Meet Herbal Ed Smith: A globetrotting herbalist with a passion for plants that heal.
When you’ve visited or lived in more than 60 countries around the world, started a multimillion-dollar herb company in your kitchen, and been considered one of the nation’s foremost herb experts for more than 30 years, some might think your excitement over medicinal plants could fade. But not so for Ed Smith, or Herbal Ed, the cofounder and co-owner of Herb Pharm in Williams, Oregon. Smith says the miracles of herbal healing still can send shivers down his spine.
Herb Pharm is located in the rural town of Williams, in southern Oregon. The Pharm’s 85-acre certified organic herb operation is the bustling birthplace of Herb Pharm’s more than 250 herbal extracts and herbal health-care products. The Pharm cultivates about 60 percent of the herbs used to produce those extracts, and the rest are sustainably wildcrafted or purchased from other organic herb farms throughout the world.
Of the products Herb Pharm creates, about 180 are single herb extracts and about 60 are blended compounds of several extracts. Of those, Smith says that echinacea is by far the bestseller. “We sell more echinacea in North American health-food and herb stores than any other company,” Smith says. “We were the first nationwide company in the United States to sell organically grown echinacea. We enthusiastically promoted echinacea by educating people about its traditional uses, as well as the compelling scientific research coming out of Germany,” he says.
Back when Herb Pharm first started in 1979, there wasn’t a lot of available information on herbs, Smith says. “There weren’t any herb magazines, and there were very few herb books, holistic health clinics or naturopathic doctors,” he says. He and cofounder Sara Katz had to learn a lot about growing and using herbs as they went along. “I started teaching herb classes, and I ultimately wound up creating my company because of my experiences in South America and the herb markets there. Most of the herbs there were fresh picked, and the quality was so superior to most of the herbs I saw in American stores. At first, I was just trying to provide really good quality herbs for myself and those in my clinical herb practice,” Smith says.
The company began in Smith’s and Katz’s kitchen and garage. The two moved to southern Oregon from Portland in 1979 with only $300 to their names. Smith found an old pharmacist’s complete library at a used book store, and bought it for $200 of his $300. That’s when he began studying old pharmacy texts like the U.S. Pharmacopoeias, various pharmacy formularies and Remington’s Practice of Pharmacy, all of which had been used by pharmaceutical companies to produce pharmaceutical herbal extracts in the 1800s and early 1900s.
“After moving to Williams, we’d work during the day in our herb garden and would go up into the mountains with our wildflower guides to identify and collect various medicinal herbs,” Smith says. “At night, I’d study the old pharmacy books and, with them, Sara and I started making a few extracts from the herbs we had harvested.”
First, they made extracts of 10 to 12 different herbs. Smith took those extracts with him when he went down to California to teach classes at a retreat organized by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. “I was lecturing out of my old Dodge van under these redwood trees,” Smith says. “As I finished my class, people started crowding around these extracts I had. After 15 minutes, every bottle of extract was sold and I had $300 cash in my hand.”
Things progressed from there, as Smith taught more herb classes and sold more extracts. They sold their first wholesale order to a woman with a little herb shop in Ojai, California, and the business was off and running.
Ten years later, the business had overrun Smith’s entire house, so the cofounders had to build their first additional building a few miles from their home. There they and their 10 employees occupied themselves creating Herb Pharm’s herbal products. Today, 70 people are employed working on the company’s farm, called the “Pharm Farm,” and in their manufacturing facility, called the “Plant Plant.”
Smith says there’s nothing he enjoys more than his worldwide travels, which he calls his “herbal expeditions.” He travels to huge cities and to some of the most remote locations on the globe. “Especially in the Third World tropical areas, in South America, Africa and Asia where people are still practicing traditional herbal medicine, sometimes it’s almost like going back in time,” Smith says.
Smith says one of the key items he won’t travel without in the Tropics is Chinese coptis (Coptis chinensis). It’s high in berberine, and can help prevent and treat infections and tropical dysentery. Smith also won’t go anywhere in rough country without a formula called Trauma Drops, he says. The combination of arnica, St. John’s wort and calendula flower can be used both internally and topically for trauma, be it a sprained ankle, bad bruise or dealing with emotional trauma, such as after a mugging.
