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Book Review: The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry

The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry by Ann Armbrecht. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing; 2021. Softcover, 288 pages. ISBN 978-1-60358-748-8. $24.95.

By Mark Blumenthal

The Business of Botanicals by Ann Armbrecht, PhD, is like no other book of which I am aware. It is in a category of its own. The only book I canThe Business of Botanicals cover begin to compare it to is Herbal Pathfinders: Voices of the Herb Renaissance (Woodbridge Press, 1983) by Robert Conrow and Arlene Hecksel, which profiles numerous people who were prominent in the emerging world of herbal medicine in the United States back in the early 1970s (many of whom are included in this book, as well). But The Business of Botanicals is not a collection of herbalist profiles. It explores more than 40 years of development of the modern US herbal industry and the history of herbal pioneers, their values and beliefs, and emergent issues related to healing, medicinal plant wildcrafting and cultivation, the supply chains (value networks, as we here at the American Botanical Council [ABC] prefer to call them), quality control, regulation, sustainability concerns, and more. And, of course, as its name states, this book covers not only the people but also the business that has evolved from the growing international interest in and development and use of medicinal plants.

In the interest of full disclosure, I know Ann well, and we work together on almost a daily basis as she is the founder and director of the Sustainable Herbs Program (SHP), which has been part of ABC since 2018. In addition, I am one of the informants for and subjects in the book. While I previously have reviewed books by friends and colleagues in the herb and medicinal plant research and education community, I have never reviewed a book by an ABC employee.

This book covers a lot of territory. In addition to the areas mentioned above, it also discusses vitalism as viriditas (nature has a healing power as seen in plants and their greenness) and some of the “spiritual” aspects of herbalism, the consciousness of the modern herb pioneers and their dedication to a lifestyle in which herbal medicine is an integral part of their worldviews and lives, and much more. In all of this, one learns of Armbrecht’s own journey into and through the world of herbs and herbal medicine and how she has evolved her own thinking about the various challenges inherent in bringing healing plants and their derivative products to an increasingly large consumer market.

My good friend and close colleague Steven Foster refers to the annual herbalist gatherings that herb community godmother Rosemary Gladstar initiated at the Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon back in the 1980s and 1990s as “herbal hippie summer camp.” Reading through parts of this book, I felt teleported back in time to some of those gatherings with many of my botanical brothers and sisters.

Of course, the book goes well beyond dealing with pioneering herbal hippies. It covers many of the compelling issues facing the US and global herb industry in the past 40-plus years. The homepage of SHP’s website (www.sustainableherbsprogram.org) asks: “Do you know where your herbs come from?” and “Do you know why it matters?” The central questions of this book might be: “Do you know where the modern herbal industry comes from?” and “Do you know why that matters?”

This is not the first time Armbrecht has created an educational project about the herb industry and its extended community. In 2009, she and her husband, filmmaker and musician Terry Youk, produced Numen: The Healing Power of Plants, a full-length documentary film on healing plants and some of the leading herbalists in the United States. Many of the people in the film are quoted in this book.

Armbrecht earned a doctorate in cultural anthropology at Harvard, and she has an anthropologist’s gestalt, studying how healing plants have played a pivotal role in the development of cultures, how humans interact with and impact plants, and how plants influence people. Much of the impetus for the book and her interest in herbs derives from her travels in India and Nepal, which are cited frequently in the text. Some of the book’s subjects are informed by Armbrecht’s travels in India in 2017, during her Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Fellowship. There, she investigated the path of numerous traditional Ayurvedic herbs through the value network, whether they were destined for the domestic market or were exported to markets in the European Union or United States (and elsewhere), to respond to a growing international demand for Ayurvedic herbal remedies. The book is like her quest to learn more about how people interact and develop plant medicines and how that process, in turn, shaped the modern global herb industry. 

Armbrecht interviewed many herbalists and US herb industry and community veterans, who provide unique and valuable insights into their perspectives, experiences, and values. These include, but are not limited to: Paul Bergner, Peggy Brevoort, Josef Brinckmann, Stephen Buhner, Steven Foster, Rosemary Gladstar, Christopher Hobbs, PhD, David Hoffmann, Lon Johnson, Sara Katz, Paul Lee, PhD, Lynda LeMole, Phyllis Light, Tieraona Low Dog, MD, Drake Sadler, Ed Smith, Deb Soule, Roy Upton, Mark Wheeler, me, and others. She also includes information from her time spent with Sebastian Pole, co-founder of Pukka Herbs in the United Kingdom, and Ben Heron, then the sustainable herbs manager at Pukka.

In Chapter 2, “The Modern Renaissance of Herbal Medicine,” she focuses on Gladstar and her then-partner Sadler, two leading energizers of the modern herbal movement. Armbrecht discusses how Gladstar’s classes expanded public knowledge of herbs and acknowledges her many contributions to the modern herbal scene. Gladstar started a small herb shop with herbal formulas that were produced by Sadler, which became the foundational formulas for the company Traditional Medicinals (TM). Later in the book, Armbrecht circles back to Sadler and his wife Nioma’s compelling work through the Traditional Medicinals Foundation that supports rural communities in Rajasthan, India, which produce senna (Senna spp., Fabaceae), a key ingredient in TM’s popular Smooth Move® laxative tea.

I am grateful to Armbrecht for envisioning this publication and for spending the time and energy to outline it, interview people, write, and edit it. The book illustrates her perspective as a cultural anthropologist, focusing on the evolution of part of the modern botanical medicine products industry. She deals with elements of the complex fabric of the global medicinal plant community, but one book is not capable of presenting the history and modern aspects of the entire global supply network for herbs and medicinal and aromatic plants. However, what this book does do is provide numerous insights into the people and other aspects of the modern herb movement and the growing natural products industry. 

 The Business of Botanicals can be considered a reflection of a large, growing trend in the herb community: a level of consciousness about environmental stewardship and sustainable and regenerative practices, which she explores throughout the book. With her storytelling style, Armbrecht has captured the spirit of this movement that benefits the planet, plants, and people.

The book follows the growth and transformation of Armbrecht’s own thinking, as she initially approached the “industry” as something that might be foreign and perhaps even adverse to the environment, plants, and people who produce the plants. (Can industrially-produced botanical products still contain some of the vital force of the plant?) Her awareness appears to have changed as she engaged with herbal entrepreneurs and leaders. The book shares her growth into a deeper understanding of the challenges facing herb entrepreneurs with respect to sourcing high-quality materials and bringing them to market. The book was completed just prior to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, but if she had had the opportunity to write this book during the pandemic, she would presumably be even more optimistic about the prospects of a vital and vibrant herb industry, as millions of consumers are learning about the beneficial impact of diet, lifestyle, and supplementation with herbal teas and dietary supplements on the immune system.

People already familiar with the herb trade will find Chapter 4, “The Herb Industry,” to be possibly the most information-dense and relevant, while people unfamiliar with the trade may find it highly educational, constructive, and illuminating. From an industry and business perspective, per the book’s title, this chapter contains perhaps the most substance.

This book contains so much information that it is a great read for herbal medicine beginners as well as veterans with years of experience in this fascinating and rewarding field. I highly recommended this book for herbalists and members of the herbal medicine community but also for those who come from a background of finance, consumer packaged goods, and private equity who increasingly represent the current ownership and management of many herb and dietary supplement companies.

Mark Blumenthal is the founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council.

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