My love of plants came through the blood from my ancestors. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I used to go out hunting for plants for my dad and when I was even younger—5 or 6, I loved to read books about nature. Later, as a boy scout, I spent many happy hours camping and hiking.
I always had a strong personal attachment to plants, and I was always smelling and tasting them. To this day I remember the smell of the eucalyptus and the walnut, whose leaves were rich in essential oils. Those smells still elicit a wonderful feeling of childhood.
On my dad’s side, his father’s brother (my great uncle) was a lover of plants, which he instilled in my dad early in his life. Uncle Wyatt eventually became a professor of botany at the University of California, and my dad went on to get his doctorate in botany and entomology. I remember hearing the Latin names of plants from an early age. For many years I have been learning new ones, reciting them like mantras. I have learned that they hold power—many of them come from ancient names that say something about their natural habitat, place of origin or personality. Teaching and botany is in my blood it seems.
On my mother’s side, my great grandmother was an herbalist and astrologer. She lived in New York, and eventually felt the call of adventure, when she left her sedate husband and moved to the frontier in Montana to become a lawyer, continuing to learn about plants and practice in the wild west. Her daughter, my grandmother, learned about plants from great-grandmother, and eventually moved with my grandfather to Pasadena, California, where she went by trolley every week to study with a Chinese herbalist. She worked to use her herbal skill to help family and community members through times of illness. My mother still remembers the strong aroma of the Chinese teas, and the doses of castor oil she got when she became ill.
I have always had a strong feeling that I wanted to be healthy. But first I had to go at the opposite extreme. For several years after leaving home and being on my own, I began eating the worst kinds of food (a McDonalds diet with liberal amounts of coffee, doughnuts and sugar) and doing the most unhealthy things one can imagine. Consuming every kind of junk food imaginable for over 2 years, my body finally gave out. I developed a severe jaw infection that even 2 million units of penicillin a day would not touch. I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without my heart pounding and gasping for breath! After several months of illness, I stumbled into a health food store one day and picked up a book by Paul Bragg, the great natural healer. His book, “The Miracle of Fasting” inspired me so that I fasted and completely eliminated processed food from my diet, and after a period of difficult elimination of toxic baggage, I was on the road to recovery. I eventually was able to study with Bragg in Desert Hot Springs, California, and this experience changed my life forever.
When one puts an interest in health together with a love of plants, the result is herbalism. Herbalists are interested in the health of the individual and the health of our Mother Earth. I started studying the medicinal properties of plants in earnest in 1968. In college, I had already had four years as a physics major, with minors in biology and psychology. By mid 1968, I had read my first herbal, Maude Grieve’s A Moderm Herbal, and had rows of dried plant parts on the shelves in my kitchen. Every day I tried a different herb tea, comparing what I thought I felt with the uses and properties given in the herbal. Through experimentation, I gained a rudimentary understanding of the activity of a few herbs.
By the following year, I started giving “herb walks'” in waste lots in a small town in Oregon. For a number of years I continued doing herb walks, teaching classes on natural healing, herbs and diet, worked in and helped manage a health food co-op and traveled as much as I could studying the identification and natural history of plants all over the Pacific North West and California.
In 1980 I spent over a year studying polarity therapy at the Alive Polarity Institute on Orchas Island and in a hot springs center in Calistoga, California. This was a major turning point in my life, for it was here that I made a conscious personal commitment to dedicate my life to natural healing and herbs. In the same year I started teaching herbal medicine and botany classes a the only resident herbal school on the pacific coast, the California School of Herbal Studies’ founded by Rosemary Gladstar.
The following year I moved to Santa Cruz, where I began teaching the chemistry, pharmacology and botany of herbs full time in the Platonic School of Herbal Studies founded by Dr. Paul Lee. The faculty consisted of Michael Tierra, Subhuti Dharmananda, Grace Marroquin, myself and Paul. We learned a great deal from one another in the school, which continued for 4 years. As is often the case, I came to Santa Cruz thinking that I would leave in a few years, but as time went on, it became harder to leave—the herbal and health community here is strong. There are so many health-conscious people and organic food growers that it’s easy to get spoiled. In some ways it’s like a dream world, but as I travel throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe, I see many more places like Santa Cruz exist, or are coming into existence. The call for health on all levels is being heard throughout the world.
