Gathering medicine and food from the wild connects us to the natural world, our ancestral heritage, and our wild animal selves. Being involved in our sustenance and healing is boldly empowering and ties us into simple living and the change of the seasons.
By gathering our own medicines carefully and conscientiously, we can be assured that our medicines are fresh, of high quality, and gathered in a sustainable fashion. When we are more personally involved in our herbal medicines (by growing or gathering), we reduce the environmental impact of packaging and transportation. Considerations when harvesting plants from the wild include:
Plant Population size– Know your local population size and the range of the particular species you are courting. Is the local population large enough and close to other members of its species to consider harvesting? Is the range of the species the whole eastern coast or is it limited to your bio-region? You can consult field guides, the United Plant Savers (resources listed at the end of this article), as well as state and federal listings of endangered species. Only gather plants that are abundant and never harvest endangered plant species unless you are involved in a structured plant rescue.
Personally, I favor plant species with a larger population in my practice, and avoid using rare or less populous species. There are certain plants I do not harvest from the wild, and I teach my students to do the same. Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, Araliaceae), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis, Ranunculaceae), false unicorn root (Chamaelirium luteum, Melanthiaceae), unicorn root (Aletris farinosa, Nartheciaceae), sundew (Drosera spp., Droseraceae), lady’s slipper (Cypripedium spp., Orchidaceae) and trillium (Trillium spp., Trilliaceae) are a few examples.
Certain herbs I will harvest, but use sparingly, and only in certain situations where a more common herb can’t be substituted. I am open to reassessing the ethical harvest of certain plants depending on how their populations are faring. I have personally seen certain herbs become less abundant during the last two decades of wildcrafting in the southern Appalachians. Wild yam (Dioscorea spp., Dioscoreaceae) and black cohosh (Actaea racemosa, Ranunculaceae) are of particular concern, and should be sourced from cultivated sources, rather than wildcrafted.
Many of our rare native woodland medicinals are now cultivated in the woods in a sustainable fashion. I highly recommend supporting these growers, or growing the herbs yourself. The medicinal understory of the forest is a valuable asset, and can be managed for regenerative harvest. The intact forest, with all of its useful gifts of lumber, food, fiber, bio-diversity, beauty, water retention, carbon- sequestering, hammock hanging, and wildlife habitat, is an additional advantage to woodland cultivation of native medicinal flora.
Native /non-native– Is your species native to North America and tied into local food webs or is it an escapee from other lands? Non-natives often displace native species by competing with them for natural resources. Non-natives have not evolved locally with the same checks and balances that native plants have experienced. Not having the pressures of pathogens and herbivory allows non-natives to flourish compared to our natives, which experience more disease and predation. Non-natives do not provide the same nourishment in the food chain because many insects have not co-evolved with them. Favor harvesting non-natives such as dandelion (Taraxacum officinale, Asteraceae), burdock (Arctium lappa and minus, Asteraceae), yellow dock (Rumex crispus and obtusifolius, Polygonaceae), chickweed (Stellaria media, Caryophyllaceae), and red clover (Trifolium pratense, Fabaceae) rather than natives.
Pollution – Plants can absorb and bio-accumulate toxins, including heavy metals. Always harvest at least 30 feet from the road (and only harvest near smaller, less traveled byways) and make sure you are not harvesting in an area with environmental toxicity or herbicides/pesticides. Even hay fields that appear to be untended can be sprayed with herbicides. Find your neighborhood’s organic growers and ask to harvest their weeds in exchange for some medicine or apple pie. People are usually quite happy with this type of arrangement.
Species Identification – It is common sense that you should know what you are harvesting. If in doubt, do not gather! Consult your local herbalists, botanists, and field guides. Be especially careful with plants in families that contain deadly poisons such as the Carrot (Apiaceae) and Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) families. Court a plant throughout the seasons and positively identify it at least three times before you make your move!
Timing – Observe the reproductive cycles of the plants you harvest to ensure regeneration. For example, it is best to harvest roots after a plant has already flowered and seeded.
Regeneration- Know how the plants grow and observe their form and habits. For example, when harvesting bark, I harvest a whole limb and use all the bark and twigs, rather than taking bark off the main trunk, which exposes the tree to pathogens by creating a wound with a large surface area. When gathering roots I often take a side root if the plant is growing clonally or replant the root crown with enough plant matter to support re-growth. If you are replanting a root crown or portion of a root system, take care to cut back some of the above ground stems to compensate for the root loss. In addition, make sure there are some buds present in the root system and replant them pointing upward, and at the same depth as they were growing when you first harvested the plant.When harvesting leaves and stems, try to take just a couple shoots off each plant so the remaining plant may still photosynthesize and reproduce. If you are just harvesting leaves from a woody plant, pull the leaves off the stem and leave the branches to form new leaves in subsequent years.
Preparation–Tinctures concentrate the medicine of plants as compared to tea, so you need to gather less of a plant. If you are working with a less abundant plant, consider this form of medicine to stretch what you have, so you don’t need to harvest as much.
