(partly taken from the book, Southeastern Medicinal Plants, to be published by Timber Press, October 2021)
Wildcrafting, meaning to harvest plants from the wild for food or medicine, has become very popular lately, as has herbal medicine in general. And it’s totally understandable – it feels so empowering and connected to harvest your own food, tea, and medicine. Instead of planting and weeding and watering all year long, we just go out and pick what nature offers us; No need to pay a pharmacist, doctor, or even health food store. There is no more direct way to connect to nature and plants.
As exciting as it is to see this activity that became marginalized by modern culture become more mainstream again, it’s also led to problems of over-harvesting, native ecosystems being damaged, and inexperienced harvesters collecting the wrong plants. It’s also led to illegal and unethical poaching on private and public land.
So where do we find the balance between ethical and sustainable harvesting instead of practices that might cause harm to the environment? Some herbalists say that modern humans shouldn’t harvest from the wild at all, that we have already had enough impact on nature. But after being a wildcrafter for 30 years, I think that one of the greatest gifts is that we learn to have a better relationship with the wild. It’s a powerful reminder that we are not separate from nature but that we come from this world, and we can begin to connect with the way that our ancestors lived and related to nature (or as we called it before we learned how to build buildings, “home”).
In the book Ishmael, Daniel Quinn used used the words Takers and Leavers. To simplify for our purposes, “Takers” are those who take more than they need and don’t have an awareness of the balance of the ecosystem, where “Leavers” are those who take only what they need and leave the rest.
The Takers have a colonial mindset of taking whatever one wants from nature (or from people), of extracting resources to meet an ever-expanding target of growth, much like modern capitalism. The Leavers is a more indigenous mindset of taking only what is necessary and leaving the rest, of maintaining the natural balance so that there will be enough for future generations to also live, thrive and survive. Takers think of how to meet the next payment; Leavers of how their grandchildren will live.
To be clear, when I say indigenous I’m not just talking about Native American (though these traditions are powerful models of healthy nature interactions). No matter who you are, at some point in your history your ancestors were indigenous, they were connected to the land and its rhythms. Allow that to give you hope that we can all learn positive ways to reconnect to nature and be in right relationship again. Our ancestors were colonized but we can reconnect to our nature before colonization.
It is so wonderful to learn how to get your food and medicine for free, not needing a grocery store or pharmacy. But there is still a cost. Not in money but in our time, our attention, and above all, our responsibility to those plants and places. We didn’t plant these plants but once we start harvesting them we take some responsibility for the health of that plant and for the health of the area where we harvest. We take on the role of a gardener, not in the sense that the place is “ours,” but that some of the responsibility for tending that area now falls to us. I highly encourage everyone harvesting from the wild to read about the “honorable harvest” in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass.
Here are the basic rules for wildcrafting:
- Harvest like you want your grandkids (or friends’ grandkids) to be able to harvest from the same place
- Don’t harvest when you’re feeling angry, rushed, greedy, or out of sorts. It will throw off your decision making and affect the medicine
- Harvest only from abundance and take only what you need
- Ask permission and leave a little something
- Know what plants not to harvest and leave those plants be
Though many edible and medicinal plants are common weeds that can be easily picked without much concern for the sustainability of the plant (hello dandelion, ragweed, and honeysuckle!), it takes careful consideration to harvest from the woods in a sustainable way. We need to remember that even when plants are available to us on public land, they are not “ours.” Our attitude has to be less of a colonial mindset of coming in and taking what we think we deserve and more about creating a relationship with the wild plants. Growing into this relationship earns the respect of the plants as well as fellow wildcrafters and herbalists. And every time I harvest plants from this place of respect I always come away feeling like I know the plant better.
The first thing to do when you find a stand of plants is to do a stand count. After hours spent looking for a plant, it can be tempting to harvest the first one you find, but take the time to walk around first and see how many plants are there and what impacts them. Ask questions like – Is there agricultural run-off nearby? Are there wildlife that feed on this plant? Are other people potentially harvesting here? Do pollinators depend on this plant?
You might not be able to answer all of these questions but observe as much as you can. So, count the number of plants while you assess the area. A good rule of thumb is to never harvest more than 1 out of 4 plants – though in practice I usually harvest much less than even that. If you start harvesting before you know there’s enough you might end up taking the only plants in that area and then not even have enough plants to make a cup of tea.
Once you’ve found a big enough stand in a good location, ask the plant’s permission. Maybe this sounds woo-woo, but trust me when I say it makes a difference. If you, like me, have a more science-y mind, think about it as quieting your mind and tuning in to your intuition, which is really just the sum of all the factors you’ve already unconsciously noticed but can’t put into words. Find the largest, most robust plant, or maybe just the first plant you saw, sit down and quiet your mind, then introduce yourself to the plant and ask permission. Next, and most importantly, stop and listen.
Now I should say that plants don’t exactly talk to me, or at least not like humans do, and I’m a little jealous of those who do have conversations with plants. I get more of a felt sense – if it’s the right place to harvest then I feel a peaceful sense of rightness, and if it’s not then I feel a sense of unease, like it’s not quite the right fit. Here’s a thought: If every time you ask the answer is always yes then you’re probably not listening enough.
Next, make an offering as a token of appreciation. I’ve heard a lot of people say that Native American peoples leave tobacco as a thank you gift. Personally, I don’t think it matters what you leave – it’s the thought that counts (as they say). Tobacco is not a plant I use or interact with, so I don’t have a sacred connection to it. I like to leave a bit of whatever precious snack I have in my backpack, like a small piece of dried mango or a square of chocolate. It’s just about creating some energy exchange, some appreciation.
I like to leave the biggest and healthiest plant in the stand to propagate and spread its good genes, but I do like to harvest larger plants because then I can harvest fewer of them. As you’re harvesting, ask yourself what you can do to make the stand healthier. If you’re digging roots, can you dig a plant that’s growing so close to another that they are competing, like thinning carrots? If harvesting flowers and leaves, can you pinch off upper parts so that the plant will branch out and produce more, like picking basil. If you’re harvesting branches, can you prune the plant like a fruit tree to encourage healthy growth. This is a holistic approach to harvesting. In addition, throughout this book there is a subheading about “future harvests” in each plant section to help understand how each plant can be ethically harvested.
Our medicine can only be as good as the plants we harvest, though the energy we harvest with also affects our final product. Harvest carefully and with intention. Tune in to the woods to help bring you more present, whatever that looks like for you. Choose healthy plants growing in a good location. Though there are better and worse times to harvest a plant, sometimes the best time to harvest is when you are there and the plant is there. Sometimes it’s better to have some tincture from not-the-ideal-time than to have no tincture at all because you were waiting for the stars to align.
And finally, scouting for plants is a big part of wildcrafting, getting to know where plants grow, where they are abundant and where they are few, and how things change over time. This means getting to know your area and making more than one trip to the same place, and it may mean years of careful observation to get to know your area and what grows where.
So get out there and enjoy the art of wildcrafting!! But also remember that it’s not just about what we can harvest, it’s also very much about what we can leave behind. Use it as a way to grow your connection to the woods around you and you will grow as a human being as well.