Enjoying the Spirit of Herbal Science

What is Science?

Science: “The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena.” American Heritage Dictionary.

Scientific Method: “The totality of principles and processes regarded as characteristic of or necessary for scientific investigation, generally taken to include rules for concept formation, conduct of observations and experiments, and validation of hypotheses by observations or experiments.” American Heritage Dictionary. 

Understanding Science:

  • It may evoke an image of someone in a white coat peering through a microscope, a zoologist observing animals in the Galapagos, unintelligible equations scribbled on a chalkboard, beakers of bubbling liquid, or a big fat text book.
  • Science is a body of knowledge and a process.
  • Science is the process of discovery.
  • Science is a way of understanding the natural world in the past, present and future.
  • Science is ongoing—refining and expanding our knowledge of the universe.
  • Science is a way to study the natural world
    Science focuses on the natural world.
    Science aims to explain the natural world.
    Science explores testable ideas that are reproducible.
    Science (in theory) relies on evidence.
    Scientific knowledge leads to ongoing research.

Science has limits:  Moral judgments, aesthetic judgments, decisions about applications of science, and conclusions about the supernatural are outside the realm of science.

Concepts from: “Understanding Science 101” (see the last link to website in resource list at end).

Misconceptions about Herbs and Science:

Misconception: Science contradicts the existence of God. Correction: Science cannot support or contradict the existence of supernatural entities. It deals only with natural phenomena and explanations.

Misconception: Science seeks interest in herbs only to find an isolated chemical that can  later be synthesized then patented as a new drug. Correction: Natural product chemists are interested in identifying as many plant constituents as possible, particularly to discover new compounds using increasingly sophisticated technologies. Why? Because the natural world produces more chemistry than “a million medicinal chemists working for a million years” could dream-up.

Misconception: A conspiracy between the medical community, pharmaceutical companies, and FDA exists discouraging the use of herbs. Correction: “There is little doubt that consumer demand will promote an every-increasing interest in classic plant drugs for use as traditional herbal remedies.” (Varro Tyler, 1996).

Misconception: Herbs cannot harm, only cure. Correction: “The dose makes the poison.” However traditional herbal practices seeks to primarily use herbs that can be safely prepared and used by an individual.

Misconception: Science is infallible. Correction: Scientific knowledge is subject to the vagaries, interpretations, and limitations of fallible biological entities commonly known as human beings.

Get inspired: Explore the big picture and small details:

American Botanical Council. www.herbalgram.org. Various databases and information resources on all aspects of the science behind useful plants.

Steven Foster’s website: www.stevenfoster.com. Steven Foster’s HerbalBlog www.stevenfoster.com/herbalblog.

Hubble Space Telescope Site. http://hubblesite.org.

Morris, William, Ed. 1978. The American Heritage Dictionary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. [5th edition, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2011 is available at: http://www.ahdictionary.com ].

Plant List. www.plantlist.org. The combined, searchable, taxonomic databases of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Missouri Botanical Garden,  New York Botanical Garden, International Organization for Plant Information, International Plant Name Index and other institutions and organizations.

PubMed.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed. PubMed is an online database to over 22 million citations from the biomedical literature and life sciences journals, often including links to full-text content from publisher websites. Studies funded by the U.S. government now have full, pre-publication manuscripts on-line. PubMed is a free database of the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, the worlds’ largest medical library.

Tyler, Varro E. 1999. False Tenets of Paraherblism. Available at Quackwatch.org. http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/paraherbalism.html. Accessed March 30, 2013.

University of California Museum of Paleontology. “Understanding Science 101: How Science Really Works.” Available at: http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/whatisscience_01. Accessed March 30, 2013.

