Herbal KnowledgeFeb 2, 2022

The History of Herbalism at Herb Pharm

In the 40 years since our company was founded, the herbal landscape has changed tremendously, both here in the United States and globally. Those who use and trust our products sometimes ask about our background and expertise, and we also get questions about the inspiration to use certain plants. As we celebrate our anniversary, we’re revisiting the path of our founders, the one that made it possible for us to be here today. We hope you find this history lesson to be fascinating and helpful.

In the late 1970s, Ed Smith and Sara Katz were living in Portland, Oregon. They had met at a naturopathic college and soon began their first herb-based venture, the “Foundation for Natural Living.” This foundation hosted herbal retreats and evolved into a naturopathic college built on the couple’s values. While the project was a success, they realized that they wanted to do more than educate — they wanted to work directly with plants.

Sara and Ed had searched stores for herbs and herbal products that aligned with their values, that were made thoughtfully, with purity and simplicity. Back then, you couldn’t go to the supermarket or health food store to find such products — they didn’t exist. Herbalism’s popularity had significantly declined as political landscapes changed in the early 1900s, starting what could be likened to the “Dark Ages” of herbalism in the U.S.

Sara and Ed found themselves called to start Herb Pharm, with the intention of creating the highest quality herbal products possible. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were poised to become among the modern pioneers of herbalism in the States. The 1960s and 70s brought about significant cultural change, creating an atmosphere that valued individual freedom and a connection to nature. The time was right for an “Herbal Renaissance.”

Ed and Sara’s search shifted from products to knowledge. In the Used Books section of Powell’s Books in Portland, they found out-of-print books — including U.S. Pharmacopoeias and Dispensatories — detailing the all-but-lost science of herbalism. The pair spent many late nights poring over those texts, studying how to make the herbal extracts that been commonplace in the 19th and early 20th centuries. From those dusty volumes, they rediscovered traditional methods of preparation. Out of that time not only came Herb Pharm, but also a resurgence in herbalism in the US.

The ‘Dark Ages’ and Renaissance of Herbalism

To understand the significance of those texts — and Sara and Ed’s commitment to education — you have to learn a bit about herbalism’s history in the US. While herbalism dates back millennia, it wasn’t until the 1800s that schools of herbalism began to emerge across the US.

One of those groups was the Eclectics, so named for their diverse influences. The group — including John Milton Scudder, Harvey Wickes Felter and John Uri Lloyd — was highly influential on American herbalism and on Herb Pharm. They wrote prolifically, publishing books that are still valued and read today, including King's American Dispensatory. In fact, some of those seminal Eclectic works were what inspired our founders.

By 1820, the US had established an official pharmacopoeia, and botanicals comprised 67% of that compendium. By 1910, that number was less than half of all USP entries. By 1930, herbalism was in rapid decline due to a complex combination of socio-political factors.

By the 1940s, herbalism was in what we think of as its Dark Ages — and that would continue for another 30 years. Herbalism was still being passed on orally, especially among Native and African-American populations and a few obscure schools of healing. But the widespread use of herbalism had significantly decreased. That’s largely because of a new-found trust in science, political forces, including regulation of foods and the marketplace, and the influence of powerful groups like the American Medical Association.

Fast-forward a few decades, to when Ed and Sara began to get curious about herbs. Today, you can readily find herbal products like Echinacea in supermarkets and corner stores, but back then, herbs were an anachronism, a relic from another time. That’s why the trove of books they found was so serendipitous, and why it’s not an overstatement to say that Sara, Ed and their contemporaries started a renaissance.

Those books — and our founders’ commitment to studying them and sharing that knowledge — are the reason we’re here, 40 years later.

At Herb Pharm, we process and extract whole plants or their carefully selected parts, using science to confirm long-held traditions. A full-spectrum extract or whole herb extract is one where the entire desired plant part is extracted, and the final product represents this whole herb and a full range of constituents/phytochemicals.

Herbalism has diverse influences, and we appreciate and honor all those who have shared their wisdom and traditions. Many of the herbs we grow on our Certified Organic farms — including Echinacea, Skullcap and California Poppy — have rich histories within Native American herbalism. Black Elderberry and Chamomile are commonly used in European traditions, while Maca and Cat’s Claw hail from South America. As our founders learned more about herbs through their studies and travels, we began to source and extract more herbs.

No matter whether an herb is native to Oregon or Siberia, we lean on our own heritage and tradition, bolstered by modern science. We’re still “eclectic,” bringing in diverse herbs that offer support. So, while you might find herbs that trace their roots to Traditional Chinese Herbalism or Ayurveda, we don’t use them in the same way — we extract them and offer serving sizes based on our own Western perspective.

Herbalism connects people to plants and the planet. It’s a deeply held tradition that we respect and honor. No matter the herb, we are always committed to creating the highest quality product that is kind to both your body and the Earth. It’s the right choice, and, since 1979 when Sara and Ed established Herb Pharm, it has been the only choice for us.