A Conversation with the Respected Herbalist,
Author and Famed Photographer Steven Foster
by Sydney L Murray
Herbal products are
currently integrated into many people's lives. We ingest them,
are advised to take them and believe that their natural properties
will be an essential component in assisting us in being healthier.
Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with a man
who is a leading expert in herbal medicines. He has over twenty-three
years experience and is an accomplished author, photographer
and consultant specializing in medicinal and aromatic plants.
When and where did you acquire your love of plants?
SF: Well actually
it was a walk in the woods between my junior and senior year
of high school, I was with a friend of mine and we were out
at a favorite waterfall spot and she pointed out a trillium
in bloom and told me that her grandfather had said it was
called Stinking Benjamin. It was used as an aid in childbirth
and at that moment, I said, "That's interesting, I want
to learn the names and uses of all the plants." That's
where it began summer of 1974.
Can you tell me a little of your professional history?
SF: During that same
summer I had an antique shop I was interested in old ways
of doing things and was interested in a career in the museum
field. So in my senior year of high school in Cumberland Maine,
I was on a work-study program and was interested in obtaining
a job with an antique dealer or a restoration firm in the
Portland Maine area. I had interviewed at several places including
the Shaker Community at SabbathDay Lake Maine. And I got a
job there initially at the Shaker Museum. The Shakers in Maine
are the last active (Shaker) Community. And on my first day
on the job, my first task, I was sent out to dig burdock root
for one of the sisters who had hives and wanted to use this
plant as a blood purifier. After being there a few weeks I
ended up working full time in the herb department at the SabbathDay
Lake Shaker Community which maintains the oldest herb business
in the country (United States) and has existed in one form
or another since 1799.
I ended up being there
for four years, and after a few months actually ended up taking
over the herb business and doing it on a full time basis.
We had about 70 products. And over that four-year period I
had established three acres of production herb gardens. We
had an additional 1700 acres of wild areas that we managed
for the harvest for additional herbs, primarily working with
the forester there. So really, everything I'm doing now, I
started while I was at the Shaker Community. Writing, photography,
lecturing, as well as growing, handling and learning about
herbs. I was there from the time I was seventeen until twenty-one.
Actually, I bought
my first camera in '75 or '76. My very first roll of film,
from my very first camera was published in a book on Shaker
furniture. "How to Build Shaker Furniture" by Thomas
So my photographic
career started with my first camera and my first roll of film.
Well it certainly started out well.
SF: While I was there
I had several teachers that taught me about different aspects
of herbs and medicinal plants. One was Les Eastman and Les
was an amateur botanist who was doing field work on endangered
species for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maine
Audubon Society. And he would drive through the Shaker Village
to get through various locations in Western Maine, and he
would simply pick me and take me to the field with him.
So I learned Field Botany from him and how to identify and
recognize plants and appreciate their scientific names and
so forth. I also fell under the tutelage of a visitor to the
Shaker Museum whom I met one day in 1976. She and a friend
were taking a tour of the museum and I literally, ran into
her on my way out one evening. She was taking a tour of the
main dwelling house at that point. The guide took me aside
and said, "This is a Chinese botanist and she wants to
see your gardens." That particular guide was someone
who was volunteering at the Shaker Community that weekend
and was a lawyer from New York named Jerry Werkin. And Jerry
has since left the legal profession and now is the director
of the Folk Art Museum in New York City. So he introduced
me to this woman on the tour, named Dr. Shiu Ying Hu and Dr.
Hu had come to the U.S. in 1945 to do graduate work in Botany
at Harvard. She spent her entire career at Harvard. She's
in her 90s and still works as a botanist. Anyway, she had
come to Harvard to study with (Merit Linden Vernald) and (Elmer
Merill) both of whom were leading botanists in the early half
of the 20th century and both of whom happened to be self-taught
botanists from Maine. Somehow, I reminded Dr. Hu of her teachers
and she took an active interest in my education and career.