There’s a Garden in the Mind

Screen-shot-2013-01-30-at-2.03.01-PM-202x300Some  herbalists (but not you young ones) will recall Dr. Paul Lee, from Santa Cruz, California, once the Executive Director of the Herb Trade Association, the predecessor of the American Herbal Products Association. Paul Lee brought Shakespearian actor turned maniacal horticulturist, Alan Chadwick, to UC Santa Cruz in 1967 which evolved into UC Santa Cruz’s then Farm & Garden Project. Chadwick’s blending of biodynamic principles with French-intensive gardening inspired a generation of gardeners. Now Paul Lee has completed a new memoir, “There’s a Garden in the Mind: A Memoir of Alan Chadwick and the Organic Movement in California.” Pre-order print or Kindle edition at Amazon or better yet get it from your favorite independent bookseller. It’s published by North Atlantic Press (Random House, dist.), $19.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-58394-559-9

Human Nature

By Steven FosterMusa_12214

Last Sunday I received an email from a pharmacist who was on his way to Ghana in west tropical Africa on a two-month trip with a medical mission to deliver Western healthcare to remote villagers. Since invariably they will primarily be treating malaria and high blood pressure, the problem is once they leave a village, the people who live there can’t afford to continue on Western drug therapy. He asked what local medicinal plants could be used instead. The question is not that simple.

A pharmacological approach is a pharmacological approach whether one is treating a condition with Western drugs or herbs. In a remote African village, the social, cultural and spiritual context of medical treatment may be more important than the drug used to treat disease. A SUV rolling into a village with a NGO logo on the car door equals expectation of money and help, neither of which may be delivered. Maybe they don’t need drugs to treat malaria. Maybe the villagers just need mosquito nets to prevent nighttime mosquito bites. Maybe you give mosquito nets to the women and children, and when the knights-in-shining NGO Land Cruisers leave the village, the dominant males gather up those mosquito nets to sell in a nearby market. Maybe the mosquito nets solve the problem.

There is likely a local pecking order (cultural/spiritual context) in a village where a traditional healer will be responsible for delivery of herbs, and it might be that the villagers don’t have the money, chickens, or other trade goods to acquire the local healer’s service. So if you do find useful medicinal plants to treat disease does delivery of that aid upset the local social balance? The traditional healer is like a Western M.D— high up on the social ladder, and they are not giving up their trade secrets to short-term Western visitors.

In any culture in the world that relies on traditional folk medicine, the people with the real working knowledge of local herbs are the women. For them, that knowledge is nothing special. It is just normal day-to-day knowledge like knowing how to wash dishes. Those are the people to whom one should listen.

© 2013 Steven Foster, 2-14-13

Dr. Shiu Ying Hu

Shiu-ying Hu, PhD: 1910–2012 

by Steven Foster

Published by the American Botanical Council in HerbalGram 95:74-76

On May 31st, 2012, the Chinese University of Hong Kong posted an obituary of Prof. Hu Shiu-ying, PhD (Shiu-ying Hu), announcing the passing of the eminent economic botanist and taxonomist. She died at the age of 102 on May 22, 2012, at the Prince of Wales Hospital, Hong Kong. Her obituary appears on a website dedicated to the memory of her remarkable life and work.1

Dr. Hu, Emeritus Senior Research Fellow of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, spent most of the last 20 years in Hong Kong, where she served as Honorary Professor of Chinese Medicine, Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the School of Life Sciences, and Senior College Tutor of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In a career stretching nearly 8 decades, Dr. Hu was active past her 100th year. Dr. Hu became the leading expert and monographer of the genera Philadelphus or mock orange (Hydrangeaceae), Hemerocallis or daylily (Liliaceae), Paulownia or princess-tree (Paulowniaceae), the mallow family (Malvaceae), and Ilex or hollies (Aquifoliaceae). Considered a leading world expert on hollies (Aquifoliaceae), the American Holly Society created an award in her name in 1992, for which Dr. Hu was the first recipient. She was affectionately nicknamed “Holly Hu.” In addition, Dr. Hu made significant contributions to the taxonomy of major plant families including the orchid family (Orchidaceae), mallow family (Malvaceae) and aster family (Asteraceae), among others. It is rare to read a paper on Ephedra (Ephedraceae), Eucommia (Eucommiaceae), Leonurus (motherwort, Lamiaceae), Panax (ginseng, Araliaceae), and other medicinal plant groups that does not contain citation to Dr. Hu’s various papers on those plants. In 2008, Dr. Hu was also the first, and so far only, recipient of the American Botanical Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award. 2,3

Dr. Hu was born in February 1910, during the Qing Dynasty in a small village on the southern bank of the ancient course of the Yellow River. In her magnum opus, Food Plants of China, she describes the farmland as poor in condition, reclaimed from a swamp. In summer months, floods and storms destroyed all crops and predictable famines ensued. In her youth, it was there that Dr. Hu gained firsthand knowledge of famine foods and medicinal plants.

