But it takes specialized knowledge and skill to be an ethical wildcrafter.
While harvesting wild plants for food and medicine is an ancient practice, it fell out of favor during the mid-20th century, as generational knowledge and self-reliance gave way to relatively inexpensive modern medical conveniences of over the counter pharmaceuticals and medical care administered by specially educated professionals. People lost touch with the “People’s Medicine”, the ancient connection to the healing powers of plants and self-determination. There was a shift in perception regarding responsibility for individual and collective health.
For decades now, herbal medicine has been counter culture. But the tides have shifted, the back-to-the-land movement saw a return to seeking the knowledge of elders, and re-discovering more holistic ways of healing. With the advent of today’s social media and its far reach, it’s become “cool” to wild harvest plants for medicine. With the rising popularity of herbal medicine, wildcrafting has come to the forefront of social consciousness.
With that new popularity, there has been a resurgence of folks foraging plants for home use, small herbal businesses, and commercial trades. To harvest sustainably and with clarity of purpose, it is important to know some valuable rules, etiquette and sustainable practices to protect the health of very plants we are asking to protect our our health. If it is not good for the plants, it is not good for us.
Foraging For Plant Medicine
Before our students have the opportunity to harvest, they first learn about the plants and their habitats. They learn that correct identification that is key to safely harvesting plants for medicine. They learn how to find plants legally on their own and come to understand how to protect plant stands so they can be sustainably harvested immediately and for generations to come. They learn which plant parts are available as seasons change, the health of the stands and how to assess how much to harvest, and medicinal constituents that tell the students what type of menstrua will best extract and preserve that specific medicine. The students learn to observe who else uses the plants. Animals might depend on the plants for shelter and food. Companion plants may enhance the growth of other plants by sharing communication, medicine, and nutrition. Just as no one person is an island, no plant is an island in nature.
Despite the excitement of being out in the wild, there is never a good reason to harvest any plant before learning about it: its needs, properties, constituents, uses and actions. We can do real harm to the plants and the ecosystems by upsetting the balance they require for their growth and survival. It’s remembering where we are, our role within the web of the community, AND what we must do to preserve, rather than destroy, the tight knit collective that is so very imperative to the whole.
It is of utmost importance to be 100 percent certain of plant identification before doing ANY harvesting. Pictures or artists’ renderings of plants in field guides and identification apps don’t always provide enough information to correctly identify a plant in the wild. There are look-alike plants, which can be confusing to both the novice and experienced. Knowing the plants is the difference between healing and harming. If you are unsure of the identification of a plant, take classes from reputable wildcrafters, or best yet, take one with you on your harvesting searches until you become adept at identifying plants on your own.
Remember! Everything is edible…at least once!
Where to Go Wildcrafting
Finding new harvesting places is always so much fun for me. I call it “scouting” and Suzanne calls it “herbal reconnaissance”. Whatever you call it-it os a lot of work but also tons of fun! The land where one forages is held very dear as the wealth of medicine for mind, body and soul: exquisite views, fresh air, sun, clean water, healthy ecosystems, and vibrant plants all combine to create incredible harvesting experiences. Yes, we want to get out and find our places, but first, there is a lot to consider and know.
Find your OWN Spots!
Wildcrafting locations are sacred and a privilege to the person who took the time to find them. This means you need to find your own harvesting areas and not harvest from the places I take you after your time with me ends.
Can you imagine how quickly a plant stand would be decimated if each of my students returned to take “just a bit more”? Please don’t!
The Right Time, the Right Place and the Right Part
Trust nature to know what you need! In years where a particular plant is not abundant or conditions are stressful, look around and see what else is growing in abundance-it may just be something that we find we need. Pay attention to that!
Time of year is important, for biennials we harvest the leaf of the first year plant before they send up flowers (such as with teasel, burdock, or mullein) the flower the second year, and the root the end of the first year or beginning of the second year. It is important to understand plant growth, to know how the plant is storing or expending energy as this will effect the type and amount of phytochemicals available at a particular time.
Roots are typically harvested in the fall when the plants energy is moving downward and the plant is storing carbohydrates-those polysaccharides are important for building strong immune health during winter months. Some roots are gathered in early spring when resins or alkaloids are most plentiful. The inner bark of willow is most potent when the cambium is flowing in spring-also the easiest time to peel the bark!