I took her to see
American Ginseng in the wild, as she had seen many of the
Asian species but had never seen American Ginseng in the wild.
And that kind of solidified it (their relationship). In a
walk with her through Harvard Yard in Cambridge Massachusetts
she began pointing out things that I knew as common ornamental
plants, like Forsythia Ginkgo and so forth. She started talking
about their usage in traditional Chinese Medicine. At that
point I developed an interest in Chinese Medicinal Plants
in American Horticulture as well as Eastern Asiatic botany
in general. It was Dr. Hu who pushed me in that direction.
What are your feelings on the use of chaste tree (vitex agnus
castus) for the alleviation of Premenstrual Syndrome symptoms?
SF: There is actually
a large body of literature on chaste tree. It has been used
for the treatment of PMS for decades. It has an interesting
history. Most of the modern scientific work on chaste tree
began in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s. At that
point it was primarily used as a (galacticog) something to
stimulate milk flow. Particularly in the early years of World
War II, it was used and researched for women, mostly in European
cities women who were recent mothers and were not producing
milk; probably because of the stress of living in cities which
were being bombed. The researchers found that the chaste tree
stimulated the milk production. And then later after the Second
World War mechanisms of action were elucidated that suggested
that it had a stimulating effect on Lutenizing Hormone (LH)
which is involved as a chemical trigger mechanism in the menstrual
cycle and was useful in allaying symptoms of what has come
to be called PMS. So there is a tremendous body of literature,
mostly German language literature on the use of Chaste Tree
for PMS. One of the main caveats of chaste tree is that it
has to be used for a relatively long period of time--from
three to six months before results are evident. Which is an
important point in herbal medicine in general. Herbs generally
work much slower than conventional drugs, and Americans in
general are used to popping pills for an affect that is relatively
immediate. Herbs generally don't work that way, they usually
work on a long term basis.
Was chaste tree used for menopausal symptoms?
SF: Yes it was widely
used for various menopausal symptoms as well as for perimenopause
but there is no controlled clinical literature on that particular
area of interest.
Could you also elaborate on the use of black cohosh for menopausal
symptoms as well as PMS?
SF: Yes, black cohosh
like chaste tree emerged out of German phyto medicines. It
had long been used in eclectic medical practice in the late
19th and early 20th century here in the U.S. for various menstrual
difficulties, menstrual imbalances, as well as an anti-inflammatory.
And in fact, was better known in the 19th century as an anti-inflammatory
for rheumatic pains and things of that sort. Then (black cohosh)
was championed by an eclectic physician named Dr. John King
in the late 19th century for various gynecological conditions
and was adopted in European phytomedicines in the 1930s and
1940s. And, in fact, in 1955 there was a conference in Germany
on the use of Estrogen Replacement Therapy (ERT) for the treatment
of menopausal symptoms. At that point there were 8-10 years
experience of using Estrogen Replacement Therapy for menopausal
symptoms and the experience began to collect a large number
of side effects associated with Estrogen Replacement Therapy
at that time. So one of the main points of this conference
was to look for alternatives for Estrogen Replacement Therapy.
There were a couple of papers presented on black cohosh at
So the mid 1950s was
the modern starting point for (the use of) black cohosh for
menopausal symptoms. And then by 1961 or 1962 there were case
reports published in the German medical literature on the
successful use of black cohosh on several thousand women for
menopausal symptoms; particularly in the reduction of the
intensity and frequency of hot flashes, depressive moods,
and/or mood swings associated with menopause. As well as a
reduction of heavy bleeding associated with perimenopause.
And so by the early 1960s it became a standard gynecological
treatment for menopause in Germany. By the 1970s active fractions
were identified, at least with proposed mechanisms of action,
in the ongoing efforts by the German health authorities to
bring a scientific basis to phytomedicines. In the 1980s and
1990s there have been at least a dozen controlled clinical
trials, some with placebo and some with comparative substances
like estrogen, which have all had positive results showing
a reduction of symptoms associated with menopause (using black
What herbs would be helpful for women's bones?
