Dr. Shiu Ying Hu

Shiu-ying Hu, PhD: 1908–2012 

by Steven Foster

Original version published by the American Botanical Council in HerbalGram 95:74-76. This post is modified from the original.

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 104 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. Shiu-ying Hu (1908-2012_ holding a copy of Steven Foster and Jim Duke's Field Guide to Medicinal Plants, first edition, soon after released in 1990.
Dr. Shiu Ying Hu

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 1908, 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 November 5, 2021.

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 November 5, 2021.

3. Anon. Remembering Professor Shiu-Ying Hu. The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University website. May 30, 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.

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.

HerbalGram Celebrates 35 Years of Publication

The American Botanical Council’s flagship magazine noted internationally for quality, reliability, and beauty in reporting on medicinal plants

AUSTIN, Texas (August 8, 2018) — August 2018 marks the 35th anniversary of HerbalGram, the quarterly journal of the American Botanical Council (ABC). Since its first issue in 1983, HerbalGram has transformed from a black-and-white newsletter to a full-color, 82-page journal with the visual appeal of beautiful botanical photography and intellectual draw of peer-reviewed articles. Though HerbalGram has evolved significantly, its editorial mission to serve as a reliable herbal education resource has remained the same.

P.O. Box 144345, Austin, TX 78714-4345 
Phone: 512-926-4900 x129; Fax: 512-926-2345
Contact: Public Relations
Website: www.herbalgram.org

In the summer of 1983, ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal produced the first issue of HerbalGram, which was then titled “Herb News” with the subtitle “Herbalgram.” Blumenthal, who also was running his former herb distribution business, Sweethardt Herbs, spent many of his nights and weekends collecting, writing, and editing articles for the newsletter. It was this focus on disseminating trustworthy and timely herbal information that would eventually lead Blumenthal to found ABC in 1988.

Originally published with financial support from the newly formed American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), of which Blumenthal was a founding board member, the first HerbalGram was an eight-page, black-and-white newsletter stapled at the spine. It consisted of “herb blurbs” on herbal miscellanea, a “media watch” section with herb-related news articles, a handful of paragraph-long “Rob’s Research Reviews” authored by then-Associate Editor Robert McCaleb (who, at the time, was also head of research at Celestial Seasonings), listings of herbal information resources and schools, and more. The editorial staff included just Blumenthal and McCaleb, who also co-founded the Herb Research Foundation (HRF) together.

For the second issue, Blumenthal enlisted two additional part-time assistant editors. The publication now featured the title “Herbalgram” in larger font. This issue took on a more defined format, with organized sections on industry news, conferences/meetings, HRF news, and “potpourri” — a catch-all section featuring various news items of possible interest to the growing herbal industry and community.

In the following years, HerbalGram transformed into a modern force in the botanical medicine community. In 1988, HerbalGram issue 18/19 was the first color edition with a cover illustration of St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum, Hypericaceae). This 48-page double issue also was the first published under the auspices of both HRF and ABC, which Blumenthal founded with the late ethnobotanist James A. Duke, PhD, and the late Professor Norman Farnsworth, PhD, in order to help transition the publication from newsletter to journal. In 1992, issue 28 was the first full-glossy, four-color issue, and featured an image of the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants from the Harvard Museum of Natural History on the cover. The journal increased to its current length of 82 pages in 1999, and, in 2000, issue 50 was the first to be published by ABC alone.

Eighteen years and almost 70 issues later, the editorial staff of HerbalGram has grown to include an art director and three full-time editors, in addition to Blumenthal, who serves as editor-in-chief, along with many other employees at ABC who serve in a variety of other important roles. The journal features articles both from in-house writers and botanical experts from around the world, and all are peer-reviewed by members of ABC’s distinguished advisory board or other professionals with relevant expertise. HerbalGramreaches thousands of readers in more than 81 countries who represent a range of diverse professions, from research scientists (e.g., pharmacognosists, ethnobotanists, etc.) and health practitioners (e.g., herbalists, naturopathic physicians, pharmacists, conventional physicians, etc.) to industry members, government regulators, and many others.

