In Memoriam: Steven Foster (1957-2022)

Steven Foster is a teacher to many students at the Florida School of Holistic Living, whether or not they’ve ever taken a class with him. Through his 19 books, most notably the Petersen’s Field Guide to Eastern and Central Medicinal Plants, Steven has captured a legacy of plant wisdom for future generations. Steven traveled to Florida to keynote our 2015 Florida Herbal Conference, where many Florida herbalists got to understand the depth and dynamism of this humble herbal legend.

field guide

The last time I saw Steven Foster face to face was celebrating the 25th anniversary of United Plant Savers at the opening of the Jim & Peggy Duke Center in Autumn 2019. The candid photo captured of our last in-person conversation pretty much sums up how deeply I adored this caring, brilliant, gentle, one of a kind human being. Story after story have been shared today by his friends and colleagues, recounting his wisdom, his talent, and his immense impact on so many of us.

UPS 25th Anniversary Celebration, 2019

I often thought of Steven as a shapeshifter – a human who walked between worlds, befriending the spirits of the green in the most spiritual and intimate of ways, while speaking on their behalf in the stuffy board rooms of big industry with equal skill and grace. He was always, by far, the smartest person in the room, even when circulating amongst the elite academics of our time. His profound knowledge of botany matched his immense knowledge of history, and was perhaps only eclipsed by his skillful understanding of how to capture the perfect pose of a plant in a photograph.

Stephen Keynoting at the American Herbalist Guild Symposium, 2014

Steven had long been a teacher of mine through his books, and I’m grateful to have had the honor of also calling him a friend over the last decade. I can still hear his signature tone and inflection as if he were beside me now, beckoning me to crawl onto my belly to capture the underside of a leaf with the light streaming through *just so*. I can still taste on my tongue the bitter mystique of the absinthe he was so generous to prepare for me every time I visited. I can smell the worn pages of the old books we would thumb through together in his office. I used to joke with him that I’d be the first to sign up for a Steven Foster apprenticeship, but I was really quite serious about the idea – as much to soak in an ounce of all the wisdom he had stored in that brilliant brain of his, as to learn how to be a humble, loving, thoughtful, authentic human being blazing a unique path in this world. As is the case with many loved ones whom we cherish, we often don’t realize the very special place where they reside in our heart until after they are gone.

Ozark Folk Center, Arkansas, April 2013

Like many of you, I am at a loss for words to describe my grief as Steven departs our realm to watch over us from the great beyond. Steven Foster leaves an immense legacy to our herbal community, and an even bigger hole in our hearts. May he know how loved he is as he makes his journey into the mystery, and may he be greeted by the ancestors, awaiting his arrival with the finest single malt scotch – in fact, I think I can hear Jim Duke strumming a tune for him now. May Donna and his children and grandchildren be surrounded by grace and comfort during this sorrowful time.

Emily Ruff

See the American Botanical Council tribute to Steven Foster for more gems about Steven’s life and legacy.

Florida Herbal Conference, February 2015

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