business of botanicals book review

Here’s What you Need to Know about
The Business of Botanicals

Decades ago, long before I had read The Business of Botanicals by Ann Armbrecht, I became concerned about the food I was eating. I read about increasing levels of pesticides, reduced nutrients, and vast swaths of diverse native habitats replaced with monoculture crops. Investigative journalism revealed abusive treatment, dangerous working conditions, and poor pay for agricultural workers. Another concern was the excessive use of fossil fuels to grow, harvest, process, package, and ship food. Over the last four decades, local food economies disappeared as international corporations assumed control of the world’s global food supply. My response was to grow more of my food and advocate for sustainable local food economies.

During this same period, I had begun my studies of herbalism. I developed a small herb garden, growing culinary and tea herbs. The more herbs I read about, the more I wanted to explore them. There was no herb store in my community, so I turned to the internet and discovered multiple retailers that offered an abundance of herbs. Like many beginners, I was excited about this abundance: ordering and exploring many of the herbal offerings of the online retail buffet of medicinal herbs.

In those early years, while I wrote and railed about our destructive global food system, I failed to perform the same scrutiny of my herbal purchases. I had no idea where and how my purchased herbs were grown, who is harvesting and processing them, how well growers and wildcrafters are compensated and treated, how the herbs are processed, what measures are used to ensure their potency, and what, if any, sustainable practices are in place to preserve wild populations.

During the last quarter of the 20th century, a renewed global interest in herbalism escalated the demand for wildcrafted medicinal plants. In 1994, Rosemary Gladstar gathered a diverse group of people to discuss the increasing harvesting pressure on North American native medicinals, and the non-profit United Plant Savers (UpS) was born. Its mission “is to protect native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada and their native habitat while ensuring an abundant renewable supply of medicinal plants for generations to come.” 1 This focused attention on the sustainability of North American medicinal plants has influenced the growing recognition that many of the medicinal plants worldwide are threatened with overharvesting, habitat destruction, skilled labor shortages, and the effects of climate change.

business of botanicals book review

Enrolled in Rosemary’s herbal instruction program, writer Ann Armbrecht became interested in learning how the values of sustainability are practiced by American herbalists. Ann, an anthropologist whose research focused on the relationship between people and the land they inhabited in rural Nepal, observed a connection of respect and the sacred with their natural surroundings. Did American herbal users have a similar relationship? Did they know the stories of the herbs they use? Could they trace the global path of plant to medicine?

Armbrecht’s first project was Numen: The Healing Power of Plants, a documentary film that explored and celebrated traditional Western herbalism. As she learned more about the global herbal industry, she created the Sustainable Herbs Program “to tell the stories of the people and plants behind the products on the shelves.”2 The website offers herbalists, consumers, and the botanical industry resources and tools to understand the global supply of botanicals.

business of botanicals book review

Diving into The Business of Botanicals

Armbrecht’s latest effort is a book that every herbal consumer should read: The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry, is a journey that Armbrecht undertook to “follow medicinal plants through the supply chain, from the woods and fields where they grew to the facilities and warehouses where they were processed and stored to the factories where they heated, treated, and packaged.”3 She is a gifted storyteller who traveled to Eastern Europe, India, and various places in the U.S. to meet some of the wildcrafters, farmers, processors, exporters, and wholesale buyers who contribute to the $37 billion herbal supplement sales in the US (2019).4

One of the most appealing aspects of the The Business of Botanicals is Armbrecht’s personal experiences, revelations, and questions woven into each chapter. Her introduction to herbal medicine will sound familiar to many readers, and she offers an inkling of her research with this initial question: “When, and how, had medicine become a product to buy instead of a skill we could share?”5 She describes the tradition, benefits, and science of properly harvested medicinal herbs and the notion of “signature of place.” Describing her interest in herbal medicine, she acknowledges that the process — the growing and harvesting — is as important as the final product. Thinking about the herbal supplements aisle in grocery stores, her curiosity led her to the question that informs one of the book’s themes: how had herbal medicine become “transformed from the traditional practices of kitchen medicine…to an incredibly complex, mechanized, sanitized global supply chain?”6

The Business of Botanicals begins the exploration of this question in chapter two, “The Modern Renaissance of Herbal Medicine” and is key to understanding how a global herb industry was born. The next chapter dives into the brutal history of the spice trade and its legacy of colonialism. One of the historical tales is provided by ethnobotanist Claudia Ford: her research examines how knowledge about using plants as medicine has disappeared and her realization that plants identified in historical documents had stories to tell.

Like many of us who study, grow, and use herbal remedies, Armbrecht’s early perception of herbal medicine making was an idealized, romanticized one formed out of her classwork, her personal experiences of wildcrafting, growing, medicine making, and her interactions with other herbalists. Her exposure to herbal consults at a free clinic radically changed that perception as she witnessed a client empty a backpack filled with dietary supplements, herbal products, and vitamins, all purchased through a variety of retailers. Armbrecht quickly recognized that the mainstream understanding of herbalism (health-in-a-bottle) was the fuel that was driving the global market and creating an industry.7

Cultivating Sustainable Herbalism

The Business of Botanicals’ remaining chapters describe Armbrecht’s observations, interviews, and conversations with people who are actively engaged in developing and maintaining herbal supply networks that are focused on quality and sustainability of the herbs while ethically serving the needs of wildcrafters and growers. It’s in these chapters that the complexity and challenges of a global supply emerge.

Consider the simple process of drying herbs: herbalists typically use air drying as the primary method, and if they forget about the drying herbs during the busy season of harvesting, it’s generally okay.  Commercial herb processors use mechanical dryers and are managing many species and plant parts. Knowledge, experience, and attention are mandatory skills when overseeing the drying process of many species.

