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The Business of Botanicals

Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry

By Ann Armbrecht


From tulsi to turmeric, echinacea to elderberry, medicinal herbs are big business—but do they deliver on their healing promise—to those who consume them, those who provide them, and the natural world?

“An eye-opener. . . . [Armbrecht] challenges ideas of what medicine can be, and how business practices can corrupt, and expand, our notions of plant-based healing.”—The Boston Globe

“So deeply honest, sincere, heartful, questioning, and brilliant. . . . [The Business of Botanicals] is an amazing book, that plunges in, and takes a deepening look at those places where people don’t often venture.”—Rosemary Gladstar, author of Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs

“For those who loved Braiding Sweetgrass, this book is a perfect opportunity to go deeper into understanding the complex and co-evolutionary journey of plants and people.” —Angela McElwee, former president and CEO of Gaia Herbs

Using herbal medicines to heal the body is an ancient practice, but in the twenty-first century, it is also a worldwide industry. Yet most consumers know very little about where those herbs come from and how they are processed into the many products that fill store shelves. In The Business of Botanicals, author Ann Armbrecht follows their journey from seed to shelf, revealing the inner workings of a complicated industry, and raises questions about the ethical and ecological issues of mass production of medicines derived from these healing plants, many of which are imperiled in the wild. 

This is the first book to explore the interconnected web of the global herb industry and its many stakeholders, and is an invaluable resource for conscious consumers who want to better understand the social and environmental impacts of the products they buy.

“Armbrecht masterfully manages the challenges and complexity of her source material . . . [She] is a spirited storyteller . . . [and] presents all this with the skill of an anthropologist and the heart of an herbalist.”—Journal of the American Herbalists Guild

Reviews and Praise

“In The Business of Botanicals, Ann Armbrecht brings readers along on a wholly engaging exploration of her questions and hard learnings about whether the healing power of plants can truly make it into the factory-sealed supplement bottles on our grocery shelves. Weaving her personal experiences with careful research about the history of medicinal herbs, Armbrecht explores the booming herbal supplements trade with courage and vulnerability; the journey from wild plant to industrial herb proves to be fraught and perilous. It’s a valuable read and a good read, a rare find in this age of information. Armbrecht is clearly a person and writer who thinks and cares deeply, and she invites her readers to do the same, which is truly a gift.”—Kate Williams, CEO of 1% for the Planet

“In The Business of Botanicals, Ann Armbrecht establishes herself as gifted storyteller, weaving the practical aspects of the global botanical industry with the lesser explored and more nuanced threads that make up the tapestry of sourcing, producing, and selling herbal products. From Ann’s far-flung travels, the reader gains a rare vantage point of the inner workings of the global herb trade, as she explores the people and places that make the products lining our medicine cabinets possible. The result is a riveting journey, one that tackles hard questions not explored by most: How do we reconcile the roots of colonialism present in the modern herb trade with the benefits we seek to impart through our products? What must businesses do to protect the health of the people and planet supporting our supply chains, placing their needs equal to shareholder return? For those who loved Braiding Sweetgrass, this book is a perfect opportunity to go deeper into understanding the complex and co-evolutionary journey of plants and people in creating the herbal products we love.”—Angela McElwee, president and CEO of Gaia Herbs

The Business of Botanicals is a unique and valuable resource on the exceptional challenges to creating ethical, ecological, and fair herbal products, written from the perspective of a thoughtful expert.”—Ryan Zinn, Regenerative Projects Manager, Dr. Bronner’s

The Business of Botanicals is a chronicle of the modern-day global herb trade, peppered with historical context, anecdotes, and wisdom from modern pioneers of the herb industry whose companies and products remain some of the best on the current market. The quality of the technical information is lovingly translated with practical examples into interesting and relevant guidance for small growers and herb users. And beyond the technical narrative, the author poses philosophical questions about the ethics, authenticity, and sustainability of the modern herb market.”—Cindy Angerhofer, executive fellow of Botanical Research, Aveda Corporation

“I read this brilliant book from cover to cover like a story I couldn’t tear myself away from. Ann Armbrecht’s writing flows almost poetically, even as she describes the business of herbs. Like herbs themselves, The Business of Botanicals is rich in colors, scents, and flavors and is rooted in the earth—exquisite and messy, beautiful and dirty all at the same time. Armbrecht takes us on a journey to many corners of the world to visit plant growers and collectors, as well as teachers and conservationists. In the true spirit of inquiry, her journey comes back to the heart, the organ of true perception. If the herbalism we practice is holistic because it considers the whole picture of a patient before formulating a prescription, and the whole plant we use is clearly more than the sum of its constituent parts, so too this book offers a truly holistic perspective. As Armbrecht says, her journey became the medicine these plants offer. . . . That is their promise.”—Anne McIntyre, MAPA, MCPP, fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, author of Dispensing with Tradition and The Ayurveda Bible

