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Are You A Plant Lover? Are You Food Curious? Special Guest, Dr. Cassandra Quave, “The Plant Hunter,” Reveals Her Search for Healing Plants & Her Inspiring Life

 Into the heart of brightness

One of the first impressions I had when I discovered Dr. Cassandra Quave Ph.D, is that she is so approachable ~ so girlfriend-ready!  The fact that she is a kind of plant polymath: a world-renowned scientist, author, speaker, podcast host, wife, mother, explorer who leads a group of research scientists studying medicinal plants to find new life-saving drugs from nature, and professor at Emory University School of Medicine was rather intimidating, to be honest.  Yet her genuine goodness is undeniably  crystalline. She is a force of nature!  Naturally 😀

I was in awe of her work as a leading ethnobotanist; I was keen to host her as a special guest for my Ladies Who Lunch Conversations videocast. Would she say yes? 


She did indeed.  And before I could catch my breath, I learned Dr. Cassandra Quave is Curator of the Herbarium and Associate Professor of Dermatology and Human Health at Emory University and writes the Nature’s Pharmacy newsletter to share the science behind natural medicines on Substack that I now subscribe to. You can also purchase her book in paperback and as an audiobook: The Plant Hunter.

Foodie Pharmacology podcast all-time fan favorites

She is also the Executive of two start-up companies: PhyoTEK LLC and Verdant Scientific. 

A scientist's quest for nature's next medicines | WAMC

By way of background, I had first been introduced to the science of Ethnobotany when I worked at The New York Botanical Garden and met Dr. Michael Balick. I was soon fascinated by his work with indigenous people in far away places ~ and in the Bronx, too!  I really hadn’t thought too much about ethnobotany in a formal way since then but held close the principles of the study that focuses on the myriad ways that indigenous peoples use plants for food, shelter, clothing, art and medicine. Not only in my respect for plants and the environment but also with my work in Ecuador.  And has become even more so because of the novel I’m writing.  Plants and indigenous knowledge are protagonists, you can say.  So it was in my research for the book that I first came across Dr. Quave’s work.  

I couldn’t take notes fast enough when I listened to her and her guest discussing the Nagoya Protocol, for example, on her Foodie Pharmacology podcast that she hosts.  I felt as if I had found my community. 

About Dr. Cassandra Quave | Foodie Pharmacology Podcast

I guess it won’t come as a big surprise to learn I tune in with great interest to all of her shows ~ sort of binging them while I do my core and weight workouts.  I promise that you too will love Dr. Quave’s show not only for the subject matter and her expert guests, but also for the way she manages to make these rather esoteric topics and issues so easy to understand.  She introduces you to ideas and issues you never knew about and then, just like that, you begin to care so deeply about them.  I told you she’s like a best girlfriend who patiently and expertly explains things so that we can see how it fits into our lives; our world.  And she makes you feel at ease.  Straight away into our Conversation, I asked what to call her: Dr. Cassandra? Dr. Quave?  Without hesitation, she replied, “Call me Cassandra.”  I can’t help but add that I have always found Cassandra to be such a striking, ethereal name ~ it’s steeped in mythology.  Cassandra was a Greek princess who shines, excels and possesses the gifts of prophecy… And in Dr. Quave, er, Cassandra case ~ surely her gifts of foretelling the future with plants as medicine is a sign of hope. 

I thought I knew pretty much everything about Cassandra and her illustrious work by the time we’d scheduled our interview.  It wasn’t until while doing my research in preparation for our Ladies Who Lunch Conversations interview that I first learned of her childhood and what she’d been through.  I bring this up not for the drama, but rather to help you better grasp the power of Cassandra’s character.  You’ll be in awe of how she overcame the challenges of a childhood disability to pursue her passions ~ and how, in turn, she guides not only her students and staff, but now ~ with increased presence on the global stage ~ she inspires legions of followers both professional and folks just like us.  

Dr. Cassandra Quave

She was born with a congenital defect, there were several deformities in her right leg. Her femur was much shorter than it should have been, and some of the bones in her ankle, as well as her entire fibula, were missing. When she was three, surgeons amputated her right leg below the knee ~ just when most kids are starting to run around ~ resulting in a staph infection that would have killed her if not for antibiotics.  And her quick-thinking Mother.

Cassandra never held a pity party nor let it stop her crusade for adventure and bringing about “new ways to fight illness and disease through the healing power of plants.”  This is what her best-selling book, her adventure and memoir book, The Plant Hunter, A Scientist’s Quest for Nature’s Next Medicine, is about.            

The Plant Hunter - - OverDrive

At the start of our Conversation, Cassandra explained what an Ethnobotanist is: a professional who is most interested in the human connections we have with plants and habitat and cultures.  Ethnobotanists know to identify plants and engage with different cultures to learn how those peoples use plants for food; also for art, construction, fuel, and medicine. 