She was raised in a communal homestead shared by descendants of her paternal grandparents. At times, the family survived by foraging for wild foods. Her mother gave birth to three daughters and two sons. Shiu-ying Hu and one brother were the only two who survived in a rural region of China with an infant mortality rate of 50%. Soon after her birth, Shiu Ying Hu fell ill, and her mother sent her father to a nearby village to obtain an herbal medicine to save the young girl’s life. Like most peasants in China, he had no shoes. He tied reeds to his feet to make the journey, and trudged through snow to get the herbal prescription that saved Dr. Hu’s life. When she began her botanical studies in the 1930s, Dr. Hu asked herself the question, “What is the herb that saved my life?” That question remained unanswered, but inspired Dr. Hu to apply herself to the study of plants to improve the well-being of rural people in China.

A stroke of good fortune provided a scholarship which allowed her to attend Mary Stevens Girl’s High School, a boarding school in Xuzhou run by Presbyterian missionaries. After graduation, she attended Ginling College, a small liberal arts and sciences college in Nanjing. There, for the first time in her life, she enjoyed a bowl of rice. Although interested in agriculture courses, which were not offered, she studied biology and sociology in hopes that it would offer her the opportunity to pursue her cardinal interest — helping to serve the people in rural China.

After finishing her undergraduate degree at Ginling College in 1933, she began work toward a Master’s degree in botany at Lingnan University in Guangzhou. Among her teachers was Prof. F. A. McClure, a leading 20th-century botanical expert on bamboos. In pursuit of food and medicinal plants of rural peoples, she prepared her thesis, “The Chinese Esculent Plants Used for the Conservation of Health.” She gathered data from herb collectors, shopkeepers, Guangzhou homemakers, Taoist monks and nuns residing in Luofu Shan, as well as drawing on her own personal experience.

Soon after finishing her Master’s degree in June 1937, the Sino-Japanese War broke out and Dr. Hu became a refugee.  In January of 1938 she arrived in Chengdu, Sichuan, having accepted a teaching position at West China Union University, where she remained for eight years. Her monthly salary was three bushels of rice. During this period she collected plants in the Emei Mountains (Mt. Omei) famous for medicinal plants, and lived two summers with Sino-Tibetan ethnic groups including the Qiang and Jiarong. The Jiarong live in the territory of the giant panda.4 Today colleagues find it remarkable that she collected plants in this remote and rugged region of China, which even now can be reached only by off-road vehicles or on horseback. She traveled on foot, sometimes alone in the wilderness for months at a time. During her long life, she collected over 180,000 herbarium specimens.5

In March 1946, Dr. Hu received a telegram from Radcliffe College inviting her to apply for a graduate fellowship for a doctoral program at Harvard University under Professor Elmer D. Merrill, a leading American expert on Eastern Asiatic botany who in the early 1940s had returned to the United States from the Philippines following the Japanese invasion. She received the fellowship, despite being told that Harvard “didn’t take girls.” Two American friends helped provide money for her travel to Boston. Dr. Hu arrived in the United States on August 2, 1946, with a small suitcase of clothes and two large suitcases of plant specimens. In Food Plants of China (2005), she wrote, “The change of lifestyles from China to America was to me like a complete metamorphosis is to insects. Everything was new.”

Dr. Hu was the last student of Professor Merrill, and was a student in the final class of Harvard University’s Gray Herbarium Director, Merritt Lyndon Fernald. In 1949, Dr. Hu received her doctorate, becoming the first Chinese-born woman to receive a PhD in botany from Harvard University. That was also the year that Mao Zedong’s victory over the Kuomintang in China’s Civil War resulted in the creation of the People’s Republic of China. Subsequently, China became closed to the West.

