Chamomile harvest at Herb Pharm in Williams, Ore.

Herbal renaissance

Calendula and grindelia blossoms drying in wire-mesh racks paint the room golden almost to its high ceiling.

The air's pungent vegetable perfume, however, can be traced to a few racks of scraggly, chocolate-brown roots recognized in the herbalist's world as osha. This natural, antiviral, antibacterial remedy is a favorite of Erik Leib, the farming supervisor at Herb Pharm.

"I use this before I use echinacea," Leib says. "It has a real strong carroty smell."

Two miles down the road, the aroma of ground osha roots has pervaded the Herb Pharm processing facility, where it's overpowered the lingering essence of more than 150 other plants. Ground to a fine powder, the osha will be steeped in alcohol and distilled water to preserve potency, then pressed, filtered and bottled. America's best-selling line of liquid herbal extracts, these tinctures are shipped around the country, but some travel only a short distance to stores like Health Food Mart in Medford or All's Well in Ashland.

A "boutique" brand, Herb Pharm is riding the wave of an "herbal renaissance," says chief operating officer Ed Smith, who founded the Williams company almost 30 years ago with partner Sara Katz.

"I never thought that starting in my kitchen would turn into a multi-billion dollar industry," Smith says. "Now, it's like everybody wants to do it."

Herb farmer Mark Wheeler of Pacific Botanicals also has noticed a marked difference in how the public views his profession. Ten years ago, he could count on less-than-complimentary reactions when he spoke of the 100 acres of organic plants he tends in Grants Pass. Now instead of quizzical looks, he elicits questions about which herbs work best.

"It seems like everyone is taking them," Wheeler says.

Both Smith and Wheeler say they believe the ailing economy and rising cost of health care are driving an increased consumption of herbal remedies. While Wheeler says business always has spiked a little during times of recession, Smith says consumers are realizing that herbs work, they're cheap and they don't carry the risk of side effects like so many prescription medications.

"A lot of people are going to herbs because they don't have a lot of other choices," Smith says.

Wheeler agrees, stating that he hears stories every day of people using herbs to treat "untreatable" conditions.

"Many of the older people in the population seemed to remember that they and their parents used herbs exclusively."

Yet reacquainting the American public with herbs didn't come easily, Smith says. Over the past few decades, he's seen herbs roundly denounced by the mainstream medical community before more recent admissions that herbs do offer some health benefits. That progress, Smith says, has been clouded by the continued efforts of pharmaceutical manufacturers to convince the public that herbs are dangerous unless handled by drug companies.

"We went to the FDA for many years and begged them to pass some rational laws," Smith says.

In 1994, U.S. Congress did pass landmark legislation that placed regulation of herbs under the purview of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Classified legally as a type of food, herbal supplements must conform to FDA standards that they be free of adulteration and aren't misbranded.

"This is a special category of food," Smith says.

Like all foods, these supplements must provide consumers with nutritional information. Unlike other types of food, herbal supplements must state the quantity of each ingredient or of the "proprietary blends" that make up a product.

"We wanted to put out better products, and we wanted to get rid of the shysters," Smith says, adding that before the 1994 law, some criticism of the herbal industry was valid because manufacturers were making unrealistic or misleading claims about their products.

Product claims are one of the most stringent areas of FDA regulation, which specifies exactly what kind of claims are allowed and prohibits use of any statement that would brand the product as a drug, according to the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA). Herbal supplements are not allowed to carry statements regarding prevention, cure, mitigation or treatment of diseases but rather limit explanations to those of "nutritional support" or structure and function, the AHPA says.

Beyond complying with the FDA, the herbal industry has moved toward "standardizing" a number of botanical extracts, which entails controlling the content of particular compounds thought to be responsible for therapeutic effects in the human body, according to the AHPA. Herb Pharm's analytical laboratory samples every batch of herbal product, measuring it against standards for potency and ensuring the product's quality.

"There's a trend for herbal medicine to move into that more chemical, medical model," Katz says. "A lot of drugs started out as plants anyway."

Concocting some herbal blends, however, is an activity better suited to the kitchen than the laboratory. Cooking, Smith and Wheeler say, is one of the easiest ways to start introducing herbs into one's diet.

"Eat real food," Smith says. "Use more spices.

"Ginger's one of the best herbs there is for fighting high cholesterol. Turmeric is a known anti-cancer agent."

Garlic is an excellent tonic, as is cayenne pepper, Wheeler says. And ditch the powdered and dried stuff for the fresh version.

"The fresher you can take an herb, the better ... even culinary herbs," Wheeler says. "Use 'em; use a lot of 'em. They're full of antioxidants and phytochemicals."

Share This Story