HerbalGram has been a leader in presenting extensive literature reviews on specific herbs in an effort to help establish a scientific basis for their potential health benefits. In some cases, these reviews can also help clarify erroneous or inappropriate claims about the uses of the herbs.

HerbalGram has served as the go-to source for detailed perspectives on developing herb-related topics for 35 years,” said Steven Foster, an herbalist, photographer, author, and ABC Board of Trustees member. “The publication is at the forefront of covering topics such as herb conservation and the effect of climate change on herb crops, clear assessments of regulatory and market developments, as well as emerging science.”

Foster added: “The depth of coverage, detailed quality of presentation, rigorous peer-review process, meticulous editorial attention, aesthetic beauty, and broad appeal [of HerbalGram] combine to reach a standard of lasting excellence that few science-based periodicals achieve.”

Recent HerbalGram issues have featured significant articles such as issue 118’s pictorial on Joseph Banks’ historic Florilegium of botanical life that was encountered on Captain Cook’s first South Pacific voyage; issue 116’s beautiful and informative deep-dive into medicinal trees of North America; and issue 103’s feature about the effects of climate change on the quality of tea.

Each year, HerbalGram also publishes its annual Herb Market Report, which describes the trends of the botanical dietary supplement market in the United States and frequently is cited in other publications. Additional in-depth key articles published in recent issues have included a look into the history and pharmacology of the emerging Southeast Asian tree kratom (Mitragyna speciosa, Rubiaceae); a pet supplement herb market report; notes from a 17th-century ethnobotanical expedition to South Africa; and many more.

Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance, praised HerbalGram’s diverse content. “When my HerbalGram arrives in the mail, I know I will begin another journey into the wonders of the herbal kingdom,” he said. “While I no longer save other magazines, I treasure and hold tight to my copies of HerbalGram. I, along with many others, salute ABC and HerbalGram for its 35 years of service to the advancement of consumer, industry, and professional education, high level of professionalism, and documenting the rich history of our remarkable community.”

In November 2011, the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) published its first feature-length article — “A Brief History of Adulteration of Herbs, Spices, and Botanical Drugs” — in HerbalGram issue 92. The article, written by Foster, reviewed numerous cases of adulterated, fraudulent foods, spices, and drugs during the past two millennia. HerbalGram also has published extensively peer-reviewed BAPP feature articles on the adulteration of bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus, Ericaceae) extract, skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora, Lamiaceae) herb, so-called “grapefruit seed extract,” and black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Ranunculaceae) in addition to Foster’s epic 22-page article, titled “Toward an Understanding of Ginseng Adulteration: The Tangled Web of Names, History, Trade, and Perception.”

In 2012, ABC introduced an online “page-flip” version of HerbalGram that is optimized for viewing on smartphones, tablets, and computers. In 2016, all issues of HerbalGram became available in PDF format, from 1983’s issue 1 through the current issue, thanks to a digitizing project overseen by Art Director Matt Magruder in 2016. Before that, only issues 85 and above were available as PDF files.

HerbalGram is available as a benefit of ABC membership at the Individual level and up. It also is sold in some bookstores and natural food stores.

About the American Botanical Council 

Santa is a Shaman

Santa is a Shaman: The Magic of Santa Claus

© 2012-2017 Steven Foster

Reindeer-facing page237_1The December 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine has a fascinating article called “Masters of Ecstasy” by David Stern on mystical priests, practitioners of intervening between the seen and the unseen in matters of money, health, the future, and the past. These are the shamans of various ethnic traditions of Mongolia, Central Asia, and Siberia. The article tells the story of how these ancient traditions are seeing a strong revival following the downfall of atheistic communist regimes that fell like dominos nearly 25 years ago with the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Shamanistic traditions evolved in what is now Siberia and spread throughout the world thousands of years ago. Suppressed by Christian, Islamic and Buddhist religions, then by communist governments, their traditions went underground for centuries. Now shamans openly practice in north and Central Asia. Many work alone while others have organized, like the 10,000-member-strong trade union at the Golomt Center for Shamanic Studies in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. The word shaman comes from a Siberian people known as the Evenki. Santa Claus is a shaman.