Upon graduation, Dr. Hu dreamed of working for the United States Department of Agriculture. However, she could not obtain a job there. Only Harvard University offered her a position. Later, she was to discover that the Harvard position was actually more prestigious. For the next 3 decades, Dr. Hu worked tirelessly on the taxonomy, phytogeography, and economic plants of China based on collections at the Arnold Arboretum, the Harvard University Herbaria, the New York Botanical Garden, and the US National Herbarium, among other collections. One result of the work is the Hu Card Index, a compilation of 158,844 index cards for Chinese plant names produced by Dr. Hu and her staff, representing the botanical literature on Chinese plants from 1753-1955.6

Five-time Academy Award winner, composer, conductor, and pianist John Williams has been accused of being a tree hugger. Best known for his movie scores, his foray into serious classical composition includes his three “tree songs,” one inspired by a magnificent specimen of Metasequoia or dawn redwood (Taxodiaceae) at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum to which Dr. Hu provided William’s a personal introduction. A redwood-relative known only from the fossil record until the 1940s, Williams’ treesong, “Dr. Hu and the Metasequoia,” honors the tree and the Chinese graduate student who planted it in 1949 — Dr. Shiu Ying Hu. Dr. Hu’s service to others and heart-felt enthusiasm inspires.

Explaining his inspiration in an interview with RTHK TV’s “Success Stories,” biographical documentary on Dr. Hu, Williams said, “The tree seems to be almost intelligent…If you look at it long enough it seems to be speaking to you with the wisdom of age and great intelligence…I just love this tree and I love this woman and I thought it might be a nice idea for a musical piece. Dr. Hu is a brilliant scientist, a very attractive woman with a sort of spiritual connection with plants…She knows the plants and they are like children to her. This woman has a spiritual aura about her which is very still and penetrates very deep into her subject almost like a religious person for me.”7

Although working in the pinnacle of botanical academia, Dr. Hu never forgot her Chinese peasant roots. She served as a liaison between the Western world and China during the first two decades of Communist China’s closure to the West. At her own expense, she provided botanical literature and paid membership fees to international scientific societies for Chinese colleagues and students. Through the years, her frugal lifestyle enabled her to provide scholarships, living quarters, and money for dozens of Chinese students to study in America and elsewhere. Her home was Brookline, Massachusetts, but as she was fond of reminding colleagues, her heart always belonged to China.

From September 1968 to June 1969, she served as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biology at Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong, while continuing her work on the flora of Hong Kong. Once China opened up to the West in the mid-1970s, Dr. Hu made numerous return trips to China, greeted with the deepest respect from China’s scientific community, like a revered sage.

Dr. Hu dedicated her life to improving the life of the Chinese people through her love of plants. China, in turn, honored Dr. Hu’s service. Dr. Hu was appointed Advisor to the Sun Yat-sen Botanical Garden in Nanjing, Honorary Professor of South China Agriculture University in Guangzhou, and Advisor to the Fairy Lake Botanical Garden in Shenzhen. She was instrumental in the establishment of the School of Chinese Medicine at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She also created a new environmental awareness in Hong Kong by insisting that large trees be incorporated into the campus design, rather than cut down. In 2001, she was awarded the Bronze Bauhinia Star by the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Her many decades of tireless dedication produced fruits mirroring the towering heights of the Metasequoia tree. Dr. Hu authored more than 160 scientific papers.  She is the author of numerous books, notably her magnum opus, Food Plants of China (The Chinese University Press, 2005), as well as An Enumeration of Chinese Materia Medica (The Chinese University Press, 1980; 2nd ed. 1999) and The Genera of Orchidaceae in Hong Kong (The Chinese University Press, 1977), among others.

