If mankind were offered by the gods just one more thing – a magic elixir, a secret, a piece of wisdom or a wish; here’s one scientist that would stand up immediately and shout, “Toothpaste!” Bring us a toothpaste, and make it from flowers!”
You do not want to play Scrabble with Dale Millard.
And neither do I.
When I meet the South African-born, Bali-based naturalist at his impossible home in Ubud it is clear from the start that this guy knows more words using x, y and z than are listed in the Scrabble Players Book of Irritating Words, and he’s not shy to use them.
Millard is not the kind of guy you want to drop in on for an hour either, as everybody in town is fully aware. Once you’ve climbed up the stairs of his remarkably African-looking home, miraculously positioned both in the heart of noisy Ubud, and among tranquil rice paddies as if in the middle of nowhere, your flip-flops are likely to be left at the door for hours. “No! Don’t visit Dale before you come to see me,” a local friend begged once. “He’ll have you halfway down the Amazon, sledding in Siberia, or catching butterflies in Borneo before you know it!” And she was right.
The man they call ‘the plant guy’, greets me with sparkling hazel eyes, lank brown tresses and very stained hands. He grins a wide and wonky smile and ushers me inside for a glass of something very bright and thick and orange he’s been grating from a woody root in his kitchen. “Here. Drink this.” He thrusts a dripping jam jar at me, grinning. He describes the plant using its Latin name, “Cleanses the blood, detoxifies the liver, scavenges parasites,” he says. “It’s delicious.”
Dale’s home is more like a wizard’s quarters than a holiday rental in Bali. A long central table is covered in huge books, medical journals, plant specimens, jars of horrible coloured liquids, over-flowing ashtrays, scientific papers, maps, stones and seeds. It is the hub of Millard’s work – the place where he consults a continual stream of locals and ex-pats for Bali belly, parasites, moulds, colds, infections, tropical sores, bites and weird afflictions that strike in the tropics: all of which he treats with plants. It is here that he decodes the chemistry of plants, scours medical journals, botanical records, locked files on cell research, cancer studies, virus behaviour and indigenous medicinal knowledge of nature: the world’s living pharmacy.
His studies spill out to the veranda where Millard tends a menagerie of seedlings, vines, orchids, carnivorous plants (“they’re my favourite”, he says) and tubers, gingers, flowers and ferns he has collected for research and as a bank for the healing gardens and food forests he builds around the world.
He can pick almost all of these plants off the streets, he says, and provide human communities with simple gardens to empower their immune systems, fend off parasite and disease, treat malaria, tooth-ache, cancers and provide remedies for hundreds of ailments in just about any country in the world.
To prove it he leaps off the veranda, bounds through a wild garden beside the house and comes back spinning a posy of yellow blossoms between his fingers. “Spilanthes Acmella,” he announces. “Now this little daisy-looking flower, which can be found all over the world, is just waiting to be part of the revolution.”
A Naturalist with a strong interest in ethnobotany, shamanism and the plant-based healing traditions of Africa, South America, Indonesia and the modern pharmaceutical industry, Millard has lived around the world and knows a thing or two about human health. “With good nutrition and a working knowledge of only thirty plant species, communities anywhere in the world can overcome the vast majority of health problems,” he says. And he plucks a yellow bud off the posy in his hand to offer me a key ingredient in nature’s living medicine chest – “eat!” He says.