Smith says what still thrills him most about herbal medicine are the stories he hears of miraculous recoveries made with the help of nature. “I just talked to a lady recently who told me she’d been waiting to tell me her story since it happened, 17 years ago,” Smith says. Apparently, the woman’s young daughter had suffered severe third-degreeburns over 20 percent of her body from a burst steampipe. They went to a famous burn clinic in Massachusetts, and were told the girl would have to endure two or three years of many painful skin grafts to repair the damage, and even then there would be lots of scarring. Instead of taking her doctor’s advice, the woman opted for the herbal approach, and covered her daughter’s burns in a St. John’s wort salve every day for several months. Her daughter never had an operation, and the burns completely healed with minimal scarring. “It amazes me that she went to this major hospital with a supposed state-of-the-art burn clinic, and in the end what worked far better was a wild weed mixed in olive oil,” Smith says.
“One of my favorite things about my herbal world is the traveling, and talking and hanging out with herbalists from all over the world,” Smith says. “It could be a Ph.D. pharmacognosist at a European university, or a traditional healer in a bamboo hut in the Amazon jungle. I am also fascinated by the ancientness of herbalism and the history it invokes. Even if I were to retire tomorrow, I would still be hanging out with herbalists all over the world, from the Sahara to the Amazon to Rio de Janeiro.”
One of the major aspects of Herb Pharm always has been education. The Pharm offers three Herbaculture Work/ Study Programs throughout the herb growing season. For two months at a time, 12 interns live and work on the farm doing agricultural work and attending classes on botany, medicinal herbalism and herbal medicine-making. Their work on the farm includes organic agriculture, greenhouse propagation and the planting, cultivating, harvesting and processing of herbs. They learn such things as the optimal time to harvest individual herbs, seed saving, and how to dry and store herbs properly.
Another important aspect of the Pharm farm is agricultural research and its practical application in the preservation and propagation of endangered and at-risk medicinal plants. The farm is certified by United Plant Savers as a botanical sanctuary.
As the company moves forward, Smith says continuing and expanding herbal education is a major priority. “Education has always been the foundation of natural medicine and the herb industry,” he says. “Now, it’s just a matter of reaching more people with more accurate, trustworthy education.” Herb Pharm’s website (www. Herb-Pharm.com) offers slideshow/audio lectures and podcasts (downloads to an iPod or other MP3 player), and offers “Herbal Ed’s Blog.”
“We’re really just doing what we’ve been doing for the past 30 years, but bringing it into the 21st century, where we can amplify the education,” Smith says. “Today, someone can listen to my lecture on the Internet, and then e-mail it to someone else … We can now reach a lot more people.”
Smith thinks one of the biggest misconceptions in today’s American herb scene is that herbs don’t work or are dangerous. “Of course, there are some herbs that, if used improperly, are dangerous, just like knives or automobiles can be dangerous. But most of the herbs sold in health-food stores are very, very safe, especially when people are educated about their proper use.”
Smith says that offering proper education is the best way to help people sort through the flood of herbal and other natural products on the market today. He says buying certified organic can help, but still doesn’t guarantee high quality, and those companies with a high advertising budget aren’t necessarily those with the best herbal products. “If you don’t really know what’s what, to some degree you have to trust the company you’re buying from,” he says.
Adding to the confusion surrounding natural medicines are the media’s negative articles and the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) and medical community’s seemingly negative bias against herbs. “The press jumps all over the negative studies about herbs, but you seldom see anything about the positive ones,” he says. Regarding the recent negative press about echinacea’s effectiveness against colds, Smith says you can never base too much on one medical study taken out of context. “Whether it be about drugs or herbs, you have to look at the whole picture,” Smith says. “If you look at all the studies on echinacea, the facts supporting it are quite compelling. I have a story published in a 1909 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that claims echinacea doesn’t work. But today, almost 100 years later, echinacea is still being used successfully by millions of people, and the medical establishment is still saying it doesn’t work.”
One upcoming change in the U.S. herb industry is the finalization and requirement by the FDA of Good Manufacturing Processes (GMPs). “Ultimately,” Smith says, “I think it’s going to be a good thing. While these new regulations will drive up the cost of doing herb business, they also will help reform or clear out certain bogus herb companies and their products that are unhygienic, unsafe or low quality. The negative part is it will be much, much more difficult for a company to start small in the kitchen like Herb Pharm did.”
Smith hopes in the future to see more collaboration between natural medicine and modern Western medicine. “According to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of the world’s people still use herbs as their main form of health care,” he says. “Meanwhile, modern medicine has a lot to offer. Ideally, I would prefer to live in a world where modern medicine and traditional medicine are fully integrated.”
Jessica Kellner is coordinating editor of Herbs for Health.