Harvesting flowers that have been pollinated or are “spent” will make ineffective medicine-a waste of plant, of menstuum and of time. Plus weak medicine can lead to people believing that herbs don’t work. Be an advocate for the plants by knowing how to make the most effective medicine you can!
Consider where you are harvesting. Yarrow in the garden that is pampered does not need to produce as many terpenes to fight off predators. Yarrow that is growing in warm, dry conditions has a more complex array of constituents.
Stand and Ecological Health
There is no “correct” formula for determining the amount of plants you can responsibly take from a stand. You may have her of the (insert number)% rule. It’s bogus! Even taking a small amount may have a detrimental impact on a stand, no matter how conservative you are. You must consider more than just the size: what creatures are dependent upon the plant for their survival? What is the overall health of the area? The abundance of the plants may not be correlated to the health of the stand and this varies from year to year. If the stand cannot support your needs, you must adjust your needs to the stand, not the other way around. Look for plants elsewhere or consider a different plant that may be used instead and is possibly more abundant. Be flexible.
Harvest with Intention
It is the gatherer’s responsibility to research the intended plants before harvesting, examine the habitats in which they live and the relationship the plants have with the neighboring wildlife, their medicinal constituents, and her/his impact on the stands and surrounding environment. Find out what part of the plant is used, when the best time of year is to harvest, cautions, and concerns. Never harvest a plant before knowing its medicine or knowing the proper way to harvest. This is how plants get collected and thrown away, or incorrect or mediocre medicine is made that can harm or be ineffective.
Get Permission…from the plants.
This is one of the most important considerations of a wildcrafter and it requires a connection to the plants, an open heart, and attentiveness. Some people (hear/feel/know) when a plant is communicating “yes, you may take from me” or “now is not the right time for me to give” or “that’s enough”, for others it takes time to develop. Remember, this is wisdom that your ancestors and the plants have passed to you, over a long period of evolving together. You already know how to do this, you may just need to relearn.
Here is a suggestions: take a few minutes to become aware of the plant and for it to become aware of you. You may talk to the plant, share breath, touch it gently or just reach out with your feelings, young Skywalker. Let the plant know what you want, ask for permission to take from it, and be prepared to respect what the plant communicates with you. It may be a “no”- just accept it and move on, there may be another plant that calls to you or you may need to try another day or another stand. Take some time to just hangout with the plant and show your appreciation for it anyway!
It’s an amazing feeling to know you are respecting the plant and that your medicine will be a synergy of your positive energy and the plant’s blessing. Always bring your best self to the medicine you create together.
As I always say, “the healing begins with the harvest”
While you Harvest
Did you get a “yes”? Awesome! You may proceed! Pay attention as you are harvesting and the plants will tell you which ones in the stand are ok to take, which berries, leaves or flowers to pick. Share your intention with the plant and ask for it’s help in creating a medicine that will be effective. Think about the person or persons for whom the medicine is intended. This is not a time to carry on a conversation, or think negative thoughts-be present with the plant and infuse your loving intention and kindness into the medicine you are making! There may be times when you need to use clippers but still touch the plant if possible.
I try to use my bare hands to harvest whenever possible as this helps facilitate a chemical, physical, and spiritual connection between the plant and me.
Harvest only enough for your needs.
If you are uncertain about how much plant matter you’ll require in a year, start small and gain experience. Make a small amount of medicine and spend time learning its effectiveness. It’s better to harvest less and use it all, than to harvest too much and waste the lives of the plants. In the next appropriate season, you can harvest more. In the meantime, there may be other plants of similar or equal health applications that can be utilized that are ready for harvest in the upcoming seasons. Additionally, make sure to process the harvest either in the field, or as soon as possible. Plants that are left on the porch awaiting processing are plants that are swiftly losing their medicinal and nutritional value.
Ethical and Sustainable Practices
Tread lightly, watch where you step and don’t be a bull in a china shop! Try not to trample the plants under your feet, break branches, scare wildlife, disturb soils, etc. Be in harmony with your surroundings. Walk single file.
Leave no trace! When you are finished harvesting you should carefully fill in any holes, bury or scatter unused plant material and cover up any signs that someone was there. Leave the area looking as good or better than you found it by cleaning up any debris. And NEVER leave litter or food behind!
