Ethical Guidelines to Harvesting Wild plants/Wildcrafting
(musings from the Loo (gallery) Part 2
I was going to wait a few days before posting this but thanks to the snow day yesterday I thought I’d move it up.
Ten years ago I made the best risotto. Cheesy with Ramps, fiddleheads and wild harvested mushrooms, truly the best thing I ever ate. That was the one and only time I ever harvested wild ramps. As an herbalist my main role is to be in service to the plants, for without plants my role would be compromised, to say the least. One of the most important hats I wear is to make sure plants have the ability to flourish, so that our children’s children have access to all the plant medicines we do. Modern culture is an extractive one, when we learn of one of the many uses of a particular plant our habit is to find it, grab it and reduce all the knowledge into that one sound bite (ie St Johns wort is good for depression; yes, but, and…) After enjoying every last bite of risotto I knew that was my ramp story. I am grateful for it, since then once a year, I buy ramp bulbs from the co-op/grocery store and plant them in a hidden location, and of course let the stores know that they should not be selling ramp bulbs just leaves that are ethically wildcrafted.
Wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting plants from their natural, or "wild" habitat, for food, medicinal, or other purposes. It applies to uncultivated plants wherever they may be found, and is not necessarily limited to wilderness areas. Ethical considerations are often involved, such as protecting species future, whether endangered or not. Wildcrafting does not refer to cultivated plants that you grow in your gardens.
When wildcrafting is done sustainably with proper respect, generally only the branches or flowers from plants are taken and the living plant is left, or if it is necessary to take the whole plant, seeds of the plant are placed in the empty hole from which the plant was taken. Care is taken to only remove a few plants, flowers, or branches, so plenty remains to continue the supply. Always wildcraft with thoughts of beauty. Put beauty into your work. Ask yourself how much more beautiful will this plant community be when I am finished gathering.
There are two main reasons people wildcraft/forage,
1) to gather plants to prepare as their personal medicines, food, art / or other personal use
2) harvesting plants to sell to others.
The second of these, gathering plants to sell, can be a little trickier. Firstly, there are the ethical considerations of not over harvesting which happens most often if you are trying to gather large amounts and issues of appropriation. We’ll address these issues another time.
The biggest mistake most new wildcrafters make is harvesting the first good patch they find, there may be an even better stand over the next hill or around the bend in the river, or that may be the only patch around so best leave it. As with any relationship, building relationships with plants cannot be rushed. Don't wildcraft on a (busy) schedule, or you'll miss many beautiful lessons that nature has to offer. Remember, there is no hurry.
- Think first about the plant community and how many plants it can survive without, not how many plants you need in order to make products or profit. (medicine or art)
One in ten (10%) is the best ratio to go by. This leaves most of the stand for reproduction and wildlife, and minimally impacts the ecosystem.
- Do not upset in any manner undisturbed native soil-it is rare and precious.
- Take only as much as you can reasonably use; strive for zero waste.
No matter what percentage of the stand you can pick, you should never harvest more than you can process and use. Remember, it takes twice as long to process as to gather.
- Replant the areas you are harvesting from. Scatter seeds, replace crowns and plant roots. Leave plenty of mature and seed producing plants to reproduce.
- Start a replanting project in your area to help reestablish endangered and threatened species.
- Know the endangered species in your bio-region.
- Teach responsible wildcrafting ethics. Teach by example and let other folks know why you don’t harvest particular plants or gather from specific locales. Help instruct other gatherers whom you feel may be overharvesting. Let buyers know why you won’t gather or sell certain plants. Speak up at conferences, workshops and meetings. It is everyone’s responsibility.
Most plants that are not green (contain no chlorophyll) are "no picks." These weird species are white, brown, red, or purple and just plain eerie. Botanists call them parasites or saprophytes. Some examples include Broomrape, Orobanche sp., Coral Roots, Corallorhiza sp., and Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora.
Other "no picks" include the Orchid Family (Orchidaceae) and almost all the Lily Family (Liliaceae). The Orchid Family includes Calypso Orchid, Calypso bulbosa, and the Rein Orchids, Habenaria sp. The Lily Family includes Trillium, Trillium ovatum, and Mariposa Lilies, Calochortus sp. These families are generally easy to recognize with a little practice. Not every Lily and Orchid is sensitive, but it's a good place to start.
Most (but not all) of the unusual or showy plants are no picks.
If you are not sure, don't harvest it.
Wildcrafting Checklist (feel free to print it out)
🌿Do you have the permission or the permits for collecting at the site?
🌿Do you have a positive identification?
🌿Are there better stands nearby? Is the stand big enough?
🌿Are you at the proper elevation?
🌿Is the stand away from roads and trails?
🌿Is the stand healthy?
🌿Is there any chemical contamination?
🌿Is there any natural contamination?
🌿Are you in a fragile environment?
🌿Are there rare, threatened, endangered, or sensitive plants growing nearby at any time of the year?
🌿Is wildlife foraging the stand?
🌿Is the stand growing, shrinking, or staying the same size?
🌿Is the plant an annual or a perennial?
🌿Is tending necessary and what kind?
🌿How much to pick?
🌿Time of day? Time of year?
🌿What effect will your harvest have on the stand?
🌿Do you have the proper emotional state?
🌿Move around during harvesting.
🌿Look around after harvesting. Any holes or cleanup needed?
🌿Are you picking herbs in the proper order for a long trip?
🌿Are you cleaning herbs in the field? Do you have the proper equipment for in-field processing?
You should be able to say about every plant/herb you collect:
This herb was respectfully collected, dried and stored at the best time for its healing properties/ or extract the pigment and make the dye. The plant population was replanted from seed or plant materials on site and monitored to ensure a steady population
Don’t forget to “Ask permission” the plants and to Thank a plant!
Asking Permission of a Plant
Gathering plants from the wild should be done in ceremony! There should be prayers offered and much gratitude. What can you offer plants as an act of reciprocity?
Our sacred plants have a special role to play in our lives. We need to keep the idea of gratitude ever present in our mind. Proper use of our sacred plants helps us to convey the meaning of gratitude. Whenever we take something, we must remember to give. We must be able to be grateful before receiving. To appreciate that life is a gift and that everything that comes with it – our successes and our defeats -- is truly a gift in itself. Traditionally local indigenous people offered Tobacco to gaia, grandmother earth. When we find a feather or collect medicines, we take them with us as a gift from her. What feels right for you? A piece of hair, a pinecone collected in ceremony, a song, a clay bead?
Learn about Common Prolific Herbs
Learn about the most prolific plants, especially the common weeds. Many of these have well-established uses and can be harvested readily. They generally easily reestablish themselves.
Learn which herbs are indigenous to the land, which are naturalized, which common, invasive, or at Risk of overharvest.
🌿United Plant Savers (UPS) is a great resource for learning more🌿
I am offering two apprenticeships in 2023.
The Beginner/Intermediate Herbal Apprenticeship which meets weekly on Tuesdays for 10 months beginning in Mid April
The Botanical Art In Studio Program Beginning in May 2023 and meeting on the 1st Friday of the month for 10 months. Click on the links for more info
I am also teaching shorter programs all over the state and beyond. Click here for full schedule