This is the backdrop, the canvas that begins to paint of the visual depiction of the origins of the personage that has morphed into the modern American concept of  Santa Claus. One of the elements adopted in various Western European countries is celebration of a monk named St. Nicholas, who was born into wealth in Patara, in modern-day Turkey around 280 A.D. St. Nicholas, known for helping the poor and sick, celebrated for his kindness and generosity on his feast day of December 6. He was seen as  a protector of sailors and children. The veneration of St. Nicholas, the most popular saint of Renaissance Europe, survived through Dutch traditions.

Celebrations of the anniversary of St. Nicholas’s death (December 6) came to America with Dutch immigrants to New York, and noted in newspapers in 1773 and 1774. The Dutch nickname for St. Nicholas was “Sinter Klaas”, the source of our name “Santa Claus”. The now familiar images of stockings filled with toys come from engraved woodcuts distributed in New York at the annual meetings of the Dutch Sinter Klaas Society in 1804. The tradition was further cemented in America’s mind in the writings of Washington Irving (1783-1859). Best known for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle, he  also wrote A History of New York, published in 1809 which described the New York Dutch immigrant’s celebrations of “Sinter Klaus.”

Gift giving for children, and the tradition of Christmas shopping were promoted with in newspapers advertisements in the 1820s, and by the 1840s, separate advertisement sections for Christmas shoppers appeared. In 1822, an Episcopal minister, Clement Clarke Moore, wrote a long poem for his three daughters called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”. Initially the poem was not meant for public consumption, but once published it became the iconic “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  It introduced the concept of the “right jolly old elf” with a red suit, lined with white fur, knee-high black boots, rolled down at the top, and the magical ability to descend chimneys and deliver presents on a sleigh led by eight flying reindeer.

Still with me? We don’t know what sources Clement Clarke Moore drew upon to create his fanciful vision of Santa Claus. A 2012-2013 exhibit at the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnati informed us of possible influences. The exhibit, “What Makes Reindeer Fly?” was devoted to the role of mushrooms, particularly the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) in cultural traditions. The Fly Agaric is the most iconic of all mushrooms. Its bright red cap, dotted with white cottony spots, is depicted in children’s books such as Alice-in-Wonderland, children’s toys, and even yard ornaments.

In Clement Clarke Moore’s day in the early nineteenth century up to the creation of steam pleasure ships, such as the Titanic, readers experienced the world by reading travel literature. One book featured in the Lloyd Library and Museum’s exhibit by English naturalist Aubyn Trevor-Battye is “Ice-Bound on Kolguev” (1895).

Kolguev is a 1900-square mile island in the Barents Sea, at 69 degrees north latitude. In other words its climate is Arctic. Home to an indigenous tribe once called the Samoyed people, today they are properly known as the Nenets. In Trevor-Battye’s day they were nomads whose economy was entirely dependent upon reindeer for food, clothing, shelter, and mobility. Trevor-Battye planned a month-long birding trip to the Island in July of 1894. Arctic ice blocked passage of boats, so his month-long expedition turned into a year’s journey. He described the reindeer as fleet-of-foot, and when crossing a snow-packed ravine at a gallop, the Nenets’ reindeer-drawn sleds would literally become airborne.

Amanita muscaria, plate 79 from Burnett, M. A. and G. T. Burnett (1847). Plantæ utiliores Vol. 3.

Shamans of the Nenets (and other nomadic indigenous tribes of northern Europe) wore red-dyed reindeer coats, with white fur trim along the bottom, neck, and sleeve edges. High black reindeer skin boots, rolled down at the top were their footwear. Today the Nenets wear rubber boots of the same design. Their red caps were also trimmed with white fur. The colors honor their sacred mushroom the Fly Agaric. The Nenets nomadic dwellings, a cross between a teepee and a yurt, called a “choom” had an open smoke hole at the top. During summer months, Nenets shamans collected the red and white Fly Agaric mushrooms. They dried them, and during the deep snow of winter, shared them with the community, entering the choom through the “chimney” hole at the top. They also shared the mushrooms with their reindeer herds, who relished them and would prance and jump under their influence.