Ask yourself if you really need to take the whole plant. Instead of the whole root, will a side root be sufficient? There is absolutely no reason to take a tree if a branch will do! Try to leave the plant as intact -and alive-as possible!
Consider how you might contribute to the health of the stand. Is it thirsty? Can you share some water? Would it be appropriate to scatter seed? Can you re-plant root crowns?
When harvesting be thoughtful of the creatures who rely on the habitat and plants for their food. Adopt a practice of only taking what you can reach for. For instance, leave what is up high on the bush for the birds and leave what is down low for the deer and smaller creatures.
Harvest in the heart zone.
Last but not least it is kind to show gratitude to the plants for sharing their bounty with you. This is very individual. It may be a touch, sharing breath, a drink of water, a song, or simply opening your heart and telling the plant you are thankful for their gift. You can thank them by being respectful in all ways. You do not need to give or leave the plant anything, in fact, please don’t-it can actually harm the plant if we introduce something into it’s environment that does not belong there. For instance, tobacco may contain chemicals and pesticides that can kill plants if it touches them or is taken up from the soil, plus it is considered cultural appropriation if it is not your heritage. NO tobacco offerings!
Appropriate places to harvest
First and foremost, always ask permission before harvesting. The stand may be full and healthy, the soil fertile, and the view heavenly, but if the plants say no (or the property owner says no), the answer is NO. We always respect the plants (and any land owner) and find another harvesting place. That’s fine. There are many other possibilities.
National Forests Check with your local Forest Service for topographical maps and locations where plant harvesting is allowed. Cultivate a friendly relationship with them, and they’ll often show you on the maps where to safely go, and what to expect while on the land.
Private land. Always check with the owners before entering private spaces and harvesting. See if you can cultivate a mutually beneficial arrangement. Offer them remedies in exchange for harvesting. Win-win!
State Parks. Look up the regulations for harvesting in parks in your state. Rules can vary from state to state and park to park, so it’s best to know for sure what is allowed. In Washington, harvesting up to a gallon of plant materials at a time is permissible at some parks and at certain times of the year. That means one-gallon total, not a gallon of each plant. Make sure to ask whether chemicals of any kind have been sprayed in the park where you wish to harvest. If so, do not harvest there.
Regulations regarding harvesting in state and local parks for personal consumption
Department of Natural Resources Normally, on DNR land, there is typically a one gallon per day limit, That is not per plant, but total plant material of all plants harvested. Up to 3 gal per day for berries.
Bureau of Land Management You can generally harvest forest products in reasonable amounts for personal use without a permit unless otherwise posted.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Some WDFW lands allow personal harvest of specific forest products without a permit, but be sure to contact the WDFW before you harvest
National Parks: free harvest permits may be required for personal use -check with local ranger district. Most berries do not require a permit and you can harvest up to a gallon per person.
Food Forests- read posted signs about local regulations
What to avoid: Something to consider is to avoid harvesting in places where there are posted signs of chemical spraying and/or biosolids, where there is evidence that people have dumped vehicle liquids such as motor oil, antifreeze coolant, and transmission fluid on the ground, or other garbage. The plants growing near will be poisoned and rendered unusable for medicine or food. We are looking for healthy plants with strong medicine.
Additionally, do not harvest where this is evidence of harvesting already. Aside from being really bad manners, you do not want to be the person to tip the balance of the plant community’s ability to thrive into the negative. Again, find your OWN harvest places. Wildcrafting locations are sacred and a privilege to the person who took the time to find them-keep your spots private.
Finally, Keep Yourself Safe and the Keep the Plants Safe
Know and avoid your local toxic and poisonous plants! Do not harvest (especially don’t harvest roots!) near where poisonous plants are growing (such as false hellebore, poison hemlock or water hemlock).WA poisonous plants-apiaceae.pdf
Know your protected, threatened or endangered plants. Check out United Plant Savers for the most up-to-date, reliable information on the “do not pick” lists!
When going into wild areas don’t go alone, be prepared for the unexpected and always let someone know where you will be and when you will return!
I will share more about how to find your own special wildcrafting places during out time together!
Here are some slides from a class I teach on finding your places-feel free to ask lots of questions! wildcrafting slides
Happy scouting, friends!