, 2021). “The board of UpS dedicated the Center for Medicinal Plant Conservation in honor of them both for their dynamic contributions to botanical knowledge: for Peggy’s diverse artwork and Jim’s knowledge and authored publications. UpS is incredibly blessed to be the home of Jim’s library and some of Peggy’s artwork, along with [some of their other memorabilia], and to continue to share their legacy with future generations and inspire the curiosity they both brought to the study of plants.”
Rosemary Gladstar, herbalist, author, and founder of UpS, remembers Peggy as “gracious and talented” (email, July 2, 2021). “I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know Peggy on my visits to see Jim, and also at herbal events and conferences, where she sometimes had showings of her beautiful botanical art,” Gladstar wrote. “A prolific artist, her work graced not only her husband’s work, but also many other scientific publications, books, and articles. Peggy also created amazing world maps that show the geographical origins of plants and are treasures to own. She had an eye for detail, and, along with Jim, shared a deep love for the natural world. What a dynamic duo these two were, and what enormous contributions they both made. I am forever grateful to have known them.”
Marc Williams, ethnobiologist and member of the UpS Board of Directors, wrote: “Peggy has always inspired me since first becoming familiar with her through the monumental amount of botanical illustrations she generated for the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. All the more amazing is that she was married for decades to Jim Duke, one of the preeminent ethnobotanists of the last century. Through my visits to their home and by teaching in their garden, I came to regard Peggy’s artistic ability even more while viewing her studio in particular. She always showed great hospitality to me and certainly had a life full of natural world beauty” (email, June 26, 2021).
Joan Lok, Peggy’s friend, former president of the Sumi-e Society of America, Inc., and author of Chinese Brush Painting: Flowers (BES Publishing, 2014), wrote: “Peggy’s expertise in botanical illustration, combined with her keen observation, made her an excellent sumi-e artist, in which flora and fauna are usually rendered in simplified brushstrokes. I was honored to have a two-person show with her during her active years and will truly miss her friendly smile” (email, June 23, 2021).
Steven Foster, renowned botanical photographer and co-author of one of Jim’s most popular books (Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014]), wrote: “[Peggy] created thousands of illustrations, which were published in dozens of publications, both popular and technical. Peggy was an astute, humble field botanist and warmly welcomed generations of plant enthusiasts into the Dukes’ home and gardens” (email, June 29, 2021).
Helen Lowe Metzman, former garden director at Jim and Peggy’s Green Farmacy Garden and family friend, wrote: “Every time I open Herbaceous Plants of Maryland (Port City Press, 1984) and see the signature of ‘P. Duke’ by a species illustration, I am reminded of Peggy’s prodigious talent as a botanical artist, ranging from detailed pen and ink, watercolor, and bold sumi-e paintings. Peggy impressed me with her intelligence, strong will, family ties, and keen eye for beauty” (email, June 29, 2021).
Mark Blumenthal, American Botanical Council (ABC) founder and executive director, knew Jim (a co-founder of ABC) and Peggy since the late 1970s, visited them at their Herbal Vineyard numerous times, and continued his visits to see Peggy after Jim’s death in 2017. “In reference to the old, and possibly no longer appropriate, adage ‘Behind every great man is a great woman,’ Peggy was right next to Jim, not behind him,” Blumenthal wrote (email, August 30, 2021). “Her knowledge of botany and fine art was essential in their personal and professional partnership.”
To her friends and family, Peggy was curious, delightful, independent, precise, and strong. At home, often in the upper gazebo of the Green Farmacy Garden, she enjoyed having white wine with her friends. She was also a world traveler. A celebration of Peggy’s life was held on June 5, 2021, at the Green Farmacy Garden in Fulton. The Duke family asks that any donations be made to UpS. Peggy Duke is survived by her two children, John Carl Duke and Celia Duke Larsen; and five grandchildren, Sara, Kara, Cena, John, and Peter.
Images (top to bottom):
Peggy Duke in 2006. Image courtesy of Helen Lowe Metzman.
Peggy Duke in 1964. Image courtesy of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation.
Peggy Duke’s illustration of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis, Ranunculaceae)
Peggy Duke’s illustration of trillium (Trillium grandiflorum, Melanthiaceae)
From left to right: Peggy with her granddaughter Cena and daughter Celia. Image courtesy of Helen Lowe Metzman.
- Foster S. James A. Duke — A Diverse Life of Botanical Bounty. HerbalGram. 2018;117:44-57.
- Alexander S. Artist Brings Life to Works of Nature. The Baltimore Sun. October 9, 2003. Available at: baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-2003-10-09-0310090053-story.html. Accessed August 27, 2021.
- Artist Biographical Record. Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation website. Available at: huntbot.org/internatcat/sites/default/files/Duke-bio.pdf. Accessed August 27, 2021.
- Bulletin of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation. 2017;29(1):1-12. Available at: www.huntbotanical.org/admin/uploads/hibd-bulletin-29-1.pdf. Accessed August 27, 2021.
- Remembering Dr. Jim Duke. Maryland University of Integrative Health website. Available at: muih.edu/news/remembering-dr-jim-duke/. Accessed August 27, 2021.
- The Green Farmacy Garden. Available at: thegreenfarmacygarden.com/. Accessed September 13, 2021.
- Yearsley C. New United Plant Savers Center Seeks to Conserve Medicinal Plants of Appalachia. HerbalGram. 2017;116:45-49.