Q. What does it mean to be a medicine hunter?

A. I travel around the world, researching traditional plant-based medicines, and I work to popularize those here in the U.S. market. In the process, I also hope to deliver good health products to people, preserve the environment, and help indigenous native people economically and socially. Q. What have been some of your greatest discoveries?

A. First of all, let me be clear that I never make an original discovery. I help to bring from relative obscurity, if you will, plants that have been in use for a long time. I never pick up a leaf and say, “My god, I’ve found the cure for cancer.” I wish. Certainly, my most highly publicized herbal victory was the popularization of kava. I have also been very influential in bringing to market and to awareness Rhodiola rosea, which is a tremendous stress-fighting, endurance- and stamina-enhancing, brain-enhancing plant that comes originally from Siberia, which is where I did the research on it.

Q. What is it like in the field researching a plant?

A. When I go and do a field research project, I meet with whichever indigenous people are harvesting or collecting a plant, and I meet with traditional healers, botanists, doctors, and trade officials. When I come away from a place I not only want to know as much as possible about the plant and its growing habits and its uses, but I want to know everything I can about the conditions of trade. Because I’ll make recommendations to companies that might cost them millions of dollars in effort over a number of years, they have to know that they’re investing in something that they can get and that’s in enough quantity.

Q. So there’s a business aspect to your work, too?

A. I think that’s part of sustainability. If you can make these plants economically sustainable, then that changes the conversation about the environment; it changes the conversation about the economic welfare of native people. The economic payoff is actually really critical.

Q. What are some of the most exciting herbs that have recently come to the market?

A. I’ve been in Malaysia two times now researching tongkat ali, which is best known as a sex enhancer, for which it has very serious human clinical studies for increasing libido and improving erectile function. But beyond that it has antimalarial properties and is widely used by athletes in Southeast Asia for strength and stamina. There’s an enormous amount of science behind it.

I would also say that one of the most exciting plants—and I should tell you I work with this, and actually profit from this—is tamanu oil. It heals almost anything that can happen to skin. It’s not used internally at all, it’s totally topical. When I was first introduced to it, I didn’t think I would find any science on it at all, and I found a mountain of science. I was blown away. It’s very powerful for healing wounds, sores, bites, burns, and even acne pimples.

And I would say Rhodiola rosea. This is one of the best-researched plants I’ve ever come upon. It does so many things—mitigates stress, enhances cardiovascular health, boosts immunity, and improves brain function. It’s widely used by athletes. And, lastly, I would say maca from Peru. Maca is a food that in all studies demonstrates zero toxicity. But it contains novel compounds that are very real sex enhancers and seriously improve strength, energy, and endurance.

Q. Tell us about your new book, Hot Plants (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004).

A. The book is a response to the multibillion-dollar marketing surrounding drugs that are not hazard-free. I’m not a drug-basher, but there are proven sex-enhancing plants, many of which are the subjects of good clinical human or animal studies showing that they actually work. And some of them have been used for thousands of years. In the book, I identify ten plants I have researched around the world, and I talk about my experiences in those countries, I talk about the traditional use of these plants, and I present whatever science is relative to them and sexual health. Some of these herbs really lean on your sexual panic buttons and just plain stimulate pleasure. You don’t have to have something wrong with you to take these.

—Jena Hofstedt