Mindful use of resources is rarely promoted in the consumer culture in which many of us live. If our resources come from a retail store, we take as much as we want, as often as we want. Even if the objects of our desire aren’t affordable, using the all too convenient credit card allows the expense to be put off for another time.
Unfortunately, this same mentality is sometimes applied to gathering herbs from nature. Too often, people assume that having the knowledge to wildcraft also gives them the right to harvest whatever, wherever and whenever they desire.
Knowing the identity, location and traditional use of a plant is not enough to make one a wildcrafter. In my experience, gathering herbs from nature is the end result of extensive (years) experience working with a specific herb and spending time in nature, off trail, away from the crowds. Reading a few books and going on a plant walk is not enough.
In addition to knowing the botanical keys for identification, the harvest techniques and the general range of the plant, several other conditions must be considered before any collecting is done.
Guidelines for deciding If, Where and When to harvest from nature:
1. Positive identification, ALWAYS.
“If there is a doubt (regarding ID), then there is no doubt (don’t pick it)”.
Get your information from multiple sources. Books and websites are good for support but personal contact with the plant during a plant walk is the best.
Are there poisonous look-a-likes?
2. Gather only in pollution free areas, where neither pesticides, industrial – agricultural runoff nor vehicle exhaust are present.
Gather only in areas in which you have permission.
3. Know the correct time of year for harvest; where is the energy of the plant being directed? While there is some variation, the general guidelines are:
Roots – October thru Feb
Bark – spring, when the sap is flowing
Leaves – earlier in the season, usually before flowering
Flowers – just before full bloom, varies
Fruit – when ripe
Seeds – late fall, before the snow
4. Know the correct way to harvest various parts of the plant without killing it if possible. This is especially important when taking bark or roots.
5. Harvest from abundance and leave abundance. Is your harvest sustainable for future generations? This is especially important when digging roots of slow growing perennials or during a drought.
Regardless of your needs or knowledge, it may not be appropriate to harvest from the wild during a drought or anytime the plant population is stressed. Buy from a grower in a different part of the country.
Cultivate plants whenever possible. Many native plants also grow well in gardens. This relieves pressure from harvesting in the wild.
6. Harvest from plants that appear healthy and full of vitality. Use the same guidelines you would use when choosing produce in a grocery store.
7. Be respectful and grateful. Harvest only when in the proper mindset that is calm, grateful, unhurried and positive.
8. How much do you really need? Pick only what will be used for the next 12 months; return and gather more the next harvest cycle.
9. Harvest from areas off the beaten path.
Do so in a way that leaves no mark of your work.
Be a good steward of the land wherever you go.
10. Fresh plants compost quickly.
Keep them cool and in the shade.
Use paper bags or baskets in the field.
Avoid plastic and glass due to the ‘greenhouse’ effect.
11.Plants should be dried in the shade, sun degrades them.
Moving air is helpful but should not be hot as in a dehydrator.
Roots often harden while drying. Slice/cut to desired size while fresh.
In general, leaving plants parts as whole as possible exposes less surface area to air, thus they keep their potency longer.
The bottom line is:
Simply having the required information does not give us the right to take plants from Nature.
We have a responsibility to do it with gratitude and in a sustainable way.
Don’t wildcraft unless and until you have done your dirt time homework.