“The high-quality organic herbs in your teacup, tincture, or supplement did not materialize out of thin air. More than fifty years ago, the seeds of an industry were planted by a few unique and talented individuals—farmers, herbalists, and entrepreneurs who have dedicated their lives to improving planetary, human, and animal well-being. This well-researched and fascinating book tells their stories and lays out a clear path for a healthier sustainable future.”—David Winston, RH (AHG), dean of David Winston’s Center for Herbal Studies; founder of Herbal Therapeutics Research Library

“This timely book explores the manifold issues facing the supply chain that feeds the US and European herb markets. A profound social reassessment is underway. Ann Armbrecht acknowledges the racist, imperialist roots of the international trade in botanicals and examines the impressive progress being made to transform this legacy of economic oppression. Based on care for the plants and the planet, the evolving supply chain acknowledges the ecology of issues beyond profit. Armbrecht introduces these holistic, ecological perspectives as a sign of great hope for the future and celebrates the rich diversity of people and backgrounds that make the planet’s herbal abundance accessible to the West.”—David Hoffmann, RH (AHG), fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, chief formulator for Traditional Medicinals

“Ann Armbrecht brings us the fruits of a passion that drove her to explore the widest reaches of the world’s herbal supply chains. She has looked under the bonnet and found that the engine of herbal healing is in need of repair. Even well-intentioned conflicts of interest in this industry too often get in the way of quality and sustainability. Along with key people she meets, Ann concludes that the answer here, as ever, is about nurturing relationships and supporting the interests of everyone in the herbal web. Everyone who loves herbs needs to read this book!”—Simon Mills, herbal clinician and elder, author of Out of the Earth, coauthor of Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy

The Business of Botanicals is a thoroughly engaging, must-read book for all herbalists, herbal medicine makers, herb growers, and anyone who turns to herbs for their health. I was immediately drawn into the story of botanical medicines and the complexities within each bottle of herbal tincture on store shelves.”—Rosalee de la Forêt, herbalist and author of Alchemy of Herbs, coauthor of Wild Remedies

The Business of Botanicals is a must read for all herbalists who care about the quality and ethical issues that are part and parcel of what has become the enormous global herb industry.”—Dr. Jill Stansbury, ND, author of Herbal Formularies for Health Professionals

“Those of us in the botanical industry were once seen as an odd band of naturalist dropouts, growing or picking plants with unpronounceable names for slightly mysterious purposes. Today, herbal medicines are a global phenomenon, but through that surge in popularity, we are loving herbs to death. The Business of Botanicals focuses on the urgent task at hand to be benevolent stewards in how we source, manufacture, and sustain an ever more stressed herb ecosystem. If you love botanicals, please read this book.”—Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance

“Ann Armbrecht writes with deep respect for the essence of plants and their capacity to heal, seeking to reconcile the spirit of botanicals with the realm of brands and tradeshows. Armbrecht’s reverence for nature and emotional honesty animates these pages and elevates this book above a by-the-numbers industry analysis.”—Judith D. Schwartz, author of The Reindeer Chronicles and Water in Plain Sight

“Ann Armbrecht is a bright light in the complex business of botanical medicines. She is a pragmatic insider, not an armchair critic, but she also brings a strong sense of ethical wisdom to her book and her work as an advocate who does not dodge the hard questions.”—Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Mesquite and Jesus for Farmers and Fishers

“Ann Armbrecht’s engaging book provides perceptive and important insights into what is too often an invisible trade despite its immense importance to the livelihoods, traditions, and interests of a great many people around the world.”—Steven Broad, executive director of TRAFFIC and member of the Board of the FairWild Foundation

“A vastly important and enlightening dive into the complexities of the botanical industry that is a must read for conscious consumers and industry professionals alike. Ann Armbrecht tackles the issues of sustainability, quality, livelihoods, and traditional knowledge with so much heart and honesty that you feel as if you’ve taken the journey with her.”—Erin Smith, director of Herbal Science & Research, Banyan Botanicals; co-chair of the Sustainability Committee at the American Herbal Products Association

“This well-written and well-researched book provides fascinating and important insights into how herbal remedies make it into our homes. Ann Armbrecht’s passion for the subject shines through as she takes readers on an illuminating journey through the highs and lows, the joys and challenges, the magic and hard commerce present in the herbal medicine trade. Reading almost like a travelogue, The Business of Botanicals chronicles her visits to farms, wild-collection sites, and factories around several continents, introducing some of the key characters and companies in the industry along the way.”—Susan Curtis, director of Natural Health, Neal’s Yard Remedies

Foreword Reviews

"Thoughtful and compelling. . . The Business of Botanicals is an insightful, impassioned study of the herbal supplements industry and the challenges of producing its goods in a socially responsible way. . . . Representing hundreds of interviews with people at all levels of the supply chain. . .the book is a commanding plea that people engage in ‘conscious capitalism. ‘"