In recognition of Professor Hu’s international contribution to botanical science, the School of Life Sciences of The Chinese University of Hong Kong has established an endowment to expand and relocate the University’s Herbarium in the School of Life Sciences, now renamed the Shiu-Ying Hu Herbarium. Information is available at the Shiu-Ying Hu website, set up to honor her memory and accomplishments and includes her obituary, biography, tributes, photos, and many external links.1

Dr. Shiu-ying Hu’s remarkable academic eminence was borne of her consistent, unassuming humility and impressive dedication to work. She studied with some of the most noted botanists of the 20th century, yet her affable personality and simple demeanor erased awareness of all lines of social class structure. Although she counted heads of government and famous composers among those who sought her acquaintance, her ability to listen to anyone earned her friends in teachers and in students — and lifelong friends among all people, from ethnic minorities of Sichuan and Tibet to the herdsmen of Inner Mongolia, the herb collectors of Yunnan, monks and nuns of famous Taoist and Buddhist temples, shopkeepers of Guangzhou, and three generations of botanists from around the world.  In China she was known as “Grandmother Plants.” —Steven Foster


1. The Chinese University of Hong Kong website. Obituary. In Memory of Professor Shiu Ying Hu. May 31, 2012. Available at:www.cuhk.edu.hk/cpr/hushiuying/obituary.htm. Accessed July 17, 2012.

2. Anon. Remembering Professor Shiu-Ying Hu. Harvard Gazette. May 31, 2012. Available at:http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/newsplus/remembering-professor-shiu-ying-hu/. Accessed July 17, 2012.

3. Anon. Remembering Professor Shiu-Ying Hu. The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University website. May 30, 2012. Available at:http://arboretum.harvard.edu/professor-hu/. Accessed July 17, 2012.

4. Hu SY. Food plants of China. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press; 2005., p.14-18.

5. Cheung S., Executive Producer. Success Stories: Dr. Hu Shiu-Ying [DVD Video]. Honk Kong: RTHK TV Programme Series. Intercontinental Video Limited. 2005, 46 min.

6. The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Flora of China Project records, 1953-1977: Guide. Archives II G-1. Available at:http://arboretum.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/II_G-1_FOC_2012.pdf. Accessed July 17, 2012.

7. Williams, J. Interview in: Cheung S., Executive Producer. Success Stories: Dr. Hu Shiu-Ying [DVD Video]. Honk Kong: RTHK TV Programme Series. Intercontinental Video Limited. 2005, 46 min.


American Botanical Council Enters 25th Year

(AUSTIN, Texas, October 31, 2012) On November 1, 2012, the nonprofit American Botanical Council (ABC) enters its 25thyear of education and research on the science-based health benefits of herbs, medicinal plants, and other beneficial plant-based ingredients. The independent research and education organization was established in 1988 by Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal, along with noted ethnobotanist James A. Duke, PhD, and the renowned late pharmacognosist Professor Norman R. Farnsworth, PhD.

Remarking on the occasion, Dr. Duke said, “I am pleased and proud to see ABC approaching that monumental 25-year milestone. Nice work. It is so much bigger and better than I envisaged 24 years ago, thanks to Mark, of course, and the dedicated staff.”

Blumenthal and Drs. Duke and Farnsworth came together to form ABC as a means of supporting HerbalGram, the seminal publication for which the nonprofit is most well-known. Since those first years of ABC, HerbalGram has grown from a grassroots newsletter into a full-fledged, peer-reviewed, quarterly scientific journal. ABC’s 25th year will see HerbalGram celebrate 30 years of publication, with the 100th issue going to print in late 2013.

“ABC started as a means of supporting HerbalGram, which at that time was a newsletter for many people in the disparate herbal community,” said Blumenthal. “Now in our 25th year, HerbalGram has not only surpassed all expectations in terms of quality, relevancy, and impact on the herbal community internationally, but its success has allowed ABC to branch out and create many new means of fulfilling our unique educational mission.”

The number of ABC-produced publications continues to increase. One that also will celebrate a major milestone soon is HerbClip™, which turns 20 in 2013. For two decades, HerbClip has offered summaries and critical reviews of seminal articles covering medicinal plant-related clinical research, regulations, marketing information, and conservation and sustainability. HerbalEGram, the monthly e-newsletter for ABC members, will enter its tenth year in 2013, and with it will come a new design. ABC’s recently-introduced weekly e-newsletter, Herbal News & Events, will commence a second year of keeping ABC members and supporters up-to-date on events, conferences, and news stories that are relevant to the herbal community.

