If we are to have any chance of interacting with the land in generative ways, we as herbalists and people who work with plant medicines need to intimately engage with the ecologies from which we wildcraft medicinal plants. We need to thoroughly inhabit ecosystems if we are to establish intimate and caring relationships with the living Earth, but how do I/we do these things?
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.
Once while on a search for cascara sagrada, I found a tree with many inward growing branches that was perfect for harvesting. I asked permission and the tree said “no.” I was baffled, but as I continued up the trail just a bit, I found a tree with a large broken branch that was still full of life and ripe for harvest.
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.
Learning to correctly identify toxic plants can save you and others from serious harm. I don’t want to instill fear of the wild in you, but there are some toxic plants in this region that can be confused with commonly used medicinal plants. Here is an overview of the toxic plants you may encounter in the Pacific Northwest.
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.
I am sitting in a room with a male forest being. He is brown with strips of bark hanging from his clothes. He looks at me with a glimmer in his eye, "You know Cascara is good for stubborn blockages."
"Yes, I know"
"No, I mean stubborn blockages." As he emphasizes "blockages" I understand that he means mental, spiritual, and emotional blockages.
I walk through the woods searching for a good place to harvest Devil’s Club, Oplopanax horridum. I investigate the root connections looking for a spot where the stems have grown tall and fallen over making new root junctions. If you can find a mature root in between two well-rooted nodes, you can take the central piece while doing minimal harm to the above-ground portions of the plant. I make prayers and offerings and ask for permission to harvest. As I am cleaning and clipping the roots I’ve removed from the stand, I have a sense that something is not right.