Inspired by the good deeds and benevolence of the second century saint, St. Nicholas, and obscure travel literature that described the shamans and material cultures of ancient indigenous tribes of Arctic Europe, give use the vision of Santa Claus that we know today, transformed into reality by the best traditions of American writers peppered with a high dose of American commerce.

I know for a fact that Santa Claus is real. As an eight-year-old, on Christmas eve, awake in my bed in an old house in Maine with a snow-covered roof, I am positive, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I heard Santa’s sleigh land on the roof. I will never forget the sound of the sleigh bells jingling as he took off.

Top image caption: A Nenets (Samoyed) man throwing a di-zha (lasso) to capture reindeer. Reproduced from Ice-bound on Kolguev: A Chapter in the Exploration of Arctic Europe to Which is Added a Record of the Natural History of the Island by Aubyn Trevor-Battye, published in Westminster by Archibald Constable and Company, 1895.

Field Guide to Medicinal Plants Available NOW

The Third Edition of the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Eastern and Central North America by Steven Foster (me) and James A. Duke are available at your favorite bookstore. | ISBN-10: 0547943989 | ISBN-13: 978-0547943985 | 456 pp., paperback | $21.00 | 

The all new third edition of a Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: eastern and Central North America.
The all new third edition of a Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Eastern and Central North America.

Roger Tory Peterson (1919-1996) wrote and illustrated A Field Guide to Birds: Eastern and Central North America, now in its 6th edition, first published in 1934. He invented the modern 20th century concept of field guides, introducing generations of Americans to the flora, fauna and natural features of North America. Peterson Field Guides have now been for published 80 years.

The third edition of the Foster and Duke Field Guide to Medicinal Plants is  expanded to include 60 new species not found in previous editions. The book includes 531 species accounts with information on 588 medicinal plant species. With 705 color photographs by Steven Foster, over 88% of the images are new. Over 66% of the plants in the book are native species, while 33% represent non-native, mostly European and Asian aliens.

Medicinal plants and herbs are all around us

  • Whether hiking along a remote Appalachian mountain trail or simply observing plants in one’s own yard, medicinal plants can be found everywhere humans live and travel.
  • Can we control invasive alien weeds by finding a use for them? Many homeowners attempt to eliminate weeds from their yards—dandelions, English plantain, and chickweed. Some call them weeds. We call them medicinal plants.
  • Some garden plants, such as English Ivy, are registered as ethical drugs in Europe, in this case for the treatment of coughs and upper respiratory tract infections.

Inspiring Conservation awareness:

  • A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs provides a glimpse of the human experience with plants. Native medicinal plants from the eastern deciduous forest, including black cohosh, goldenseal, and American ginseng are among more than 150 native species that are still harvested from the wild and enter international commerce. Sustainable use of these valuable resources is paramount for future generations.
  • Conservation of these important genetic resources is informed by awareness of their medicinal value.
  • “Without knowledge there is no appreciation. Without appreciation there is no conservation.”

New Research, New Details—Reconciling tradition with science:

  • Uses have been thoroughly updated and revised, with more nuanced detail on historical use in pre-21st century America and elsewhere, including ethnobotanical details by specific native American groups, traditional use by American physicians and herbalists, and information on historic or modern use in Europe, China, and elsewhere.
  • Details on the latest scientific developments that in many cases reveal a rational scientific basis for traditional use.
  • Rather than use the internet or secondary references, the authors went to great lengths to scour the original references from which the information is derived, whether a 17th century renaissance herbal or the latest original scientific studies.
  • Since the publication of the second edition in 2000, worldwide research on medicinal plants has increased by a factor of at least 5-fold. Prior to the year 2000 a PubMED search for Echinacea in the title of a scientific paper returns 80 unique studies. A search for Echinacea in the title between 2000-2013 yields  443 studies.

