FWD 2 HerbalGram: Meet ABC Board Member Steven Foster: Noted Herbal Expert, Photographer, Author

Issue: 80 Page: 14-15

Meet ABC Board Member Steven Foster: Noted Herbal Expert, Photographer, Author

by Kelly E. Lindner

HerbalGram. 2008;80:14-15 American Botanical Council

With 35 years of experience in herbs, Steven Foster is one of the most recognized photographers of herbs and medicinal plants in North America, if not internationally. But he’s more than just a man who likes plants and cameras. He’s an author with 15 herb-related books published (the first when he was 25), an associate editor for HerbalGram and other botanically-oriented publications, a board member, a consultant, and a self proclaimed “life-long student of medicinal and aromatic plants” (e-mail, July 25, 2008).

Now with over 150,000 stock images within his photo collection, Foster has become an icon in the herbal community. Foster resides in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which is also the location of his company Steven Foster Group Inc. A prolific author, Foster won first place in the 1999 Independent Publisher Book Awards in the Health/Medicine category for his book 101 Medicinal Herbs: An Illustrated Guide.1 In 1999 this book also won a silver medal from the Benjamin Franklin Awards in the Health category. The New York Public Library also designated his co-authored Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine, published by National Geographic, as a “best of reference” work for 2007,2 and this past year he was awarded the Herbal Insight Award from the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) for his “significant impact” on herbal knowledge.3 Foster’s newly-released collaboration Herbal Pearls: Traditional Chinese Folk Wisdom (Boian Books, 2008) is a compelling collection of 53 Chinese folk stories on the origin of the use or name of traditional Chinese herbal remedies.

Foster is also active in herb-related organizations. He has been a member of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council since 1999 and was formerly on the Board of United Plant Savers (2000– 2003). He’s also served on various editorial boards and had many editorial positions at several organizations and journals such as Well Being; Herb News; Business of Herbs; Journal of Herbs, Spices, and Medicinal Plants; Herbs for Health; The Herb Companion; Healthy Living; Food & Wine’s Edible Garden Newsletter; Natural Home; Pharmaceutical Biology; and ABC’s HerbClips.

“Steven Foster is one of the most knowledgeable experts in North America in many areas of herbal medicine,” said long-time friend and ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal. “His deep knowledge of classic herbal literature is astonishing—perhaps, with no pun intended, photographic.”

“I remember when many of us in the herbal medicine community first met Steven,” recounts Blumenthal. “Back in 1978 the National Nutritional Foods Association (now the Natural Products Association), was holding its annual convention and trade show in Boston. At that time the Food and Drug Administration had declared sassafras (Sassafrass albidum, Lauraceae) unsafe for use in beverages (e.g., root beer and herbal tea) based on what many of us thought was inadequate and flimsy evidence. Paul Lee, then director of the Herb Trade Association, decided that some guerilla theatre was in order and he was able to rent an evening on the Boston Tea Party ship in Boston Harbor. Steven had shown up the night before the planned herb demonstration and drove from Boston to Maine and back in the same night, toting a large bag of sassafras root bark, which we all threw overboard into the harbor, in our feeble attempt to recreate the political imperative of the original Boston Tea Party.”

“What a wonderful young guy he was,” recounts Lee (oral communication to M. Blumenthal, September 7, 2008). “He was a shining light in the early years of the herbal renaissance and he brought some of the Shaker sensibility to the herbal community.”

According to Foster, his epiphany took place when he was 17, in his native Maine, on a walk in the woods with a friend. He noticed a trillium (Trillium erectum, Liliaceae), and his friend told him that it was used as an aid in childbirth (hence the plant’s common names, bethroot and birthroot). This struck his interest and it was then that he knew he wanted to learn the names and uses of all plants.

He began his herbal education in 1974 at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community, in New Gloucester, Maine (America’s oldest continuous religious community) as part of a work-study program.4,5 This community also happens to contain one of the oldest herb businesses in the country, dating back to 1799. He intended to work in the Shaker Museum, but on his first day on the job, one of the Shaker sisters asked him to dig for burdock (Arctium lappa, Asteraceae) root, which she intended to decoct to treat a skin condition.

“That was the start of my herbal career,” said Foster. “Soon after, I was working full time in the Community’s Herb Department, where I spent the next four years.”

The Shaker Community Herb Department had 3 acres of herb gardens within its 1,700 acres. The Shaker Library also had an excellent collection of herbal books, something Foster began collecting when he was 17. “That combination provided my educational foundation for everything I’ve done since,” said Foster. “In the herb field, the more you learn, the more you discover how little you know. There’s something new to learn each and every day.”

“I’ve enjoyed sharing the forests, meadows, and lecterns with Steve, from the Amazon to Arkansas, and from California to Maryland,” said noted ethnobotanist and long-time Foster mentor and friend, James

A. Duke, PhD (e-mail, August 4, 2008). “I think he, like me, enjoyed the Amazon more than any of our many fruitful trips. I still treasure a picture he shot in Sunny Santa Cruz three decades ago (at the second Herb Trade Association Herb Symposium in 1978). And I look forward to joining him in Arkansas and the Amazon again next year.”

Foster originally learned photography by shadowing photographers who came to take photos for stories or books on the Shaker Community.4,5 These photographers included some that were on assignment for Smithsonian, National Geographic, and various European magazines.

“My first photos were published in Thomas Moser’s How to Build Shaker Furniture (Drake Publishing, Inc., 1977). I didn’t have a clue what to charge for the photos so I licensed 14 images for the book for $40.00,” said Foster. “As I recall, the author almost had to keep from laughing at the low price. But what he didn’t know is that those images were from my first two rolls of film from my first camera.”

Sunrise is Foster’s favorite time of day to photograph and it seems this herbal enthusiast can be found pursuing his passions from then until sunset. “Who has time for hobbies?” Foster said. “I am fortunate in that my work is my life. I love plants, books on plants, photographing plants, learning about plants, and the people associated with them. It is what I eat, sleep, and drink.”

—Kelly E. Saxton


  1. Johnston B. Foster’s 101 Medicinal Herbs Receives Awards. HerbalGram.1999;47:20.
  2. Cavaliere C. National Geographic’s Herb Book Named a “Best of Reference.” HerbalGram. 2007;75:15.
  3. Cavaliere C. AHPA Presents 2008 Awards. HerbalGram. 2008;79:14.
  4. Kellner J. Through the Herbalist’s Lens. Herbs for Health. October 2007:50–53.
  5. McKinney L. Steven Foster, An Herbalist’s Life. Seeds of Chance Enewsletter; July 2003; 36.