Rosemary Gladstar: Wild Gardening and Other Passions

Rosemary Gladstar's passion for nature and native plant conservation is an inspiration in gardening.


Photography by Saxon Holt

Content Tools

Editor’s note: The future of medicinal herbalism is inextricably linked with the people who have studied it, practiced it, defended it, and nurtured its growth. These personalities have added immeasurably to the richness of the field, attracting new practitioners and proponents, improving the science and refining the art of herbal practice. From time to time in Herbs for Health, we’ll bring you their stories. We hope you find them as inspiring as we do. 

Rosemary Gladstar of East Barre, Vermont, has been a role model and an inspiration for a generation of herbalists, as well as a driving force in herbal education. Many believe that she has done more to promote the spread of herbalism than anyone else in North America. She founded the California School of Herbal Studies in 1976; she is responsible for many herb symposiums held each year around the world; she is the founder and formulator of several herbal product companies; and she is a prolific and well-respected author. Rosemary is also the visionary behind United Plant Savers (UpS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving endangered medicinal plants.

When you first meet Rosemary Gladstar, it is almost impossible not to notice the wild nature spirit that is her center. She has a knowing sparkle in her eye and boundless enthusiasm. Few people can match her energy stride for stride or equal her passion for life.

In the northern forest, Rosemary has carved out an herbalist’s garden that is both civilized and wild. In fact, the casual observer might have difficulty discerning where the cultivated garden ends and the forest begins. Rosemary treasures the frontier between the cultivated garden and the untamed land surrounding it. This area where wild and domestic plants coexist displays a rich abundance and exceptional variety. Rosemary loves to witness the merging of nature and civilization and observe how they affect each other.

As an herbalist and a gardener, Rosemary is always aware of the tenuous thread by which a number of our native medicinal plants cling to their existence. She is greatly concerned with preserving our botanical heritage, and her garden includes as many endangered plants as space and climate will allow. In addition, Rosemary is one of the founders of UpS, an organization dedicated to the preservation of botanical diversity and the protection of endangered plant treasures.

Twelve years ago, Rosemary, a California native, found herself living on 500 acres in the beautiful forests of northern Vermont, horrified at the prospect of gardening in a place where the growing season doesn’t start until Memorial Day and usually ends around Labor Day. This land had not had a cultivated garden on it for as long as anyone could remember, and it was in a wild state. Growing here were some of Rosemary’s favorite botanical friends, including blue cohosh, clintonia, dog’s ear violet, and wild leek. Rosemary asked herself, “How could I do any better?” So for the first three growing seasons, Rosemary’s garden was sown and tended entirely by Mother Nature.

Finally, at the urging of her students who desired some guidance in herb gardening, she put spade to soil and started creating her “civilized” garden. She and her students turned the soil and laid out a medicine-wheel garden. They offered tobacco, in the Native American tradition, as a blessing for the new garden.

Rosemary gave each student a kernel of blue corn from ears that had been given to her by Sun Bear, a Native American healer and the author of The Medicine Wheel: Earth Astrology (New Leaf, 1992). She also gave each student-gardener a plant to place with the kernel of blue corn in the medicine-wheel garden—wherever the students felt called to plant them. The result was a beautiful garden laid out with the help of Mother Nature and the spirits who guided the students. To Rosemary’s surprise, the kernels of blue corn sprouted as well, and she was doubly blessed. (Now, however, when Rosemary offers corn to bless her planting, she grinds it into meal first.)

Being a California girl, Rosemary had to rethink some of her gardening tricks. Although she now claims to have the skill to garden above the Arctic Circle, she had a bit of trouble getting started. First she put in some of her favorite Mediterranean plants. She happily watched them flourish until the first snow in October, when they withered away, never to be seen again.

Then Rosemary sought the advice of local experts Judith and Rachel Kane, owners of Perennial Pleasures Nursery in Hardwick, Vermont. After her first visit to Perennial Pleasures, Rosemary’s worries were gone—she was relieved to know that her gardening days in Vermont were not over after all. Judith and Rachel helped Rosemary in her first tentative steps toward gardening in a Zone 3 climate.

Rosemary’s gardening philosophy has always been to let nature have an important hand in the creation of the garden. Let nature dictate where the lines of the garden will be drawn. Let nature decide what plants will be in this garden, because it will be nature who ultimately determines the success or failure of the garden. When faced with tough gardening decisions, Rosemary always asks herself, “What would Mother Nature do?”

Two elders for whom Rosemary is particularly thankful are Adelma Grenier Simmons and Adele Dawson. Rosemary credits Simmons with starting the current renaissance of the American country herb garden. She has found great inspiration in Simmons’ vision and the grand scope of her gardens at Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, Connecticut—a place famous for its flower-laden luncheons.