In 1984, I completed 2 additional years of pre-med classes at the University, including 2 years of special studies in organic chemistry. In 1984 I started an herb company, with my partner Beth Baugh, which we called Native Herb Co. We harvested wild herbs, making our own liquid herbal extracts and selling them nation-wide. In 1989 we sold the company to Rainbow Light, which has done a wonderful job preserving the high quality and integrity of the products, while greatly enhancing the packaging and distribution. I still act as “director of formulation,” and educator for the line, in fact all Rainbow Light herbal formulas and formula components.
In 1984, I learned of the medicinal herb Milk Thistle, a European favorite for liver wellness, but unknown at that time in the U.S. Being a botanist, I knew the plant grew wild all over the west coast, so I began harvesting the seeds and making a concentrated extract, which I began using myself, because I had hepatitis twice years before, and my digestion had never fully recovered. After using our milk thistle extract (the first available extract in the U.S.) for 6 months, things improved dramatically, and I knew I was on the right track with this herb. This was my first herb product, and I really believed in it! I started extracting it in my garage, and the rest is history, as they say.
My current areas of interest center around the practice of clinical herbalism, teaching herbal medicine, collecting information and books on all aspects of herbalism, history of medicine and pharmacy, and health education, especially as it relates to plants including the pharmacology of foods and herbal medicines).
More specifically, I have collected over 5000 books over the last 10 years relating to herbal medicine and the history of medicine. Notable are extensive collections in ethnobotany, early American materia medica and medical botany, botany, history of ancient medicine (including a number of 16th and 17th century herbals), European phytotherapy (including Hagers Handbuch) and nearly complete runs of the journals Planta Medica, Herba Hunganca, Herba Polonica, Fitoterapia, The Eclectic Medical Journal, American Journal of Pharmacy (from the early 1800s), Phytotberapy Research and a number of others. We are in the process of publishing an annotated list of these books and journals. I also do a considerable amount of on-line searching and am in the process of putting together an extensive database from nearly 8 years of searching. Eight years of collecting the literature from libraries all over the U.S. and Europe has resulted in 6 filing cabinets full of scientific papers on ethnobotany and phytomedicine.
I write numerous articles for current health, herbal and scientific publications and enjoy translating scientific and traditional literature into a user-friendly format that is accessible to the interested lay person and medical practitioner. For instance, on Health World you can find articles I’ve written for Natural Health, Let’s Live, HerbalGram, and Pharmacy In History. I serve as a member of the advisory board of Let’s Live Magazine, one of the country’s oldest and most respected health publications, as well as Herbs for Health, and HerbalGram. I am a contributing editor to HerbalGram. Besides these publications I have written for Vegetarian Times, Business of Herbs!, Fine Gardening, American Herb Association NewsLetter!, Herbs!, Mothering Magazine, and a number of others.
I also have a small press, Botanica Press, which prints books about health and herbs, for which I have also written 14 books, the most recent which is The Ginsengs. I am also in the process of writing 3 further books on herbs, including a women’s herbal, saw palmetto, garlic, and a complete modern herbal. With Steven Foster, I am working on the Peterson’s Field Guide to the Medicinal Plants of the Western United States.
As a consultant to the herb industry, I have formulated well-known national herb products for Nature’s Way, Yerba Prima and Rainbow Light, among others. In the last several years I have developed a close working relationship with Rainbow Light as a consultant and formulator. I have a keen interest in participating in the awakening of awareness of the importance of quality and correct botanical identity in the herb industry. To this end, I have reviewed the quality of herbs in a number of large herb companies, and currently serve as a member of the standards committee of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) since 1988. Also I have served as vice president of AHPA, and as a member of the board of trustees for 7 years.
With Michael Tierra, we founded the American School of Herbalism in 1990, where we offer a variety of training programs in western and Chinese herbal medicine.
In 2002 I went back to school in biology, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in biological science in 2005. My previous degree was in art history and music theory, so I had to complete 3 years of undergraduate science training. After finishing, in 2006, I got an offer to attend UC Berkeley in the Integrative Biology Department and study evolutionary biology, phylogenetics, systematic botany, biogeography, ecology, and medicinal plant chemistry, ethnobotany, and related fields. The study and research lasted 7 years during which I was also teaching the labs for classes like medical ethnobotany, California native plant life, and plant biology. I was awarded his Ph.D. in 2013 from UC Berkeley.
In other words, I am over-educated. In spite of all that, I feel today that I know a whole lot less than when I started!