Names, Distribution, Descriptions, and Flowering Times Updated:

  • The last decade  produced a dramatic increase in the study of plant genetics leading to changes in plant taxonomy and family associations. New taxonomic designations are provided along with the synonyms of familiar scientific names from earlier works.
  • Plant biology and plant geography is dynamic, not static. We have revised and updated geographical distribution and occurrence details. Many non-native species have greatly increased in distribution, a disturbing but important data set.
  • A surprising aspect of revising data was the need to readjust the range of blooming periods. With the effects of climate change, some plants are blooming earlier (or in some cases later), which may reduce or extend flowering or fruiting, depending upon species and distribution range.

Updated Information on safety, toxicity and drug interactions:

  • The book contains appropriate warnings on those plants that can lead to poisoning or toxic reactions, sometimes even by handling the plant. Some plants, such as St. John’s wort are known to interact with enzyme systems that interfere with the absorption of prescription drugs, sometimes increasing or decreasing the drug’s effective dose. Important examples such as St. John’s wort are update to reflect that new research.

Cover of the 1st edition published in 1990.
Cover of the 1st edition published in 1990.

First published in 1990 Steven Foster and Jim Duke’s A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (Softcover: ISBN 0-395-46722-5) featured information on the identification and use of about 500 medicinal plants of eastern and central North America. It was the first modern comprehensive field guide to medicinal plants. The book  included pen and inks by Roger Tory Peterson, Lee Peterson and Jim Blackfeather Rose. A 48-page color insert had nearly 200 photographs.  With 366 pages it was the 40th title in The Peterson Field Guide® Series. If you have the first edition, you don’t have the third edition. Simple as that.

Cover of the 2nd edition published in 2000.
Cover of the 2nd edition published in 2000.

In 2000 we produced a new edition of the title, this time calling it A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Eastern and Central North America, with no line drawings, illustrated with photographs. Herbs had come of age by the year 2000. In 1990, annual herb product sales were about $250 million, and by 1990 they had surpassed $3 billion largely the result of the dietary health and supplement act on 1994, which created the regulatory category of “dietary supplements” and moved herb products from health and natural food stores into the mass market. A few years earlier, the infant internet also began to play a role in marketing and distribution. If you have the second edition, we think you will enjoy the all new third edition.

Surprise or Magic Lilies are just Naked Ladies!

By Steven Foster |

Naked Lady; Surprise Lily; Resurrection Lily; Magic Lily; Lu cong; Lycoris squamigeraNaked ladies or Surprise lilies trumpet their pink splendor in mid to late summer. These beautiful ladies are part of our foreign diversity in Eureka Springs and eastern North America generally, but alas they are just plants. Known as surprise lily, resurrection lily, magic lily or naked ladies, this pretender is laid bare not as a lily at all but a member of the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae). These late blooming beauties produce unnoticed leaves in the spring, which soon die back. Out of the hot bosom of steamy August air a whorl of large showy flowers atop a leafless (naked) stalk pops from the ground.

From a 9 April 1990 article by Sereno Watson in Garden and Forest_A Journal of Horticulture, Landscape Art and Forestry.

Although not generally considered a medicinal plant, it does have bioactive components. Fayetteville, Arkansas’s KUAF Producer, Jacqueline Froelich aired a story on Surprise Lilies on 14 August 2014.   You can listen to the story here.  One of the alkaloids found in Lycoris squamigera is galanthamine, one of several toxic compounds in the plant. It is also  famously known from the related amaryllis family member Galanthus nivalis or snow-drops a common alpine species in mountains of Europe, which is grown as an ornamental in North America, and occasionally naturalized. First isolated in the 1950s, galanthamine, formerly extracted from Galanthus nivalis, is now produced synthetically on an industrial scale. It was used in some parts of the world in the 1950s to treat nerve pain associated with polio. Today, the compound is regarded as a long-acting, selective, reversible and competitive acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor used in the systematic treatment of mild to moderate cognitive impairment in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Naked Lady; Surprise Lily; Resurrection Lily; Magic Lily; Lu cong; Lycoris squamigeraAmaryllis and it relatives cause plant name consternation. The genus Lycoris (to which our naked ladies belong) is native to eastern Asia, while Amaryllis is native to the Western Cape of South Africa. In 1753 Linnaeus named Amaryllis belladonna. Another closely related genus in the Amaryllis family is Hippeastrum from tropical America. The “amaryllis” that bloom around Christmas, available wherever bulbs are sold, are mostly hybrids of South American Hippeastrum species.