In Adele Dawson, Rosemary found both inspiration and friendship. When Rosemary took up residence in her current portion of heaven, she found herself blessed to have Dawson as a neighbor, just over the hill. Dawson, who recently passed on after almost 100 years of walking this planet, was also a lover of wild and untamed gardens. People came from far and wide to visit this wise and generous woman and follow her about her free-form gardens. She grew all her own food and medicines and attributed her longevity in part to that.

Dawson’s gardens grow in the shadow of Vermont’s highest waterfall. Shatoiya was with a small group of women whom Rosemary took to meet and tour her gardens. The day was hot, and the waterfall was cool and beautiful. They were thankful that Dawson didn’t bat an eye when they asked if they could go for a dip. She understood the desire to be one with your surroundings!

When Dawson visited Rosemary for the first time, she brought her a slip of comfrey, which of course, has now become a field of comfrey. For this Rosemary is eternally grateful, because comfrey has become one of her favorite herbs.

Rosemary has drawn inspiration from the many gardeners, herbalists, and spirits who have crossed her path, but the primary influence in her life is nature. Rosemary says it’s important to enjoy the creativity a human might bring to a garden, but we must understand that the real artist is Mother Nature. Look around and see the work of nature in the mountains, forests, glades, moss-covered pools, and desert landscapes — truly, what mortal landscaper or gardener can compete with such beauty? Rosemary’s connection to and love for Mother Nature is the single driving force in her life. She considers it her purpose to help people interact with nature, feel its inspiration, and reconnect and recommit to being caretakers of the earth.

One of the most rewarding experiences in Rosemary’s life has been her participation in the creation of UpS.

Rosemary’s passion: United Plant Savers

United Plant Savers (UpS), a non-profit organization, was formed by Rosemary Gladstar and a group of herbalists in 1994. UpS is based on a commitment to preserve native medicinal plants and their habitats and to ensure the plants’ sustainability for future generations.

The organization’s creators believe that although it’s exciting that there’s an ever-growing demand for herbs today, the demand creates a new set of problems for plant populations. Indiscriminate harvesting, deforestation, and urbanization have devastated many of the areas where herbs grow in the wild. Also, native North American plants are being exported to other countries where wild plants have already been depleted.

UpS’ mission is to conserve and restore native medicinal plants and their habitats in the United States and Canada. The creators and members recognize that environmentally responsible cultivation, land stewardship, habitat protection, and sustainable wild harvesting are critically important to ensure an abundant, renewable supply of medicinal plants. See the end of this article for membership information.

Current UpS projects

• Identifying the at-risk medicinal plants.
• Researching cultivation and propagation techniques of these species.
• Helping members create botanical sanctuaries on their land.
• Raising public awareness of the current plight of medicinal herbs.

The at-risk list

The following herbs are identified as “at-risk now in their natural environments” by UpS. If you can’t grow these herbs yourself, be sure to buy them only from reputable manufacturers who purchase herbs from cultivated sources.

• American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
• Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)
• Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
• Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides)
• Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
• Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis)
• Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
• Helonias root (Chamaelirium luteum)
• Kava (Piper methysticum)
• Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium spp.)
• Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum)
• Osha (Ligusticum porteri)
• Peyote (Lophophora williamsii)
• Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra)
• Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)
• Trillium (Trillium spp.)
• True unicorn (Alteris farinos)
• Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria)
• Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa)

When Rosemary moved to the Northeast, she looked forward to exploring the beautiful hardwood forests that have been home to many of the medicinal plant species that she came to know in her herbal practice. To her horror she discovered that many of these herbal allies were no longer plentiful in the wild and that some were even endangered, perilously close to extinction.

Rosemary started planting, often by herself, at-risk species in a 500-acre preserve adjacent to her home in Vermont. UpS is now setting up a number of plant preserves across North America, as well as promoting responsible wildcrafting and encouraging herb gardeners to grow at-risk plants in their home gardens.

It seems that Rosemary never rests, never stops dreaming. She has recently, through tremendous effort and expense, saved a beautiful untamed portion of wilderness adjacent to her land. Hanna Hill Sanctuary, a 100-acre home to deer, bear, moose, and numerous other forest creatures and native plants, is open to the many who wish to make a pilgrimage to this sacred land.

Rosemary has succeeded in preserving this land for eternity. Because of her reverence for the wild and her willingness to fight for it, she has given us a great legacy.

Excerpted from The Herbalist’s Garden: A Guided Tour of 10 Exceptional Herb Gardens. Published by Storey Books. Copyright 2001 by Shatoiya de la Tour and Richard de la Tour. Photographs copyright 2001 by Saxon Holt. Reprinted with permission from Storey Communications, Inc.