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HerbalGram Celebrates 25 Years

HerbalGram Celebrates 25 Years

The American Botanical Council’s (ABC) flagship publication HerbalGram has reached the 25 year mark. HerbalGram was first published in the summer of 1983 as a one-color 8-page newsletter called “Herb News” with “Herbalgram” as a smallish subtitle (printed on recycled paper). Over the last 25 years the publication has grown in style, size, and areas of coverage, reflecting the growth, diversity, and sophistication of the herbal movement.

The original staff listing consisted of two people: Mark Blumenthal, editor, and Rob McCaleb, associate editor. The first issue contained a variety of topics: Recent News, Obituaries (this particular issue had one for John R. Christopher, the famous herbalist), Media Watch, Recent Books, and Herb Blurbs. In a section called Rob’s Research Reviews, an early form of today’s research reviews, co-editor Rob McCaleb summarized 6 herbal research articles into less than a page.

“Back then,” said Blumenthal, “there was little coverage of herbal issues in the natural foods and vitamin industry trade publications— the term dietary supplement had not come into use—and there was no Internet availability for individuals and small businesses. Faxes started becoming prevalent shortly thereafter, but there was not the widespread availability of news on herbal research, regulation, and media coverage that is so widely available today.”

HerbalGram issue 18/19 contained the first traces of color. It was also the first HerbalGram to be published jointly by ABC (founded in 1988) and the Herb Research Foundation (HRF). The previous issues had been published by the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) and HRF. The total page count also jumped from 24 to 48 (including the cover). ABC was created by Mark Blumenthal to help fund HerbalGram’s transition from newsletter to magazine. Though HerbalGram had started as a project he worked on during nights and weekends, he dreamed of making it a full-time project. The creation of ABC helped Blumenthal take HerbalGram to the next level.

HerbalGram 27 featured a mural called “The People Demanding Health” by the artist Diego Rivera, as well as an article about the Health Freedom Act of 1992 that would label herbs as dietary supplements.1 (In 1993 this was reintroduced as the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act.) HerbalGram 28 was the first full-glossy issue, as well as the first to have a photograph of a plant on its cover and a scan-able barcode for the growing level of sales in retail stores.

The content in the earlier issues of HerbalGram featured extensive literature reviews on specific herbs written by Christopher Hobbs, e.g., sarsaparilla (#17), St. John’s wort (#18/19) feverfew (#20), valerian (#21), and hawthorn (#22). There were also articles written by herbal legends like Jim Duke, PhD. A special issue on traditional medicines (#31) contained articles on herbal medicine traditions from different regions (from Asia to the Amazon), as well as a special feature on “Tibetan Medicinal Paintings.”2 Another colorful feature was the “Medicinal Plant Stamps of Yugoslavia” by Ira Kennedy, with photos of postal stamps issued from 1955 to 1965 representing major medicinal plants and reflecting the importance of herbs in European countries.3

Barbara Johnston, past HerbalGram managing editor, said that one story in particular, “The Booming US Botanical Market: A New Overview” by Peggy Brevoort, was the most interesting article she edited.4 “It contains pages and pages of graphs and interesting text and it was very well-researched,” said Johnston. This article painted a full picture of the herbal medicine market at that time. In fact, HerbalGram now does a yearly Herbal Market Report, which includes tables with herbal product sales statistics.5 “The HerbalGram herb market report is one of the most often-cited articles ABC publishes each year,” said Blumenthal in an ABC Press release.5 “It is referenced in medical, pharmacy, and nutrition journals, as well as in many other professional, trade, and consumer publications. It is usually difficult to estimate the size of the total herb market in the United States and the ABC report is considered by many as one of the most accurate and inclusive.”

Issue 45 was the first to be perfect-bound, an idea of Steven Foster’s, who thought it heightened the professionalism of the magazine and made it easier to find on a library’s shelf since the title and issue number could be printed on the spine. Issue 45 also jumped to 100 pages to include a 32-page Herbal Education Catalog, containing a large selection of books and other educational materials, some of which are still available in ABC’s online bookstore.