With its focus on plants and people and healing, I’m scratching my head as to why Ethnobotany remains somewhat obscure. It’s a mystery to me.  If I had to do it over, this could’ve been my calling. Sort of is now just not directly… I do hope that I can introduce you to the world of ethnobotany and Dr. Quave, and like a good scientist, you get curious ~ and then you take it a step further.   Following Cassandra on social media, you will be wowed by the connections she offers with food and spices and good health!

Cassandra Quave | Substack

Cassandra explained that she is a Medical Ethnobotanist.  She looks for new therapies to treat infectious diseases. We desperately need new solutions for drug resistant infections whether they are bacterial, viral, or fungal ~ plants that are used to treat infections and inflammatory diseases.  

I was gobsmacked to learn that there hasn’t been any new antibacterial medicine since 1984!  That was the year Bill and I were married ~ a special year, no doubt 😉, but while we can hum along to our wedding song, nostalgia really shouldn’t be the happy place of the Past when we look to meds. Rather, we should see recent and future gains. Listen on the videocast to how Dr. Quave explains that since the 80’s most pharma got out of the antibiotic programs, preferring to bring to market drugs that one will need to keep using for such conditions as cancer and diabetes ~ or health supplements, rather than an antibiotic that one takes until the infection is gone.   

So between the fact that antibiotic drugs are caught in the “power shoulder pads” era and doctors somewhat reckless over-prescribing antibiotics, (not to mention medicating livestock), we’re in a jam, it’s safe to say. 

New Discoveries:

Tapping into nature to fight superbugs – DW – 11/29/2016

Do you know how many plants the world presently uses?  I read “Scientists have estimated that, overall, there could be between 5 and 50 million species, but fewer than 2 million of these species have been discovered to date.” Clearly, we have our work cut out for us if our civilization is to survive and prosper.  And even more so due to climate chaos. 

Cassandra and I talked about how the changing dynamic for plants and microbes ~ I see it in my gardening and horticulture work, for goodness sake, and Cassandra opines that this increasing hazardous phenomenon will bring us more fungal infection as these critters move to a more temperate climate. She especially cautioned about a very dangerous pathogen, candida aureas, a fungus that, most often, is contracted in healthcare facilities by those who are immune compromised; it has a 60% mortality rate once it gets into the bloodstream.   Thank goodness for Dr. Quave and her work to discover plants as medicine to manage or cure these fast-moving, adaptable diseases. 

Researcher Looks to Plants in Search for New Antibiotics | The Pew  Charitable Trusts 

What Dr. Quave and her team do discovering those plants and learning about them from the locals is vital.  Most of the locals rely on oral histories and methodologies ~ that in itself gives her work a sense of urgency. We need to learn what these elders know before that accumulated wisdom and knowledge is lost… 

Podcast Episode with Dr. Cassandra Quave and Helmy Abouleish – SEKEM

She researches how people use plants as medicine.  She brings that scientific perspective to the work. Cassandra “leads natural product drug discovery research initiatives and teaches courses on medicinal plants, microbiology, and pharmacology. As a medical ethnobotanist, her work focuses on the documentation and pharmacological analysis of plants used in traditional medicine.”

Cassandra and her team split their work between the field where they ID and document the plants; then bring them to the Herbarium to record and confirm the identity of the species before they move on to the chemistry lab.  

Let’s put a pin in the Herbarium issue.  We’ll loop back to this a bit later in this Post.  For now, just note that an Herbarium is a kind of museum of plants. 

Back in the chemistry lab Dr. Quave and her team tease apart the metabolites ~ literally looking for that needle in the haystack. In the pharmacology lab, they need to determine if the med works and if it is safe.    

They hope to discover molecules in Nature to be developed into new medicines.  

A Gift of Science - by Cassandra Quave - Nature's Pharmacy

Dr. Quave explains that this is not a simple or inexpensive solution. It could take anywhere from $800 million to over a billion dollars to bring a drug to market successfully.  At the same time, she and her team are very good at narrowing the field of possibilities.  According to a recent Times’ feature, “they’ve discovered promising candidates for a new generation of drugs that might help resolve one of the greatest threats to public health today: the fact that an increasing number of disease-causing bacteria are rapidly evolving immunity to every existing antibiotic. Without effective antibiotics, common bacterial diseases that are curable today will become impossible to treat; childbirth, routine surgeries and even the occasional nick could turn lethal. The widespread emergence of resistant bacteria already claims 700,000 lives a year globally. Experts conservatively predict that by 2050, they will kill 10 million annually — one person every three seconds. “We’re standing on the precipice of a post-antibiotic era,” Quave says. “We just haven’t fallen off yet.”

In the Works:

Dr. Quave is the founder of these two start-up companies: PhyoTEK LLC and Verdant Scientific, which take their lab discoveries to products.  Cassandra explained to viewers how they are focusing on natural products in two areas: 

  • Non-Healing Wounds  ~ think of folks in nursing homes, for example, or diabetics, who don’t have good circulation and also can get microbes in a wound so it couldn’t heal efficiently. 