I do like to eat flowers, it must be a childhood thing, but the tiny Spilanthes acmella is a weird snack. Biting into the spongy flower there is an immediate burst of tangy flavour, and as I chew a little more I can see from Dale’s mischievous grin that something else is in store. Bang! There it is. As soon as the little flower is ground down and warmed in the mouth it gives off a sudden warm heat, a kind if slow-motion electric shock, and then a gentle numbness settles in. “It’s no secret to medicine that the vast majority of common diseases are orally transmitted. So if you can introduce something at an oral level – a sort of super-toothpaste – that could be revolutionary to health. This little plant has a chemistry that is the best thing I’ve ever seen for treating gum disease. It’s a contact antimicrobial that can disinfect the mouth and even treat orally transmitted herpes. It’s free in the fields – you simply show people to chew it every day and you free communities from dental pain and orally-based disease. Then you teach a community to make toothpaste from it themselves like they do in the Amazon where it is rubbed with ash. The pharmaceutical companies have been making a fortune creating dependencies on synthesised plant chemicals for health, what if we supported local communities to use the real thing to create powerful natural healing products and ethical economies as well?”
While it has been used for thousands of years longer than toothpaste, and contains no harmful chemicals, whitening, foaming or sparkling tricks (and leaves no plastic waste either), Spilanthes acmella is not the most perfect of nature’s dental hygiene offers. “The medicine cabinet of the ancients was extremely well-stocked,” says Dale. “There’s a genus called Xanthus xylem which grows all over Bali and has in its cambium layer, chemistry that in ridiculously low doses shows activity against disease in the mouth.”
And even more fantastic: “In Africa they have very specific plants which are burnt to produce an ash that gives the famous perfect white smile you see all over the tribal plains. In clinical studies the ash indeed acts as an incredibly broad spectrum antibiotic in the mouth, has insecticidal properties to treat parasites, is a contact anti-microbial and has a positive effect on the immune system. And not only that, it is an anti-inflammatory and pain killer, the flowers can be pressed into a dental cavity for pain relief and disinfection, strips of bark can be torn off to use as toothbrushes, and all this has been going on over the world for generations – in Africa they call it the toothache plant.”
But traditional communities have known for so long that dental health is about much more than pain management. “Indigenous healers know the teeth and mouth are the seat of health,” says Dale. “I firmly believe that in a primary health care setting the majority of human disease is orally transmitted, especially in a rural setting where people might only wash with cold water, share utensils and live in less than optimal hygiene conditions. So if we can re-introduce freely available, free to use, non toxic plants that combat infection and treat disease at its source, we can have a radical impact on the larger health issues of every community.”
Dale’s passion for studying and sharing nature’s living library of plant medicines was his inspiration as a founding director of MEGA (Medicinal and Edible Gardens Association), a non-profit offering sustainable primary health care to schools, clinics and communities through Living Pharmacies and Food Forests. It was also the basis of his presentation at the inaugural TEDX Bali – and has made him one of the most loved and treasured members of the Ubud community.
Oral care is just one of the potentials. Dale can point to hundreds of plants with powerful preventative and curing abilities: the reishi mushroom shows outstanding results against cancer and immune system disorders, wild durian is a powerful antioxidant, Artemisia Annua from Vietnam safely cures malaria in a single dose, and guava is a remedy for diarrhoea.
Dale’s vision is of living pharmacies tailored to regional health needs from the burbs to the Amazonian backwaters and is not new, as he explains. He is urging a revival of long-held wisdom and garden-variety common sense upon which our forefathers have relied for generations, and the vast majority of the world’s population still do. “The role of plants in human health is hardly marginal – they are the staple of our diet everywhere and the basis of most medical compounds. Plants can be seen as biological laboratories. They take elements from the environment and through complex reactions change soil, water and air into medicines that have served man since the beginning of time. What these little flowers can create, and dozens of other useful plants – including ones we all know like mushrooms, turmeric, garlic and ginger – is a chemical complexity that cannot be rivaled by science.”
Whether making tinctures, tonics, juices or dried powders in his kitchen for visiting patients, or researching and designing living pharmacies and food forests for remote communities around the world, Dale sees his mission as giving health and freedom back to the people. “My thing is this: I do something most people, especially medical people, don’t have the guts to do, and that is showing people how to apply plant chemistries with broad spectrum activity and low toxicity to stimulate the body’s own immune response. From there the body knows what to do.”
Said Socrates; let your food be your medicine and your medicine your food.