SF: Well there is
some evidence that suggests that more research be done on
black cohosh in that regard. There are about 28 species of
cohoshes in the U.S., Asia and Europe. And several Asian species
are used similarly in folk traditions or traditional medicine
in Asia. There are a couple of interesting studies by Japanese
research groups from the last 3-4 years which are animal studies,
looking at mice and particularly calcium reabsorbtion in the
bones after being treated with black cohosh or Chinese analogs
to black cohosh. So certainly I think it would be interesting
to see more studies in that regard.
Heart disease seems ever more prevalent what would be a good
herb to combat heart disease or the prevention of heart disease?
SF: Probably the best
herb there is hawthorn preparations. Hawthorn leaf and flower
and/or berry preparations. Actually, there are more of the
identified active components in the flowers than in the fruit,
so most standardized products out of Europe use the flowers.
Whereas in traditional Chinese medicine the official drug
is the fruit of a Chinese species of Hawthorn.
So, would you use a tincture or an infusion of hawthorn?
SF: No I think the
best thing for hawthorn would be a standardized extract. A
lot of times we get hung up in the American market on standardization
and what is, or what might be the active component and my
feeling is that for the most part you need to take each herb
on an individualized basis. But for the most part the value
of the standardized extract is in providing predictable results
in the dosage form specifically batch-to-batch consistency
in manufacturing. And I don't think it's necessary to tout
active ingredients in advertising and labeling. I think it
does more to confuse the consumer than anything else. But
it's best used as a control for batch to batch consistency
in the manufacturing process.
There is a lot of concern in the botanical industry on standard
control and efficacy. What is a solution for the wide variations
in active ingredients and therefore efficacy product to product?
SF: First of all,
when it comes to testing I become increasingly convinced that
if you give the same plant material to a half-a-dozen different
chemists who are running HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography)
or GC (gas chromatography), depending upon what substances
they're looking for, and if you're doing qualitative analyses
of active constituents, you're going to get a half-a-dozen
varied results from the same plant material. So I think it's
important to question the quality of the science and the consistency
of the science that's used to make such judgments, because
I think there is a lot of variables. As a direct answer to
your question, unfortunately for the consumer it's pot luck
out there in the American market. At this point the consumer
really has to become savvy shopping. They have to be able
to read product labels, know what is they're looking for,
find a reliable brand and stick with it. Also, know what the
herb tastes like. If the product doesn't taste like the herb,
chances are you're not going to get an affect by it.
I think its (the difference
in efficacy) is a very serious problem in the American Market
and has been responsible in a large part for the decline in
sales in the mass (herbal) market. Because you'd go into a
chain pharmacy and see maybe a dozen saw palmetto products
and on the low end there's a $2 product and on the high end
there's a $22 saw palmetto product. And the poor confused
consumer is going to look at those products and make their
decision based upon the economics of the situation. And chances
are that the cheap, inexpensive, store product or generic
brand product is not going to deliver an effective dose. So
it truly is a buyer beware situation in the marketplace. There
are dozens of marketing companies that have jumped into the
fray that produce very poor quality products and they have
very little scientific staff or ability. And the tendency
in the American market is to buy the cheapest raw material
available. And using the example of saw palmetto again, saw
palmetto has a very distinctive flavor and fragrance. A friend
of mine bought a saw palmetto product he paid about eight
dollars for 100 capsules. I asked him to let me taste the
product and I chewed on a few capsules and there was no flavor
of saw palmetto. The shipwrecked Quakers from the late 17th
century in Florida were taken in by the Indians in South Florida
and were given a saw palmetto gruel as food and refused to
eat it for three or four days. The captain recorded in his
journal that it tasted like, 'rotten cheese, steeped in tobacco
juice.' So obviously it's a strong flavored material.
So it's tough for
the consumer and I think we need definable materials in the
marketplace that are of defined identify and defined quality
in terms of a minimal amount of active ingredients, active
constituents if they're known, or harvested at the right time.