Lycoris squamigera #7547 from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1897.

Our common naked lady is the Asian species Lycoris squamigera, an inelegant scientific name for an elegant plant. It superficially resembles the South African Amaryllis belladonna but differs in significant botanical characteristics as well as continent of origin. The first European illustration comes from a periodical famous for its unabashed Victorian paintings of reproductive organs (of plants)—Curtis’s Botanical Magazine volume 123, August 1, 1897.  No doubt many gardeners, horticulturists and botanists have been confused by these relatives in the amaryllis family. It is no surprise that the surprise lily itself has lived under three scientific names over the decades including Hippeastrum squamigerum and Amaryllis hallii as well as the name used for more than a century—Lycoris squamigera.

Living plants were introduced from Japan to America by Dr. George Rogers Hall (1820-1899) of Bristol, Rhode Island upon returning from Yokohama, in 1862. The plant was introduced into the horticultural trade as “Amaryllis hallii” a fanciful name of no botanical standing, and  distributed to the nursery trade by the the Boston seedsman, Charles Mason Hovey. By the late 1800s, having proven itself hardy in New England, other nurserymen widely distributed the bulbs. Dr. Hall who co-founded a hospital in China in 1852, grew it in his Shanghai garden before 1860, and noted it was used by the Chinese to decorate cemeteries. Leaving medicine to enter the export business, Hall’s botanical legacy outshined his medical career. He was the first American to send live plants directly from Japan to New England including Japanese yews, Japanese dogwoods, and our vigorous prolific weed once known as Hall’s Honeysuckle. Protecting his good name, today we know it as Japanese Honeysuckle Lonicera japonica.  The rest, as they say, is history. © 2013-2017

All photos in this piece were taken at The Belladonna Cottage, Eureka Springs, Arkansas | 479-253-1836

Photographed at the 2010 Naked Ladies party at the Belladonna Cottage, Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Photographed at the 2010 Naked Ladies party at the Belladonna Cottage, Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Persimmons—Ripe at Last

| By Steven Foster

Diospyros virginiana, persimmon, was widely used as food and medicine by native groups, who made a paste of the ripe fruits, baked it into loavess about the thickness of the finger. Mixed with cornn meal, it made an excellent bread. Colonial physicians used the dried ripe fruit, the powder of the unripe fruit, the powdered inner bark or the bark of the root taken in wine for treatment of dysentery, diarrhea, fevers, hemorrhoids and other conditions. Used historically for making beer, spirits and wine.
Diospyros virginiana, persimmon, was widely used as food and medicine by native groups, who made a paste of the ripe fruits, baked it into loaves about the thickness of the finger. Mixed with corn meal, it made an excellent bread. Colonial physicians used the dried ripe fruit, the powder of the unripe fruit, the powdered inner bark or the bark of the root taken in wine for treatment of dysentery, diarrhea, fevers, hemorrhoids and other conditions. Used for making beer, spirits and wine.

Fall colors are popping, and piles of pumpkins remind us that cold weather is soon upon us. I love the autumn colors for how they differentiate one tree from another.  A few native trees show-off their fruits this time of year like orange-brown persimmons dangling like holiday ornaments. Persimmons are delicious if they are ripe, which begs the question, which came first, the season’s first frost or the first ripe persimmon? Conventional wisdom is that persimmons ripen once they are hit by a frost. This year, we have yet to have a frost, but I’ve been plucking ripe persimmons for two weeks.  I enjoy their sweet flavor and mealy texture, projecting the seeds with a purse of the lips like one ejects watermelon seeds. Given the timing, I can only conclude that the first frost and the ripening of persimmons occur at about the same time each year no matter what the weather.