In addition to using the written word to educate the public on the responsible use of herbal and other plant-based ingredients, ABC helps steward the next generation by offering internships for pharmacy, dietetic, botany, horticulture, journalism, and marketing students at its Austin, Texas headquarters. 2013 will mark the 15th year that ABC has called the Case Mill Homestead “home.” The 2.5-acre complex boasts more than a dozen herbal theme gardens where medicinal plants are cultivated to help educate interns as well as the general public through tours and events like HerbDay. HerbDay is a coordinated series of independently produced public education events that celebrate the importance of herbs and herbalism. Each year, ABC opens its gardens for a full day of herb walks, lectures, children’s activities, and plant and book sales. The 8th annual HerbDay will be held on May 4, 2013.

An increasingly digital world also has led ABC to expand its education methods online. The information-rich websitewww.herbalgram.org is constantly growing with new articles and information. ABC recently added a new database to its online resources: The ABC Clinical Guide to HerbsABC’s highly-praised reference book, is now available through ABC’s website, allowing members to search through therapeutic monographs and clinical study details on 30 best-selling herbs. What barely could have been imagined when HerbalGram first began and ABC was founded is now a reality with the addition of a digital, flip-page version of the journal. The insightful articles and full-color photographs found in each physical edition of HerbalGram have been faithfully rendered online to create a seamless digital experience on a smartphone or tablet computer.

ABC’s 25th year will feature the continued growth of two major research projects. In 2011, ABC collaborated with the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) and the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Natural Products Research (NCNPR) to address the accidental and intentional adulteration of botanical dietary ingredients. Dozens of underwriters and supporters have come together to sustain the program. To date, the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants program has published four articles on botanical adulteration, all of which appeared in HerbalGram and are available online. Four additional adulteration articles are slated for next year. In 2013, ABC also is planning to publish a book by Blumenthal and Jay Pierotti, PhD, on solvents used in the manufacture of botanical extracts, food flavors, and natural food ingredients.

Steven Foster, author, photographer, and Chairman of ABC’s Board of Trustees, said, “For nearly a quarter century, a time in which we’ve seen herbal product sales in the United States increase by an estimated ten-fold, and perhaps more scientific research on medicinal plants published than in the previous 200 years, the American Botanical Council (ABC) has been at the international forefront of serving as the primary vehicle for bringing truthful information on the benefits and risks of herbs to the research community, health professionals, industry, the media and consumers. Through its widely respected journal HerbalGram, HerbClip service, dozens of special publications, and media communiqués, ABC is the premier go-to source for cutting-edge knowledge in the modern herbal renaissance.”

“It would be easy to look back at all we’ve accomplished so far and think, ‘We’re already doing so much for the herbal community,’ and not push ourselves to do more,” said Blumenthal. “But the drive to do more than the status quo is integral to the spirit of ABC. I look forward to everything we will do in our 25th year and beyond for the next decades.”

About the American Botanical Council
Founded in 1988, the American Botanical Council is a leading international nonprofit organization addressing research and educational issues regarding herbs, teas, medicinal plants, essential oils, and other beneficial plant-derived materials. ABC’s members include academic researchers and educators; libraries; health professionals and medical institutions; government agencies; members of the herb, dietary supplement, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industries; journalists; consumers; and others in over 81 countries. The organization occupies a historic 2.5-acre site in Austin, Texas, where it publishes the peer-reviewed quarterly journal HerbalGram, the monthly e-publication HerbalEGram, the weekly e-newsletter “Herbal News & Events,” HerbClips (summaries of scientific and clinical publications), reference books, and other educational materials. ABC also hosts HerbMedPro, a powerful herbal database, covering scientific and clinical publications on more than 240 herbs. ABC also co-produces the “Herbal Insights” segment for Healing Quest, a television series on PBS.

ABC is tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS Code. Information: Contact ABC at P.O. Box 144345, Austin, TX 78714-4345, Phone: 512-926-4900. Website: www.herbalgram.org. Contact: Public Relations.