Legalities/Permission – Always ask for permission from the land owner if harvesting on private land. If you want to harvest on governmental land, you can check with the managing agency for regulations and permits. Be aware of the differing classifications of land management. National Parks are often visited for their natural beauty and are not generally logged or leased for grazing cattle. National Forests are often managed for resources and may be clear-cut and grazed by cattle. Please remember to ask the plant for its permission and leave it an offering: a song, some water, your hair, the grain you eat the most. Gratitude and respect for all life nourishes happiness and connects us to the deeper unseen places.
Beauty-Always refill your holes and leave an area more beautiful than when you came.
United Plant Savers “At-Risk” List
American Ginseng - Panax quinquefolius
Black Cohosh - Actaea racemosa (Cimicifuga)
Bloodroot - Sanguinaria canadensis
Blue Cohosh - Caulophyllum thalictroides
Echinacea - Echinacea spp.
Eyebright - Euphrasia spp.
False Unicorn Root - Chamaelirium luteum
Goldenseal - Hydrastis canadensis
Lady’s Slipper Orchid - Cypripedium spp.
Lomatium - Lomatium dissectum
Osha - Ligusticum porteri, L. spp.
Peyote - Lophophora williamsii
Sandalwood - Santalum spp. (Hawaii only)
Slippery Elm - Ulmus rubra
Sundew - Drosera spp.
Trillium, Beth Root -Trillium spp.
True Unicorn - Aletris farinosa
Venus’ Fly Trap - Dionaea muscipula
Virginina Snakeroot - Aristolochia serpentaria
Wild Yam - Dioscorea villosa, D. spp.
United Plant Savers “To-Watch” List
Arnica - Arnica spp.
Butterfly Weed - Asclepias tuberosa
Cascara Sagrada - Frangula purshiana (Rhamnus)
Chaparro - Casatela emoryi
Elephant Tree - Bursera microphylla
Gentian - Gentiana spp.
Goldthread - Coptis spp.
Kava Kava - Piper methysticum (Hawaii only)
Lobelia - Lobelia spp.
Maidenhair Fern - Adiantum pendatum
Mayapple - Podophyllum peltatum
Oregon Grape - Mahonia spp.
Partridge Berry - Mitchella repens
Pink Root - Spigelia marilandica
Pipsissewa - Chimaphila umbellata
Spikenard - Aralia racemosa, A. californica
Stone Root - Collinsonia canadensis
Stream Orchid - Epipactis gigantea
Turkey Corn - Dicentra canadensis
White Sage - Salvia apiana
Wild Indigo - Baptisia tinctoria
Yerba Mansa - Anemopsis californica
Resources for Ethical Wildcrafting
United Plant Savers http://unitedplantsavers.org/ phone (802) 476-4647 A non-profit dedicated to the preservation of native medicinal herbs through education and conservation. UPS has a list of “at-risk” and “to-watch” medicinal herbs which can help in making sustainable wildcrafting choices.
Good Pruners I recommend Felco brand pruners. They are very high quality, sell blade and spring replacements, and can be sharpened. I have used my pair of Felcos extensively over the past 16 years and they are still in good working order. A holster is indispensable for protecting bags and pockets and keeping pruners within handy reach.
Felco pruners come in a wide variety of models. Look for a pair that will reduce hand fatigue and strain. The pruner handles, when fully opened, should not exceed the width of your extended grasp. You will be using your pruners to harvest and process plants. Pruners are my most used tool in wildcrafting. They are sold at some garden centers and on-line.
Hory-Hory or Weeding Knife or Japanese Garden Knife
This tool looks like it sounds. It is heavy duty and compact – a sturdy incognito wildcrafting tool and excellent weeding tool. It cuts through most clay and can pry rocks out of the ground. Mine has seen its share of soils across the land and is still strong after 16 years of use. Again a holster is quite handy for keeping your tools organized and ready for use. The wooden handled varieties are purported to be stronger than the plastic. They are available through seed catalogues and landscaping outfitters as well as some specialty garden centers.
Hand lens or Loupe - A loupe is a hand-held magnifying lens used for botany. One with 10 times magnification or higher is needed. These are available at university bookstores or naturalist stores.
Sharp compact knife – for stripping bark
Heavy duty knife – Japanese cleaver or butcher’s knife for chopping tough roots
Folding hand pruning saw – useful for cutting braches for wildcrafting bark
Digging fork – excellent for digging roots. This tool has square tines unlike the manure or hay fork, which has flat, bendable tines
Field Guides for the Southeastern United States
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, L. Newcomb
A Field Guide to the Trees and Shrubs of the Southern Appalachians, Robert E. Swanson
Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas, Radford, Ahles and Bell -Technical key with excellent species descriptions
Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio valley and the Southern Appalachians, Horn, Cathcart, etc. -Excellent color photo guide; geared for the layperson with few keys. Some edible/herbal tidbits along with some ecology and etymology of plant names
Trees of the Southeastern United States, Duncan and Duncan -- Excellent keys, species descriptions, ranges, and color photos; mid-level to technical and very comprehensive.
The Illustrated Book of Trees, William Grimm --This is an excellent all-around tree book for the East coast with a lot of keys and species descriptions; also full of ethnobotanical and ecological information
Plant Identification Terminology, an Illustrated Glossary, Harris and Harris –Excellent companion to any flora; Helpful in understanding botanical terms used in technical keys
May all beings know abundance and peace, May we walk in beauty and harmony with the Earth