Her description of a processing center in Eastern Poland is one of industrialization: workers operate a factory of machines that cut, sift, and clean the herbs. Conveyor belts, metal bins, screens, and nozzles that feed the final product into bags complete this industrial image. Workers then move the filled bags to warehouses for storage until companies ship them to buyers. Throughout The Business of Botanicals, Armbrecht describes the varied landscapes of a global herb supply network: from hot, dry villages in India to bucolic herb farms in North America and from noisy, machine-filled processing centers to controlled access, sterile labs.

Her chapter on plant collectors (i.e., wildcrafters) was eye-opening. Mostly older people who live in rural areas, wildcrafters bring their foraged bags of herbs to processing centers to sell. For years, quality was all over the map, but there was no system of source traceability, which resulted in a lack of quality control. Eventually, people designed a system that increased the consistency of quality collection by increasing pay for knowledgeable collectors. Once again, knowledge and experience are key: do the collectors know when to harvest? What species? And does the buyer have the knowledge to identify plants and recognize quality?

business of botanicals book review

business of botanicals book review

Cultivating medicinal herbs on a commercial scale is viewed as part of the solution for maintaining a herbal supply while protecting wild populations. Armbrecht meets with an array of farmers in both America and India. Anyone who has an herb garden can already imagine the challenges of proper timing, labor supply, and cost effectiveness on a large scale. As much as I love to grow herbs I had to consider these factors and rethink growing some herbs in my personal herb garden. Her chapter “Tending the Garden” offers insight on the challenges that commercial herb growers face: the balance “between providing quality that they believed was necessary and keeping costs under control.”8

My favorite chapter was “Supporting Supply Communities,” in which Armbrecht depicts some of the harsh realities of the lives of impoverished people who grow and harvest herbs. In the hot Thar Desert of Northwestern India, farmers unable to grow grains sowed senna, an herb used in laxative tea blends. Traditional Medicinals, maker of Smooth Move tea, desired a reliable source of high-grade senna and traveled to the region to investigate the possibilities.

Traditional Medicinals quickly discovered two important things: the small farming communities had no immediate access to water and the farmers focused on the harvested amounts rather than the medicinal qualities of their senna crops. Young girls and women in the village spent up to five hours each day walking to collect water and carrying it back. Farmers harvested the senna plants after they flowered because that’s when the plants weighed the most. But higher levels of sennosides, the active ingredient of senna, are present before the plants flower. Investments in agricultural studies to determine best practices and building a relationship with the farmers by committing to pay more for higher-quality senna was the beginning of partnerships that resulted in creating a water system and a school for farmers’ children. I found the herb company foundation’s effort to improve the lives of these farmers heartwarming. Not only was it the ethical thing to do, but it also served the needs of the business and its access to quality herbs.

business of botanicals book review

Why You Should Read The Business of Botanicals

Because of the storytelling, the conversations, and the honest appraisals offered by Armbrecht, The Business of Botanicals is a compelling book. I admit I almost dismissed the book because of its title: the word business conjures up dizzying visions of accounting, marketing, and management strategies. In fact, the book is about the business of herbs, but with plants and people at the front and center of its message.

The Business of Botanicals should be required reading for herbalists and herb consumers. Years ago beloved herbal icon, Rosemary Gladstar summed up our responsibility, and her message remains true: “If we choose to use plants as our medicine, we then become accountable for the wild gardens, their health, and their upkeep.”9

Show 9 footnotes

  1. “Our Mission at UpS.” United Plant Savers, July 3, 2018. https://unitedplantsavers.org/40-our-mission-ups/.
  2. Armbrecht, Ann. “History.” Sustainable Herbs Program, January 15, 2020. https://sustainableherbsprogram.org/about/history/.
  3. Armbrecht, Ann. Introduction. In The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2021.
  4. Armbrecht, The Business of Botanicals.
  5. Armbrecht, The Business of Botanicals.
  6. Armbrecht, The Business of Botanicals.
  7. Armbrecht, The Business of Botanicals.
  8. Armbrecht, The Business of Botanicals.
  9. Gladstar, Rosemary, and Pamela Hirsch. Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs. Inner Traditions / Bear & Co, 2000.
8 comments
  1. I am very interested

  2. Thank you. I am grateful to have received your learning herbs email that brought me here to read this evaluation of Ann Armbrechts’ book. Certainly a salt lick! And with a link to purchase you may lead me to the waters of purchasing her book. Thank you.

  3. I very much enjoyed the review of this beautiful botanical book.

    I also was searching for a link button to immediately purchase it.

    • Thank you for your feedback — I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed the review. We’ll add a link to the book within the article. And in the meantime, here’s a link to Ann Armbrecht’s website: http://annarmbrecht.com/ :)

  4. Hi all,
    Thanks for the review of Ann’s book. I would like to purchase it too.
    We are indebted to all of you herbalists who put your work and practice out for us to learn and explore and I am very grateful for this.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Josephine! I hope you enjoy the book :)

  5. Hhi Tara
    I followed your link to Ann’s site and tried to purchase her book from a number of the companies she lists only to find that they don’t ship to lots of countries because of Covid or in my case in Ireland, Europe because of Brexit. Pity.
    If you put it on your site maybe it will be the same but I hope not. It sounds like a great read.

    • Hi Josephine,

      I’m sorry to hear that you can’t access the book. We’re not putting the book on our site, so I hope one of the other companies changes their policies. Or perhaps you can purchase a digital version. I wish you all the best!

Comments are closed.

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