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Musings on Nature blog

Steven Foster

Last weekend I found myself in a beautiful meadow beside Lake Leatherwood in Eureka Springs celebrating the life of Steven Foster (1957 – 2022), probably our nation’s leading authority on the historical uses of herbal medicines. Though I didn’t know him well, I recognized his importance to the world of herbal medicine and wanted to be there to remember his many accomplishments.

A LEGEND IN HIS FIELD — Steven Foster, an expert on herbal medicines, was remembered in a memorial service where the city of Eureka Springs dedicated a trail and limestone glade in his honor. (Image courtesy Gerald Klingaman.)

I knew of Steven for over 30 years because of the publication of his book, Echinacea: Nature’s Immune Enhancer, but didn’t get to sit down and talk to him for another decade. In preparation for an article I was doing for the Springdale Morning News¸ I went to Eureka Springs to interview him for an upcoming talk he was giving at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks.

We met in his office and immediately I recognized a kindred spirit. As a book lover with, what I considered a pretty respectable library of my own, I was taken aback by his collection that dwarfed my paltry collection of a couple thousand books. I remember he had a copy of The Flora of China, a work I often referenced online, in both English and Chinese editions! The last time I talked to him was last fall when I sought him out for advice as I broke up my library while downsizing my life.

Steven Foster’s legacy in the herbal medicine world runs deep as a dedicated scholar in the field. As a self-taught botanist, he authored or co-authored nineteen books on medicinal and aromatic plants and had a curated collection of more than 150,000 plant images. Steven didn’t just take pictures of plants, he took portraits of them that showed their characteristics in beautiful and revealing ways.

A few weeks ago I mentioned in these columns discovering a patch of goldenseal and described how the herbal plant industry worked with the Food and Drug Administration to establish guidelines that led to the explosion of herbal product sales in the big box retail stores. It turns out Steven was in on the early part of this by assisting in explaining the rules German regulators used in that country as related to herbal medicine usage.

His formative years in the herbal industry began in 1974 at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in New Gloucester, Maine, a community that has served as purveyors of herbs and herbal wisdom since 1799. He said that the four years he spent there learning their practices and studying in their library formed the foundation for what he did for the rest of his life.

His authorship, photography and expertise led him to serve as an herbal consultant all over the world. He traveled extensively in Europe, Asia and South and Central America. During his all-too-short career he was awarded several industry awards and was generally recognized by his peers as a soft-spoken, generous soul.

To the author of a piece on Steven for a profile by the American Botanical Council, he related: “Who has time for hobbies? I am fortunate in that my work is my life. I love plants, books on plants, photographing plants and learning about plants and the people associated with them. It is what I eat, sleep and drink.”

To honor his life the City Parks Department of Eureka Springs dedicated the Foster Trail and Glade in Lake Leatherwood Park. Walking the trail, inspecting the late spring wildflowers that were blooming on the shallow shelves of limestone, I considered this a fitting memorial for a man who dedicated his life to the study and appreciation of plant life.