Wildcrafting Basics: Basic Botany and Plant Identification

Two herbal students key out sharptooth angelica, a member of the parsley family, in the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Two herbal students key out sharptooth angelica, a member of the parsley family, in the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Speaking the Language of Plants
If we are to work with wild plants for medicine, we must first study their external forms so we can learn to correctly identify them. Once a plant has been positively identified, it can be harvested and made into medicine. After we’ve made the medicine, we need to understand the medicinal activity of the plant so we can correctly administer it for the ailments we wish to heal.

Early in my wildcrafting career, I was on a backpacking trip with a couple of my classmates in mid autumn. We were walking the Timberline Trail on Oregon’s Mount Hood in search of medicinal plants. As we made our way around the mountain, I saw the familiar leaves of red baneberry. I excitedly showed the plant to my friends and explained how I had identified it.

We decided that there were enough plants here to make a harvest. We sat with the plants, prayed, made offerings, and then began to dig up the roots. After a little while of digging, I noticed that the plant I was digging up had small seed pods on it. “Something is not right here,” I thought. Red baneberry, of course, has bright red berries. “If this isn’t red baneberry then it must be black cohosh!” I had been searching for our native black cohosh for years.

I pulled out Michael Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West and read: “Cimicifuga laciniata, a sparser plant, with shorter and less elaborately divided basal leaves, is found only around the base of Mt. Hood in Oregon and across the Columbia River Gorge in Washington. It is found at much higher elevations, and with decades of extensive logging, has been reduced to a few stands in wilderness areas. It is a threatened plant and should not be picked.” Upon further examination I noticed that only a few of the plants in the stand had flowered and set seed.

I was horrified and embarrassed. Not only had I harvested the wrong plant, but I had harvested an endangered plant. From that day forward I paid closer attention, making absolutely sure of the identity of any plant I was going to harvest.

Picking the wrong plant can have serious consequences and be potentially life threatening. Before you venture off in search of plants to harvest, it is important to have a fundamental understanding of plant identification and an awareness of both toxic and threatened, endangered, and sensitive plant species of the area. Don’t let your excitement get in the way of careful observation.

Basic Botany
Botany is western civilization’s science of studying plants. It is a wide-ranging field that covers all aspects of plant life from the cell biology of plants to the roles they play in ecosystems. Here we will focus on the way that botany describes the structure of plants, known as plant morphology, so that we can correctly and positively identify plants that we encounter in the wild. The specific tool designed by botanists for this task is known as a botanical key.

Understanding how to use a botanical key, also called a dichotomous (that is, divided into two parts) key, is a must for any wildcrafter. In these books, sequences of two choices are presented that help guide the reader to a plant’s specific identity. The most commonly used keys in this region are Leo Hitchcock and Arthur Cronquist’s Flora of the Pacific Northwest, Helen Gilkey’s Handbook of Northwestern Plants, and Eugene Kozloff’s Plants of Western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

Through careful observation and by reading the plant descriptions and viewing the photographs in Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants or another local field guide, you ought to be able to identify many of the important medicinal plants of the Pacific Northwest. But when it comes to the parsley family (Apiaceae), which contains several very toxic plants that can be confused with plants commonly used for medicine, it is essential that you absolutely and correctly identify the plant in question using a botanical key.

If you are just starting out, find an experienced plant person who has an understanding of basic botany or sign up for a field botany course. As you are introduced to new plants, ask to be walked through the process of identification. Be sure to ask how the plant is positively identified. Learn the defining characteristics of the plants: the thing(s) that distinguish a plant from others that look similar. After you familiarize yourself with the process of identification, spend days in the field working through botanical keys on your own.

Studying botany and the morphological characteristics of plants helps hone the skills of perception and observation, but botanical keys have limitations. For example, it can be frustrating to key out a plant in April, which requires you to know the shape of the seed that doesn’t ripen until August. So in addition to botany, study the tastes, smells, and other sense impressions of the plants. Observe the way the plants hold themselves and look for commonly occurring or strangely formed patterns. Using all of these tools in conjunction will aid you greatly as you learn to identify plants and will help minimize the risk of mistaken identity.

A careful and deep study of the natural world and its energetic patterns reveals many hidden secrets. Madrone teaches us to shed our old skin so that our new selves can emerge.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

A careful and deep study of the natural world and its energetic patterns reveals many hidden secrets. Madrone teaches us to shed our old skin so that our new selves can emerge.  © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Steps to Identifying a Plant
Before you start reading the plant descriptions Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants (or another local field guide) or open a botanical key, make note of these important characteristics.

  • Growth habit Is it a tree, shrub, vine, or herb? Does is grow thin and tall, or does it spread itself wide?
  • Habitat Where is the plant growing? Is it sunny or shady? What type of soil is it growing in?
  • Trunks, stalks, and branches Is the bark smooth or furrowed? Are there hairs or spines present? Do they grow straight, or do they twist and turn?
  • Leaves What shape are the leaves? What is their texture? Are they hairy, smooth, thick, or thin? Are they arranged alternately, oppositely, or in whorls along the stem? If present, how long are the leaf stalks? Are the leaves entire or are they divided into segments, lobes, or compound leaflets?
  • Flowers What color is the flower or flowers? How are they arranged on the plant? Are they solitary or in clusters? If present, how many petals or sepals are there? Are they fused or separate? Examine the reproductive parts for further clues.
  • Fruits and seeds What shape and form do fruits and seeds take? Are they fleshy, woody, or hard-skinned? Do they have a crown of hairs? For some plants the seed are the most reliable means of identification, but unfortunately they are not always present.