Norman R. Farnsworth, PhD, cofounding Trustee of ABC, said that this 4-color catalog was one of the most valuable aspects of ABC at that time. He noted that even someone who did not read the articles in HerbalGram could derive educational value by just viewing the catalog. It demonstrated that high-quality technical books on herbal medicine were available in many subject categories (e.g., ethnobotany, pharmacognosy, phytochemistry, quality control, monographs, etc.). The ABC catalog showed people the depth and breadth of the information on herbal medicine as well as demonstrated that selling medicinal herb books could be lucrative. This helped to pave the way for other publishers to produce herbal reference books as well as for numerous other professional organizations and trade groups to include them in their own publications catalogs.

It was the 50th issue that marked the beginning of the journal’s current size (84 pages), and it was the first issue published in the name of the American Botanical Council alone.

The content also grew and deepened to more accurately reflect what Blumenthal initially imagined: “My initial goal in founding ABC was to take the newsletter HerbalGram and evolve it into the Scientific American of herbs,” said Blumenthal. With content produced and edited like a scientific or medical journal, all feature articles and most of the shorter articles are subject to a fairly intense peer-review process. “This requires that each article be reviewed and possibly edited by various experts in North America and around the world,” said Blumenthal. “The process is extremely time-consuming but it is necessary to ensure the accuracy and reliability of HerbalGram’s content.”

Michael Finney, the current managing editor of HerbalGram, said one of his favorite issues was 66, featuring the cover article “The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes.”6 This article contains photographs and excerpts from Wade Davis’ book capturing the photographic journal of the late Harvard botanist, widely recognized as the father of modern ethnobotany.

Courtney Cavaliere, assistant editor of HerbalGram, pointed to “Native American Herbal Prescription Sticks: Indigenous 19th Century Pharmacopeias” by Daniel Moerman, PhD, as a unique article from issue 77.7 This pictorial feature shows the Native American carvings of stylized herbal remedies onto wooden sticks in an attempt to preserve ethnobotanical knowledge, although today the actual identities of the plants are unknown.

A possibly controversial cover article for HerbalGram 75 was “Peruvian Maca and Allegations of Biopiracy” by Josef Brinckmann.8 With a cover photo showing 3 generations of Andean Indian women, this article explored Peru’s efforts to protect its herbal knowledge and resources, which generated discussions in subsequent HerbalGrams.

HerbalGram continually receives positive feedback from its readers as well as recognition outside of the herbal community. In 1997, Utne Reader nominated HerbalGram for the best alternative magazine in the “Personal Life Coverage” category, and in 1999 Utne nominated it for the “Science and the Environment” category.9 “To many of our supporters, we may have reached our goal,” said Blumenthal. “But we will always look for ways to improve HerbalGram.”

Over the years, HerbalGram has evolved. Coupled with its high production values, such as 4-color photography and beautiful artistic layouts, HerbalGram aspires to be a hybrid between a medical or scientific journal, a trade publication, and a visually-engaging consumer magazine. HerbalGram will continue striving to bring this high quality to its readers.

—Kelly E. Saxton
  1. Blumenthal M. Health Freedom Bill would protect herbs. HerbalGram.1992;27:24–26.

  2. Fallarino M. Tibetan Medicinal Paintings. HerbalGram. 1994;31:31–44.

  3. Kennedy I. The Medicinal Plant Stamps of Yugoslavia. HerbalGram. 1994;30:18–21.

  4. Brevoort P. The Booming U.S. Botanical Market: A New Overview. HerbalGram. 1998;44:33-46

  5. Herb Supplement Sales Show Growth in Multiple Market Channels [press release]. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; May 27, 2008.

  6. Davis W. The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes. HerbalGram. 2005;66:51–59.

  7. Moerman D. Native American Herbal Prescription Sticks: Indigenous 19th Century Pharmacopeias. HerbalGram. 2008;77:48–53.

  8. Brinckmann J. Peruvian Maca and Allegations of Biopiracy. HerbalGram. 2007;75:45–53.

  9. Robin K. HerbalGram Named Utne Reader Alternative Press Award Finalist. HerbalGram. 2000; 48:8.