Arts & Culture, Science & Research

‘It’s the roots I’m interested in’: Fred Jackson talks plants, reggae music

From ethnobotany to ska music, director of Plant Environmental Center lives with passion

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2015

“If you have some kind of talent, do it. Whatever it is,” said Fred Jackson, wheeling around a high-backed chair in his greenhouse office on the top floor of the Building for Environmental Research and Teaching. “Get into it. You know what I mean?”

Jackson, for his part, is into everything. The director of the Plant Environmental Center and a teaching associate, Jackson is also working toward his PhD, focusing his research on the African plant Mondia whitei, all while serving as frontman, harmonica player and vocalist in his reggae band, Professor Roots — pun intended.

Jackson’s background is in horticulture — specifically, running large commercial greenhouses. He said he was “bitten by the ethnobotany bug” in Costa Rica in his early 40s, whereupon he traveled to Peru and began exploring medicinal plants. He has had steady work in greenhouses ever since.

When Brown sought a new greenhouse manager in 1992, Jackson was between teaching jobs, working in sales for a large seed company. Eager to re-enter the world of eduction, Jackson applied for the job and was “basically hired to whip this greenhouse into shape,” he said, adding, “I had a lot of good people to back me up. It’s always been a cooperative experience at Brown, whatever I’ve done.”

Teaching is an integral part of Jackson’s experience. “It’s all about students,” he said. “If anybody thinks anything else, they don’t belong here. If a student wants something, if I can accommodate them plant-wise, I’ll do it.”

While Jackson’s undergraduate degree is in plant sciences, his master’s degree is in education, and he teaches two courses — BIOL 0190E: “Botanical Roots of Modern Medicine” and BIOL 0150C: “Methods for Extraction and Analyzing Secondary Metabolites of Medicinal Plants.”

Jackson said allowing all students — whether or not they are part of his classes — to engage with the plants as fully as possible is of utmost importance to him. “When students want to come in with their art classes, writing classes, I say yes,” Jackson said. “We’re Brown. We’re part of the community.”

Jackson, whose father was a farmer in Indiana, never wanted a desk job. He needs to be hands-on, he explained, to work with things that are “real.” This is why he began exploring the plant sciences and why he taught himself harmonica in junior high, going on to play in coffee shops as part of the 60s folk scene. His inspirations were Bob Dylan, Howlin’ Wolf, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters and Charlie Musselwhite.

After a few years, Jackson started experimenting with acoustic harmonica folk music and amplified Chicago blues. While living in Florida in the 70s, Jackson fell in love with ska and reggae. “I play the ‘Ska’-monica,” Jackson said, chuckling. “I kind of coined that.”

Jackson started a band with Geoffrey Greene, director of IT Support Services, and other faculty members and students who wanted to play music regularly in the early 90s. The band was originally called Psycads, inspired by the name of one of Jackson’s plants, the cycad, with a nod to the psychedelic culture surrounding their music. Last year, the band regrouped with new members and changed its name to Professor Roots.

“I tell my students, if you’re not having fun with what you’re doing, get out. Get out, because you’re going to be miserable,” Jackson said.

As well as being his bandmate, Greene is one of Jackson’s best friends. “He’s a cool cat,” Greene said, “When you play live with a reggae band, the key is relaxing and enjoying each others’ talents.” Greene plays the keyboard and harmonica and  sings.

Jackson is “very inventive on that harmonica, and he has great stage presence,” Greene said. “He really gets a lot of hooting and hollering and dancing from the audience.” While Greene said he loves playing with Jackson, he is also impressed with what Jackson calls his “day job.”

In addition to directing the greenhouse, Jackson is working on completing his PhD in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology based on research he is conducting on the African plant Mondia. Mondia, a flowering plant with woody, ginger-flavored roots and a vanilla scent, is nearing endangerment in the wild and has historically been vital as a traditional medicine for a variety of ailments, including indigestion, lack of appetite, stress, aches and erectile dysfunction.

Jackson first learned about Mondia after a student attempted to grow the plant in the greenhouse, but the seeds were too old and didn’t grow. “I needed to come up with something for my dissertation, and I thought, ‘Man, that plant is interesting, and not a lot of people know about it,’” Jackson said, “I just selected one compound in the plant to see if I could make it stronger and do my doctoral work without having to go out in the field.”

“I thought, ‘Let me bring the jungle to me,’” he said.

Jackson’s goal is to increase Mondia’s sustainability using his knowledge of plant sciences. “Ethnobotany is gathering from different” disciplines, he said, “Anthropology, biology, taxonomy. Well, horticulture should be in there, too.”

This October, Jackson traveled to the International Ethnobotany Symposium in Naples, Italy, to give a poster presentation on his research. “There were all the people who write the textbooks ­— the people you want to hang with,” Jackson said. “And I wanted to get feedback, to see if my research is baloney, if it’s good or bad or whatever, because I’m putting a different spin on ethnobotany. And I got a lot of positive feedback.”

“My main objective is to promote more botany and plant research,” he added.

“Every culture across the world has used plants for medicinal purposes, and every culture has also used music,” Greene said. “It’s kind of neat that (Jackson’s) area of expertise — ethnobotany — is so connected to music in that way. They’re both fundamental parts of every human culture. They’re both ultimately how humans relate to each other.”

While Greene cites Jackson’s inventiveness and creativity as his greatest strengths, Jackson is more invested in determination. “You have to be the master of your own career. So I made it happen,” Jackson said.

“I don’t tolerate crybabies. You don’t like something? Change it. You can make it happen. In this world, I would say, on the average, you can make things happen,” he said.

Professor Roots plays every third Friday at the Parlour on North Main Street. “It’s a hobby, but when you get up on stage, you’ve got to know what the heck you’re doing. You’re having fun, but you’ve got to take it serious,” Jackson said.

While Jackson loves music, he said his true passion lies in the greenhouse and the career he worked for four decades to build. After all, Jackson said, “It’s the roots I’m interested in.”

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