Experience teaches any wild food enthusiast that you bite into an unripe persimmon only once. The high astringency sucks every bit of moisture from one’s mouth! This year as I’ve tested persimmons for ripeness with a gentle squeeze to determine their softness, my curiosity leads me to inspect each persimmon. I notice s that those persimmons that are ripe show signs of interest by small creatures. Maybe it’s a small hole or the remnants of a web on the outside, or some other little evidence of a bug. My theory is that when a bug bites a persimmon, they inject or induce some enzymatic reaction that hastens the fruit’s ripening; a twist of coevolution.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmon As I ponder information that I’ve collected on persimmons, all roads lead back to the time of George Washington’s presidency. In 1792, a physician and chemist, James Woodhouse (1770-1809) completed his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, with publication of “An Inaugural Dissertation, on the Chemical and Medical Properties of the Persimmon Tree, and the Analysis of Astringent Vegetables.


The persimmon tree, called piakimine, we learn from early explorers, wewoodhouse-james-1792-persimmon-dissertation_page_01re widely used as food and medicine by native groups, who made a paste of the ripe fruits, baked it into flat cakes about the thickness of the finger. Mixed with flour from other food sources, it made an excellent bread. Colonial physicians used the dried ripe fruit, the powder of the unripe fruit, the powdered inner bark or the bark of the root taken in wine for treatment of dysentery. Woodhouse records a treatment for hemorrhoids “as useful as any, in the cure of the disease.” It is a mixture of the juice of unripe persimmons with hog’s lard, “sugar of lead” [lead acetate which actually has a sweet taste] and opium.

The potential of the unripe juice of persimmons in tanning leathers excited Thomas Jefferson. Woodhouse suggested that three Diospyros virginiana, persimmonhundred persimmon trees, producing an average of four bushels of fruits could produce six pounds of gum resin per tree which would be far superior to oak bark for tanning. It would require less labor, less capital and be far cleaner [for the environment] than the standard tannery of the day which relied upon oak bark. For a time, North Carolina commercially cultivated persimmons. In the South, when forests were cleared, persimmon trees were preserved, which is perhaps why we have an abundance of persimmon trees around old Ozark farmsteads today.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmonRipe fruits can be collected and squeezed through a strainer to remove the seeds and as much of the skin as possible, then put away in the freezer until needed. A wide variety of products can be made from the dried, frozen or fresh fruits. This is best reflected in the pages of Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook (Workman Press, 1976.) Billy Joe transformed wild edibles from the realm of survival foods to haute cuisine. In her popular book she includes recipes for Persimmon breads, cookies (with chocolate chips), Persimmon and corn meal muffins, custard, fruit cake, Indian-style pudding, jam, jelly, pie, pinwheels, sherbet and even Persimmon soufflé.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmon

During Civil War years rebel soldiers used Persimmon seeds as a coffee substitute. In attempts to find substitute products unavailable because of Union blockades on southern ports, the southern fields and forests became creative sources of replacement commodities. Recipes were developed for Persimmon syrups, vinegar, coffee, and beer.

In D.J. Browne’s Sylva Americana (1832) the author relates:

“The fruit is sometimes pounded with bran, and formed into cakes which are dried in an oven, and kept to make beer, for which purpose they are dissolved in warm water with the addition of hops and leaven. It was long since found that brandy might be made from this fruit, by distilling the water, previously fermented, in which they have been bruised. This liquor is said to become good as it acquires age.”

Diospyros virginiana, persimmonPersimmon is a member of the Ebony Family (Ebenaceae). The genus Diospyros, the largest in the family, has 500 or more species widely distributed in Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean Region, South and North America. Though primarily a genus of tropical regions with just a few species enduring colder climates, the fossil remains of ancient Diospyros species are recorded from the Miocene deposits of Alaska and Greenland, and the Cretaceous formations of Nebraska.

Diospyros virginiana – Persimmon, Possumwood, Possum Apple, Date Plum, or Virginia Date Plum as it is variously known, is the species found in eastern North America. A second North American species Diospyros texana occurs in river valleys of southwestern Texas, extending into Mexico.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmonDiospyros kaki and D. lotus, two east Asian species, have been cultivated for centuries in China as a fruit crop. Many new cultivated sweet and seedless varieties have been developed over the years. The Asian fruit-producing species are sometimes grown in warmer regions of the U.S. as a minor cash crop. It is interesting to note that the temperate North American Diospyros virginiana is much more closely related to the East Asian D. lotus (occurring from the northwestern Himalayas through eastern China to Japan), than it is to South American relatives. The leaves of the two species are strikingly similar. Some botanists have asserted that unlabeled specimens of the two species could be laid side-by-side, and an expert would be hard-put to determine which was which.

