USC Pharmacist Uncovers Healing Powers of Native Plants

A USC pharmacologist studies the power of medicinal plants in our own backyard.

March 07, 2016 Diane Krieger

James Adams is a pharmacologist and USC School of Pharmacy associate professor. He also happens to be a trained Chumash healer.

Though he doesn’t possess a drop of Native American blood from the Chumash tribe, you could say Adams’ passion for natural remedies flows in his veins. His ancestor William Adams, a surgeon and Virginia settler, embraced the healing practices of Native Americans in the 1630s when medical supplies from England were scarce. Those practices stayed in the family through the centuries, and Jim Adams grew up on remedies like sassafras tea for childhood aches and pains.

Today, Adams—a 26-year USC faculty member who earned his PhD in pharmacology and toxicology from UC San Francisco—studies the active ingredients in medicinal plants native to Southern California.

The work is sorely needed. While 75 percent of today’s pharmaceuticals trace their roots to plants and other natural sources, Southland flora have been conspicuously overlooked. Commercial plant-based drugs are almost exclusively derived from European and Amazonian species. “There are dozens of plants in these hills right here that no one has ever investigated,” Adams says.

No one in a lab coat, anyway.

For 14 years, Adams trained under renowned Chumash medicine woman Cecilia Garcia, who passed away in 2012. The two co-authored a book, Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, published the same year.

Adams brings 21st-century tools to the study of plants the Chumash have used for millennia. In his USC lab, specimens that Adams gathers by hand undergo high-performance liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Botanists based in China and France have traveled to USC to collaborate with him.

In addition to teaching a course on Chumash healing at the pharmacy school, Adams regularly offers plant walks for USC medical students and the public.

His research team, which includes USC undergraduates, is now studying California holly (Heteromeles arbutifolia), also known as toyon and Christmas berry. “No one has any clue what’s in this plant and how it works,” Adams says, even though the Chumash have long used it as an Alzheimer’s treatment. Incidentally, so abundant was California holly in Los Angeles that it gave rise to the name now known the world over: Hollywood.