Wildcrafting is the craft of harvesting medicinal plants from the wild. Humans have been wildcrafting since the dawn of time, but today when medicines are so easily procured, one might question the effort and time required to gather your own. I can assure you that the benefits of harvesting and making medicine from wild plants are many. It is not only more sustainable to use the medicinal plants that grow in the regions where we live, but the herbs we gather will be fresher and more potent. Also, because they are born of the same forces that give shape to our own physical and spiritual beings, local plants are more likely to offer deep healing benefits for our bodies, minds, and souls. In this series of posts covering Wildcrafting Basics (excerpted from my book Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants), I will share with you the many elements wildcrafters ought to consider in order to safely and sustainably practice this age-old craft.
Endangered, Threatened, and Sensitive Species
The history of the expansion of human communities across the globe is filled with stories of plants that we can no longer harvest from the wild in good conscience. As the final frontier of American migration, the western part of North America has fewer chapters to contribute to this sad tale, but we still need to be acutely aware of plants that grow very slowly, plants whose habitat is diminished by human development, or plants whose popularity is leading to more being harvested than the land can support. Getting to know these plants and the ways we can sustainably work with them will ensure that these medicines will not be harvested out of existence.
We should look at the effects of our harvesting with a long-term vision, but with humans’ current state of disconnect from the land and the loss of traditional knowledge, we don’t have much to go on in terms of longer harvesting cycles. While some plants may thrive from our continued picking, other slow-growing, long-lived species may need long spaces of rest between harvests. We may find locally abundant stands of desert parsley, Gray’s lovage, or western trillium that contain hundreds of plants, but we must ask ourselves how long it took for those stands to establish themselves. Desert parsley, for example, may only sustain a few years of even minimal harvesting before needing 50 years or more to rest and regenerate. In some instances it may take only one day of overzealous harvesting to seriously harm a stand of slow-growing plants. If our harvesting leads to a decline in a stand of plants or to the health of an ecosystem, we need to find other wildcrafting sites so the places that we’ve been harvesting from can rejuvenate themselves.
We should also consider the collateral damage we may cause when harvesting plants in the wild. For example, sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), various orchid species, and other rare plants grow in the meadows where I find king’s gentian. A misplaced footstep can damage or kill these delicate plants and leave a long-lasting impression in the soft soil. Be mindful of your impact, and stay on trails to avoid damaging meadows or other sensitive ecosystems.
With a continuing and careful study of the natural cycles of life in the wild, including the consequences of our wildcrafting, we can reestablish an understanding of the needs of ecosystems and the plants that inhabit them. We can then pass this vital information on to our children, grandchildren, and those who will follow for many generations to come.
Be Cautious of Your Impact on These Plants
These plants live in fragile ecosystems, have limited distribution, and/or they (cascara sagrada) or their relatives in other places (arnica, gentian, western aralia, and western trillium) have been subject to unsustainable harvesting practices that have threatened their existence in the wild.
arnica (Arnica species)
cascara sagrada (Frangula purshiana)
gentian leaf (Gentiana species)
goldthread (Coptis species)
pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata)
western aralia (Aralia californica)
western trillium leaf (Trillium ovatum)
Harvest These Plants with Great Care
The roots of these slow-growing plants take a long time to reach a suitable harvesting size. As such, the effects of their removal from the ecosystem and the amount of time it takes for their stands to regenerate post-harvest should be monitored closely.
desert parsley (Lomatium dissectum)
Gray’s lovage (Ligusticum grayi)
Never Harvest These Plants from the Wild
Whether due to their slow rate of growth, the loss of their preferred habitat (it is illegal to harvest California pitcherplant for this reason), and/or the pressures of over-harvesting, these once-popular medicinal plants are at risk of extinction. Please enjoy the beauty of these plants if you encounter them, but do not harvest them under any circumstances.
California pitcherplant (Darlingtonia californica)
coralroot (Corallorhiza species)
lady’s slipper (Cypripedium species)
Mount Hood bugbane (Actaea laciniata)
roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)
spleenwort-leaved goldthread (Coptis aspleniifolia)
tall bugbane (Actaea elata)
Rare and Endangered Plant Resources
- United Plant Savers is an organization started by Rosemary Gladstar and other herbalists to bring awareness to ethical and sustainable wildcrafting practices. They publish a list of “at-risk” and “to-watch” plants.
- The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management work together to put out a list of threatened, endangered, or sensitive species for the states of Washington and Oregon.
- The British Columbia Ministry of Environment publishes a red list that includes any ecological community and indigenous species and subspecies that is extirpated, endangered, or threatened and a blue list that includes any ecological community and indigenous species and subspecies considered to be of special concern for the province.