The generic name Diospyros means “fruit of Zeus”, apparently referring to the life-giving properties of the fruits. The specific epithet “virginiana” obviously refers to the region from which it was first collected.


What will the future hold for Persimmons? The fruits have an endless possibility for variety and development of new products. A curious natural product scientist might follow the lead of studying the use of Persimmon seeds for kidney stones. Wood workers might find novel uses for the tough, tight-grained material. And maybe one or two of you will stop at a fruit-laden Persimmon tree on your way to the supermarket and collect a few pounds of a divine native fruit.

Diospyros virginiana, persimmon

White Snakeroot—History Blooming

By Steven Foster |

The autumn of 1818 was a difficult period for families in the small Indiana settlement of Little Pigeon Creek. Dennis Friend Hanks, a 19-year old, lived with his maternal grandparents, Thomas and Elizabeth Sparrows who died that fall from the milk sickness. The Sparrows lived on the homestead of their young niece whom they had raised, Nancy Hanks Lincoln along with her husband Thomas,  and their children 11-year-old, Sarah, and 9-year-old Abraham. On October 5, 1818, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, also died from the “milk sickness” a disease that had only been described in 1810 by Daniel Drake as a brief notice of a “new disease” in Cincinnati. The “milk sickness” was a perplexing fatal disease that took the lives of thousands in the Western frontier in the nineteenth century. It often affected entire families and destroyed communities. The only way to contract the disease was by drinking milk or eating butter. The cause of the disease confounded science into the 1920s.

Ageratina altissima, Eupatorium rugosum, Ageratum altissimum, White Snakeroot, Milk Poison Plant

Attempting to secure milk for his party camped north of St. Louis in 1827, T. L. M’Kenny, Chief of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was told by a settler that after early spring, people stopped using milk. M’Kenny was among the first to speculate that the milk must be tainted from the cows eating a poisonous weed.  By the late nineteenth century one plant, a wildflower, with white, button-like flowerheads less than a 1/2-inch across emerged as a suspect—White Snakeroot. Blooming in late summer and early fall, this native weedy wildflower once called Eupatorium rugosum is now known as Ageratina altissima.

In 1908 a USDA researcher, A. C. Crawford authored a U.S.D.A Bulletin “The supposed relationship of white snakeroot to milksickness or trembles.” He had proven that the dried plant produced no symptoms of milk sickness. Science is not always as it seems. He missed an important clue. Milk sickness only occurred during the growing season before the first frost of autumn. He only tested dried plant material and only proved that the dried plant was inert.

In 1926, another USDA chemist, James F. Couch, showed that fresh—not dried—White Snakeroot caused milk sickness. The following year he isolated the chemical complex—tremetol—as the toxic component. The mystery of milk sickness which claimed Abraham Lincoln’s mother and countless thousands of other settlers had finally been solved.

A version of this story was published in my weekly “Eureka Nature” column in the October 17, 2013 edition of the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper. I visited friends in Missouri on October 20th. They homestead a rich 80-acre Ozark farm in Douglas County, Missouri. They have goats. One died in the spring of 2013 of what a vet determined was “probably a parasitic infection.” The mother of four children suffered neurological symptoms. The family consumed a gallon of goat’s milk per day. Her husband stopped drinking goat’s milk that spring. It made him feel ill, leading him to the conclusion that he may have an allergy to goat’s milk. It made him nauseous. Once he stopped drinking goat’s milk, his health problems disappeared. The family’s and their livestocks’ collective symptoms, along with the presence of white snakeroot around their farm made me wonder—is milk sickness still with us, confined to small homesteads of back-to-the-landers, with symptoms of both livestock and humans completely unrecognized in modern medicine and thus unreported?