  • Infectious Skin Diseases 

Life Balance:

I asked Cassandra how she balances all her passions and pursuits and dreams with her family and personal life.  She didn’t disappoint; offering us very practical and helpful pearls of wisdom.  

She also replied to my questions about her ability to garner such success in spite of her childhood differences and limitations as compared to others.  She smiled and noted that she was a scrappy kid ~ is now a scrappy scientist. She was never afraid to fight for what she thinks is necessary. Born with multiple deformities, she described how she was bullied terribly as a child.  And on the receiving end of sexual harassment as an adult.  She describes her bad scoliosis; two dozen orthopedic surgeries…

In fact, she said it wasn’t until she was 35 years old that she felt more comfortable in her skin. So in essence, her disability did give her a fortitude that helped her in many ways.  I noted that it could’ve gone sideways ~ many folks use a disability to justify bitterness or worse.  Not Cassandra. Quite the opposite.

She also made an interesting point about having a disability earlier in life allowed her to adjust to it rather than having to confront one later in life.  

Her journey, her story is one that will uplift you. Just listening to Cassandra inspires hope and gratitude.  She is a brilliant, talented woman, full of compassion and knowledge.  

You can also listen to her describe her greatest achievement.  Hint ~ there are a more than a few high water benchmarks and achievements to choose from, not surprisingly.  I’ll point out one here: 

Her book, The Plant Hunter, was named one of the Best Books of 2021 by the prestigious and authoritative Kirkus Book Reviews.  A very high honor!  

Cassandra also noted with visible glee, the pride she felt when visiting Japan recently, to see her book there!  The Plant Hunter is available not only in Chinese and Japanese ~ but also as an Audiobook and on Kindle.

And what does the future hold for this plant polymath?  Click on my Ladies Who Lunch Conversations to learn what exciting pursuits are on the menu for Cassandra.  And us…  

Speaking of menu ~ drink menu that is. As the author of Art of the Garnish, you know I’m always keen to discover what my guests favorite drink is.  

Cassandra’s had two!  A delicious sounding Fig Leaf cocktail she was introduced to by a plant friend that boasts a fig simple syrup, soda water, and no surprise here: botanical gin!   🌸

And another spirit has captured her while in Great Britain not long ago ~ whiskey.  Cassandra shows her true plant personality when she claims to love that robust, peaty taste. They say that’s an “acquired” taste.  One that both Bill and I have never quite come in for.  But I love that Cassandra’s affinity and passion for plants has these two starring drinks tops on her cocktail menu.  I can’t wait to paint her LWLC cocktail napkin.  🍸

It wasn’t long after our Conversation that Cassandra shared the thrilling news that she has been asked to give the Emory Oxford Commencement address this May! What an honor. A most deserved and impressive honor

And Dr. Quave and her team will be featured on CNN in May.  Look for the segment.

Back to the Herbarium

Could Ancient Remedies Hold the Answer to the Looming Antibiotics Crisis? -  The New York Times 

I can’t let this Post go without calling out the supreme tragedy Cassandra shared with us.  I was just as shocked to read the news of Duke University’s decision to shut down their herbarium. She points out in our Conversation how Herbariums have served us for more than five centuries.  I shared how so many of us were appalled and saddened when Brooklyn’s Botanic Garden offloaded their scientific legacy and herbarium ~ moving it to The New York Botanical Garden.  Cassandra explains both on our Conversation and on her Instagram account how “The foundation of botany, herbaria are under threat across the globe. Their closure & consolidation undermines the very science we need to save biodiversity and fight for planetary and human health!”   

PS. I just saw today that there is a funding page so we can all contribute to preserving this Herbarium treasure at Emory University

We also lose the intellectual knowledge and equity of the professionals who manage the herbariums. I likened this tragedy to the burning of the library at Alexandria or gosh, now!  Why can’t we get back to the thrill of learning; of the adventure in the pursuit of knowledge?  

Let’s all be more like Dr. Cassandra Quave.

Dr. Cassandra tirelessly looks to the botanical world for modern medicines.

Thank you, Cassandra.  For what you do. And for being such a special Ladies Who Lunch Conversations guest.  

You are so inspiring.  ✨

*All photos sourced from Dr. Quave’s public images


  • Garden Glamour

    Yes, yes indeed! It's always been such a fascinating mystery to me ~ how plants bring us beauty, shelter, food, and healing. Learning of their "secrets" is part of the adventure. While we need to find this important plants, and learn how to use them from the indigenous elders, we also need to respect the environment: the biodiversity & habitat. More than ever, we need smart, ambitious scientists like Dr. Quave! Thank you so much for your feedback. Hope you enjoyed this overview and the Conversation video cast on Ladies Who Lunch Conversations. More plants, please!

  • Anonymous

    Plants hold many health secret. Thank goodness for the people who search for the cures

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