A Snapshot of the Shakers as Herb Traders by Steven Foster

In tribute to Steven Foster, we would like to share a piece that he wrote on the Shaker medicinal plant trade for the Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation in 2011. Steven Foster was an early board member of United Plant Savers, he contributed his photography to our At-Risk and To-Watch plants, he authored the chapter on echinacea in the Planting the Future book, and most recently presented the keynote talk at our 25th celebration and opening of the Center for Medicinal Plant Conservation, just to name a few of his many contributions to UpS.

United Plant Savers looks to honor the legacy of Steven Foster in the next Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation and hope you enjoy this insightful piece on the early role of Shakers in the American story of the medicinal plant in trade. Steven’s creative heart will be missed but he leaves us all with his amazing photography, publications, memories, herbal knowledge, passion for the conservation of native medicinal plants, and cultural interconnectedness of humans and plants.

– Susan Leopold

Steven Foster - Shakers as Herb Traders
Article originally published in United Plant Savers’ Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation, Winter 2011

Over the past 200 years the Shakers left a spiritual and material imprint on American society, perhaps greater than any other comparative number of people. We enjoy forgotten fruits of Shaker ingenuity daily. The flat broom, circular saw, and seeds packed in envelopes are but a few Shaker innovations. Designed with graceful purity of line, wrought in impeccable workmanship, their furniture is eagerly sought as art found at major museums around the world. The Shakers created the first herb business in the United States. The only remaining active Shaker community is at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Their Herb Department, dating to 1799, still operates today.

The 1864 “Catalogue of Herbs, Roots, Barks, Powdered Articles, etc., prepared in the United Society, New Gloucester, Maine,” represents a snapshot of herbs commonly used in the market at the time of the Civil War. The catalog includes 158 species of herbs and medicinal plants. Many of the most popular herbs of mid-nineteenth century America are seldom used today. For example, butternut bark (Juglans cinerea) was among the Shaker’s best-selling items, then the most widely used laxative by herbal practitioners. Butternut disappeared from the market as other laxatives such as cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana) gained better market acceptance in the late nineteenth century. Today it is threatened not by overharvest, but joins the American chestnut and American elm, disappearing as the result of blight—butternut canker disease. The pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule), an “At-Risk” terrestrial orchid was popularly sold as “American valerian” and used as a mild sedative. Lady’s slipper disappeared presumably because it was overharvested; hence the supply declined. Shaker herb production not only supplied quality bulk botanicals to pharmacies; it supplied herbs to the broad market of “alternative” nineteenth century herbalists, such as the Thomsonians, followers of Samuel Thomson (1769-1843), a self-taught New Hampshire farmer, turned physician, whose locally organized “friendly botanic societies” and his New Guide to Health of Botanic Family Physician (1822, and many other editions), provided thousands of families with information to take responsibility for their own health. Thomson called lady’s slipper root “the best nervine. I have made great use of it, and have always found it to produce the most beneficial effects, in all cases of nervous affection and hysterical symptoms; in fact, it would be difficult to get along with my practice in many cases without this important article” (New Guide to Health, 1822).

Statements extolling virtues of herbs obviously drove sales. While yellow lady’s slippers were considered the “best”, the then abundant pink lady’s slippers of northern New England supplied much of the market. According to one Shaker record book, as much as 200 lbs. a month were sold, listed at $0.28 for the whole root, and forty cents a pound for the powered root or “flour”. This is just one example of how herb suppliers in nineteenth century America responded to market demand. Lady’s slipper root is seldom sold anymore. Herbs come and go in popularity. Americans of 150 years ago saw the vast expanse of forests as an endless source of what nature had to offer. Now, nearby Shaker lands where herbalists once collected wild medicinal plants within a mile of the Canterbury, New Hampshire, Shaker Village, vast expanses of pavement serve as the playground for 200 mile per hour NASCAR races. Certainly over-harvest contributed to species decline, but as human populations increase, the far greater threat is continued, unabated habitat loss.

Author, photographer, consultant and lecturer, Steven Foster has written or co-authored seventeen books. Steven is on the UpS Advisory Board, and his amazing photography and books are available at www.stevenfoster.com.