A Folly of Mind Finds a Path to Truth

Steven Foster

Sometimes you get beliefs in your head that stick there for decades, which you hold as fact, then discover in a moment of surprise that you were wrong all along. Where does silver maple originate?

The vast library of original works available on the internet is a marvelous world for natural history buffs. I’ve downloaded searchable PDF files of hundreds of books—free books—virtual images of the entire book in its original type face, the paper just as one would see in the original. One can almost smell the leather binding or feel the supple weave of handmade eighteenth century paper.

I came across one forgotten book residing in digital chaos on my hard drive that I had plucked from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (www.biodiveristylibrary.org), Mark Catesby’s 1767 posthumously published work Hortus Europae Americanus “Or a Collection of 85 Curious Trees and Shrubs, the Produce of North America adapted to the Climates and Soils of Great-Britain, Ireland, and most Parts of Europe.”

Catesby (1682-1749) an English naturalist who lived in America from 1712-1719, then again from 1722-1726 is best remembered for his monumental folio volumes The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published from 1731-1742, with color plates of historical importance such as the first illustration of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Find an original set, and you can own it for a half-million dollars, or just follow a link on your computer and you can download or view the entire work. Catesby’s small but more detailed Hortus has always been hidden in the shadow of his great Natural History of Carolina. The internet is the great proletariat rare book reading room.

Flipping through the pages of Catesby’s Hortus led me to other very obscure rare works where I discovered that my notion that the silver maple (Acer saccharinum), is a foreign weed tree turns out to be a belief that is simply a folly of my own mind. This fast-growing tree with wood inelegant for any material purpose is native to much of eastern North America. A circuitous path through digitized old books led to the truth.


Published by

Steven Foster

Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals. For forty-six years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram. Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.