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.
Determining Whether a Harvest Is Ethical and Sustainable
Imagine you are out in the field sitting in a stand of wild plants. You have positively identified the plant and are sure that it is not endangered or toxic. To determine whether it is sustainable and ethical to harvest this plant, clear your mind and ground yourself. Tune in to your surroundings. Open your heart and use all of your senses. Very carefully observe the area around you with an unattached mind and ask yourself these questions.
- Am I in the proper emotional state to make a harvest?
- Am I prepared to be honest with myself in regards to making decisions about my impact on this stand of plants and the ecosystem in which they live?
- How much of this medicine can or will I realistically process and use?
- If the plant is rare, can I use a more widely available plant in its place?
- Is this stand of plants healthy? Are the individual plants healthy?
- Are there other plants like this in the area, or is this an isolated stand? Is there a larger stand around the bend?
- How old are the plants?
- Will my harvest result in the death of the plants? Is there some way to mitigate this? If not, how long will it take for other plants of this species to take their place?
- If my harvest won’t require taking the plant’s life, how long will it take the harvested part(s) to grow back?
- Will my impact be noticeable?
- Is there evidence of others harvesting here?
- Will my harvest adversely affect the ecological balance of the stand or the intricate web of interrelations that ensure its continued existence?
- Are there animals or insects that depend on this plant for food or other uses? How will my harvesting impact these relationships?
- What is the terrain like? Will my harvest, including the path I take to arrive there, adversely impact the integrity of a river bank or cause erosion on a slope?
Only after thoroughly contemplating and answering these questions will you be able to determine whether harvesting is acceptable in this place. If the answer is “yes” and you feel confident in proceeding with the harvest, you can now ask the plant for permission, make offerings, and state your intention to the plant. At this point, based on the more objective information you’ve gathered from the questions above and the more subjective response you’ve gotten from the plant, you should be able to determine how many plants you can safely harvest from the stand. There is no formula for this. You must make an informed decision based on the life cycle of the plant in question, the variables listed above, and any other information that seems pertinent. Ultimately your goal should be to increase life in the forest rather than diminish it. Please err on the side of caution.
Guidelines for Ethical Wildcrafting
- Know the rare and endangered plants of the area and don’t harvest them.
- Determine whether a harvest is ethical and sustainable.
- Exercise caution when harvesting at the outer limits of a plant’s geographical range.
- Pick from different stands or spots in a stand to minimize impact.
- Care for and develop a relationship with the stand.
- Don’t harvest the Grandmothers and Grandfathers. The oldest and largest plants in a stand are the most successful survivors with the strongest genes. Let them continue to reproduce.
- Leave any area you harvest from in the same or better condition than you found it. Fill in holes after harvesting roots. Don’t leave discarded leaves or other plant parts lying around where others can see them. Whenever possible replant root crowns or scatter seeds.
- Observe the stand over time so that you can continue to refine your personal assessments. Be aware of the impact of your harvesting and/or any natural environmental changes that have affected the health of the stand. Based on this information, be prepared to alter your wildcrafting practices or stop harvesting altogether from this spot.
Mutually Beneficial Wildcrafting
Developing harvesting techniques that benefit the growth of plants will ensure that we have access to these medicines for many generations to come. For example, when working with shrubby plants, cutting above a leaf node that is facing out from the center of the plant will promote a more bushy growth habit, resulting in plants that are bigger and lusher than those that haven’t been harvested. Cut the stem or branch at a 45 degree angle about 1/4 inch above the leaf node. For plants with opposite leaves, cut straight across. Observing the correct cutting angle and distance from the node prevents unnecessary damage to the plant.
Replant root crowns whenever possible, leaving a portion of the root with some visible root hairs. Dig only the back end of roots or rhizomes of herbaceous perennials and leave the front end with next year’s bud to sprout the following spring. If you dig the whole plant up, snip off the back end and replant the front end.
Dig roots in summer or autumn after the seeds mature, the leaves begin to die back, and the plant’s energy descends downward into the roots. At this point in a plant’s growth cycle, the roots are full of the life force and medicinal constituents that the plants have accumulated during the growing season. The timing is more important for fleshy roots like those of sharptooth angelica or Gray’s lovage than for woody perennials with dense, hard roots, like red root or California bayberry. Roots are generally more sweet and tonic when dug in spring and have a gentler effect than autumn-dug roots.
Rather than harvesting roots, consider using other parts of the plant such as the leaves. We traditionally use only the roots of some plants, not because this is the only part that is medicinal, but because the roots are more easily transported and retain their freshness and viability for longer periods of time, making them better for commerce and trade. Western aralia is a great example of this. Not long ago it was thought that only the roots and berries were useful as medicine, but at some point someone started making medicine from the leaves and found it to be quite useful. Harvesting and using the leaves for medicine is becoming common practice.
For years, almost all of the bark I’ve harvested has come from already-downed trees that are still alive. If the fallen tree is still rooted and it is not a conifer species, I cut the tree at the base so it will resprout from the crown. If left alone, the tree usually sprouts many new potential trunks along the length of the original trunk. In the end the tree is unable to sustain all of this new growth and the original trunk dies. Cutting it and using the bark for medicine is a win–win situation. The tree can more rapidly create its new sustainable trunk, and my community and I are blessed with lots of good medicine.
I also look to harvest broken branches that are still attached to a tree and alive or to cut branches that are growing into the center of a tree, both of which will ultimately die. Branches that cross and rub against other branches may open wounds in the tree that invite infection or disease. I cut these branches for medicine, and trim away and discard dead branches as I harvest. When practicing any of these techniques, I often feel a sense of relief from the trees.
Harvest bark from standing trees when the sap is running; sap generally begins to run when the leaves emerge. When the sap is running the bark easily separates from the heartwood.
Make clean cuts when removing branches. Using a sharp saw and proper technique minimizes damage and reduces the risk of infection for the tree. If you don’t end up with a straight cut through the branch, cut a little more off so that you leave a flat-surfaced stub.
When cutting larger branches, first make a 1-inch-deep cut under the branch before sawing in the same plane from above. By doing this, the bark on the bottom part of the branch won’t strip past the cut you’ve made as the branch falls of its own weight.
Strictly observe the guidelines that relate to sustaining the health of the plant, while doing your best to follow the guidelines dealing with the timing of harvests. With so many factors to consider, from seasonal variability to the demands of our own personal schedules, it’s not always possible to be at the right place at the exact right time. My personal goal is always to harvest plants for medicine at the peak of their energetic potency, but I’ve learned to strive for perfection without attachment.