Photographer, Author, Mentor, Friend
By Chrissy Moore
If you’ve spent time in the herb world, you’ve likely come across the name Steven Foster, one of the greatest luminaries of and advocates for herbs in our generation. Sadly, Steven passed away earlier this month. He touched many lives and influenced thousands more with his writing, his impeccable photographs, and his expert knowledge of herbs. If you haven’t “met” Steven yet, we hope that these remembrances will inspire you to learn more about him and his many personal, artistic, and academic herbal contributions.
The American Botanical Council’s founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal, says of Steven, “[He] was one of the most brilliant people in the entire American and international herb community. The author or co-author of 19 books and hundreds of articles, and a true master of the herbal literature, especially the Eclectic medical literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, Steven was also a renowned photographer of herbs and medicinal plants with an eye for beauty in every leaf and flower who was unparalleled in the global botanical community.
“A self-taught botanist, and without any higher education, Steven knew as much or usually more about botany and the history of the literature on herbal medicine than many academics with numerous advanced degrees. His knowledge and memory of the botanical literature was almost photographic, and he had a beautifully eloquent way to explain and communicate his herbal wisdom” recounts Blumenthal (2022).
Mr. Foster was “an author with [more than] 15 herb-related books published (the first when he was 25), an associate editor for HerbalGram and other botanically-oriented publications, a board member, a consultant, and a self proclaimed ‘life-long student of medicinal and aromatic plants’” (Lindner, 2008).
Foster co-authored the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants with the late Dr. James Duke (The Green Pharmacy), providing the photography for over 500 herbs within the text. Erin Holden, herbalist, horticulturist, and co-blogmaster of The Herb Society of America’s blog, stated that she “was sorry to hear about Steven Foster’s death. The Peterson Guide he did with Jim Duke was the first plant ID book that really helped me get into plants. As a newbie to plant ID, his photos helped me easily figure out what I was looking at in the woods, and from there, I was able to build a solid foundation before moving on to more detailed field guides. It was a gateway book, and I’m not sure I’d have stayed on the ‘plant path’ if I hadn’t found it.” Thankfully, Erin did stay on the “plant path.” She earned a Master’s in Herbal Medicine and, later, joined the staff of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum.
Tina Marie Wilcox of the Ozark Folk Center shares that, “Steven Foster began mentoring me for my position as head gardener and herbalist for the Ozark Folk Center’s Heritage Herb Garden in Mountain View, Arkansas, in 1986. His book, Herbal Bounty, the Gentle Art of Herb Culture, had been in circulation for two years. The plant kingdom planted me firmly at the feet of the master. Steven’s intellect would have been too intimidating had he not been such a patient and kindred spirit. He explained Latin plant classifications, plant identification, and introduced me to the chemistry of plants.”
“Steven Foster lectured for herb events at the Ozark Folk Center many times over the decades, twice with Dr. James A. Duke. For the Heritage Herb Spring Extravaganza in 2009, during the evening concert, as Dr. Duke performed songs from “The Herbalbum” with Ozark Folk Center musicians, Steven’s photographs depicted the herbs on the silver screen behind the musicians. I could not have transcended any higher in those moments. I believe his spirit lives on in his work and in the next realm.”
Holly Shimizu, Director of the US Botanic Garden (Ret.) in Washington, DC, and first curator of the National Herb Garden, recalls, “I got to know Steven in the last several years while serving on the Board of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. I was amazed at Steven’s intelligence, loved his witty sense of humor, and we both shared a passion for plants. I turned to Steven for his opinions, thoughts, and support because I recognized his intuitive wisdom. One can always tell when an herb photograph has been taken by Steven because of its excellence, detail, and extraordinary beauty. His books and articles are beautifully written, accurately researched, and trusted reference material. We once had a conversation about herbals, it turned into a long conversation, because his knowledge and collection of old herb references is absolutely amazing.”
Author, chef, and herb connoisseur, Susan Belsinger, shares the following:
“Over the years, I have been at many herbal events when Steven was there—sometimes he was presenting or getting an award, or we were both presenting—and occasionally we were there for pleasure. As much as we both loved herbs and made them our life’s work, we also loved good food and libations.
However, what I enjoyed most with Steven was heading out into nature with our cameras, botanizing with him was the best! I learned a lot from him about identifying plants and taking photos of botanicals while out on walks—and I took a photography course with him at IHS (International Herb Symposium). He had a brilliant mind and such an artistic eye—I have never seen such exquisite botanical photographs as his. Steven was a thoughtful teacher, and he guided so many of us in so many ways. It didn’t matter if you were a novice or had a number of degrees—he listened and was patient and helpful. And, of course, there was his quirky sense of humor, not to mention that impish grin, and oh, how he made us laugh!
Steven Foster was a serious academic and a savvy businessman; he was down-to-earth and had a heart of gold, and he shared his knowledge willingly. He was a man who lived through his senses and knew them intimately; his appreciation and knowledge of herbs and spices led him around the world. His keen eye and awareness of detail in his photography makes him unrivaled in capturing botanical images. He was truly an epicurean and shared his delight in smell and taste and the pleasures of the table. [He had a] big heart—it overflowed with his love and joy for his family and friends—you could see it in his soulful eyes.
The past few days, I have read countless tributes and memories about Steven—and all of them reveal what a sensitive, creative, and caring man he was. He was a family man—proud of every member of his tribe–and adored Donna and loved his kids and grandkids. Our hearts are broken and the herbal world has been rocked with the loss of Steven. We are thankful to have shared the time that we had with him…. He has left us too soon, though he has given us his herbal legacy in his wonderful books and photographs.”
If you have the opportunity, we encourage you to invite Steven Foster–and his work–into your life. Let him be an herbal mentor and friend to you, if only posthumously. You will be richer for it. Thank you, Steven, for all that you have done for the advancement of herbal knowledge in our world. You will be missed.
Photo Credits: 1) Steven Foster (Susan Belsinger); 2) Steven Foster and Mark Blumenthal (Holly Shimizu); 3) Peterson Field Guides Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants (Public Domain); 4) Harvesting saw palmetto berries (Steven Foster); 5) James A. Duke singing with Ozark Folk Center musicians and Steven Foster’s images showing on the screen (Tina Wilcox); 6) Steven Foster cover photo of HerbalGram (American Botanical Counsel); 7) S. Belsinger, R. Gladstar, T. Wilcox, and S. Foster (S. Belsinger); 8) Steven Foster wearing silly hat (S. Belsinger); 9) Donna and Steven Foster (S. Belsinger).
Blumenthal, Mark. 2022. Herbal Medicine Community Mourns the Death of Steven Foster. American Botanical Counsel. https://www.herbalgram.org/news/press-releases/2022/herbal-medicine-community-mourns-death-of-steven-foster/. Accessed 25 Jan 2022.
Lindner, Kelly E. 2008. Meet ABC Board Member Steven Foster: Noted Herbal Expert, Photographer, Author. HerbalGram. Issue 80, pp. 14-15. American Botanical Counsel. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/80/table-of-contents/article3321/. Accessed 25 Jan 2022.
All other quotations via personal communication. January, 2022.
Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.