There are so many variables involved that it really takes
good scientific standards to come up with a good quality product.
I had a Russian visitor here last week and she runs a small
company and has six people employed. She produces teas; cut
and sifted bulk herbs packaged in boxes and all of those products
are registered as drugs in Russia. Things like mullein and
colds foot, peppermint and chamomile: there all registered
for therapeutic use and so with each batch that she manufactures,
she has to send a sample to a government quality control lab
that certifies the quality. She cannot market that plant material
unless she has that certificate of analysis from the government.
And at the same time she obtains a certificate of analysis
with a private lab, to have something to compare the government
quality control material with. So it's very expensive for
a manufacturer to bring something as simple as a rose hip
tea or a chamomile tea or peppermint tea to the market labeled
for therapeutic value. Then those products are available in
pharmacies and have a government quality control registration
number and a drug registration number printed on the box.
And that's the way it's done in most of the world. We need
some type of standard and then controls of those standards.
This industry has long used the cry of "self policing"
so that the industry has the ability to self police itself
and weed out the bad apples and give consumers confidence
in the quality of the products in the marketplace. But in
my opinion self-policing efforts by the industry to this point
have been largely ineffective. And probably it will take some
type of change in the law for quality products to be the norm
in the market rather than the exception.
Tell me more about United Plant Savers (U.P.S.)
SF: United Plant Savers
is a grass roots organization with about 2000 members and
was started by Rosemary Gladstar who is a well known herbalist
and teacher, and primarily arose out of concern for the impact
of wild harvesting on various native plants during the period
that the herb industry really exploded in size, in the mid
1990s. At that point we were seeing dramatic declines in wild
populations in things like golden seal and Echinacea, American
ginseng and other herbs. So U.P.S was created as an organization
to make people aware of those potential problems. And to ultimately
promote commercial cultivation of ingredients so that we'll
have a sustainable supply into the future for future generations.
Have these efforts been successful?
SF: Yes, certainly
in public awareness. Now the market is down substantially,
so there aren't as many pressures on wild populations at this
point in time; however the supply/demand cycle in the herb
business goes up and down in an almost predictable fashion
and has always done so. At this point there are large amounts
of raw material in warehouses sitting unsold as the market
declines, because there was an over supply situation on the
raw material side. And when those stores of herb are used
up in the next couple of years people will be out buying and
digging again. One of the other things that have occurred
has been an effort to involve biologists and graduate students
working in ecology or biology to gather more information on
the plants themselves in their wild habitats. We know very
little about population dynamics such as how the populations
naturally expand or contract in the wild. We know very little
about reproductive biology, and these types of studies are
now under way at many universities around the country for
the first time. So that's quite an exciting offshoot in the
awareness in medicinal plants conservation created by the
United Plant Savers.
So What is new on your horizon?
SF: A second edition
of my Eastern Medicinal Plant Field Guide just came out. All
photographs this time. And I'm just completing a Western Medicinal
Plant Field Guide for the Western United States in the Pederson
Field Guide series, co-authored with Christopher Hobbs that
will be published early next year. One of the thrusts of my
work and my career has been to get people to know the plants
themselves. Which is basically the purpose of the Pederson
Field Guides of Medicinal Plants. And for people to become
more aware of the plants around them as well as how to identify
them, and use them or not use them as the case may be. I believe
if people are aware of the plants that grow around them they
will have a deeper respect for the human-plant relationship
and interactions, when it comes to utilization as medicinal
plants. One hundred years ago botany was taught in every high
school and now it's a rare course at the university level
so I think it's incumbent upon the herb consumer to learn
about the plant materials that they may ingest in pill form,
or tincture or whatever.
Steven Foster is a
man of vision. On his website
www.stevenfoster.com their mission statement says it all:
Our mission is to serve the human-plant connection. Recognizing
that plants are vital for food, wellness, medicine, flavor
and fragrance, we bring information and imagery on the source
plants of human utilization. In doing so we strive to introduce
the person to the plant.