The sun has just come up over the mountain, but it's already warming the marsh, its heat coaxing out the earth-scent of wild grass and flowers. There is a low summer hum of bees and insects, birds, wind. Up ahead of me, a snake moves slowly out of the bracken to lounge in the sun.
There are miles and miles of stinging nettle growing in this place. With such an incredible abundance, I'll stop to harvest some as I pass by. But my main objective today is bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, a wild mint with soft purple flowers. It's cooling, deliciously aromatic, and, among other things, invaluable for calming upset stomachs - and I need to replenish my supply.
The bee balm should be blooming now, and sure enough I come across a small patch growing where the marsh transitions into dry grass, and then abruptly becomes forest. The lavender blooms pop out cautiously from a mass of tall jewelweed...I'm tempted to reach out and pick some...but there isn't enough here. I don't feel all right about taking any from this patch. So I wait. I keep walking around the edges, passing two more small clumps of balm. Still not enough in one place, so I move on.
Finally I come to a little pond, detached from the rest of the marsh...and completely surrounded by big swaths of bee balm. There are seemingly hundreds of bees, as well as at least a dozen hummingbirds and butterflies, all zipping around from bloom to bloom.
The fact that so many creatures are gathered here in this one patch makes me think that although bee balm is common in my area, this patch is an important food source in this marsh. I had intended to gather enough to make a tincture, as well as some to dry for tea. But now I'm rethinking how much a I really need to take today, if any. I sit down and continue to observe and feel it out. Finally I decide that it's all right to harvest a handful - just enough to make a small jar of tincture. I carefully clip a few flowers, put them in my basket, and send out my gratitude.
Wildcrafting (also called foraging or wildharvesting), which has surged in popularity in recent years, is so much more than just going out and picking herbs. It's a full experience that requires attention to your surroundings, a knowledge of plants, and a respect for nature.
The upside of wildcrafting becoming more common is that people are connecting more with the earth, getting outside, and enjoying the fun of collecting delicious wild foods and herbs to cook and make medicine with. As people get to know the land around them, they will begin to really understand its importance. Hopefully, they'll come to love the wild spaces they harvest from and will have more of a drive to protect them.
The potential downside is that as more and more people get into wildcrafting, we could see more damage to sensitive environments and populations. Some plants, such as goldenseal and American ginseng here in the US, have been harvested to near extinction in recent decades. Of course, this damage isn't intentional; it can be hard to measure your impact on a certain environment or species if you aren't familiar with it.
Because of the risk of overharvesting and environmental damage, there are some herbalists who think everyone should stop wildcrafting entirely and instead get their herbs from local growers. While I completely understand this mindset, and certainly agree that endangered and rare plants should only be obtained from responsible growers, I believe that wildcrafting can be a deeply important, and even spiritual, way for people to engage with the earth where they live. Collecting food and medicine from the wild is something humans have always done. It cultivates respect and appreciation for the land, and can help us understand what it is to live in reciprocity with the earth. Its an elemental and deeply important relationship.
I think I can fairly say that, for myself at least, a very big part of my life as an herbalist is the relationship I have with plants in the wild. Tasting fresh herbs, observing how they grow, visiting them where they live, and really spending time with them is the truest way to understand who they are, how they can help us, and what we can do for them in return.
And of course, there is much to be said for being able to survive and keep yourself well with what grows right around you. My hope is that all people become self-sufficient and learn to work with local, free, accessible plants. Herbal medicine is the people's medicine, after all.
So, how can we make sure that we aren't having a negative impact when we wildcraft? It is possible to harvest plants in a truly respectful, responsible way? I believe it is. Below is a sort of checklist/guideline I've put together for how to work with plants in the wild without having an outsize impact.
1. Know what you are looking at
Ok, let's get this out of the way right off the bat. A big fear people have when it comes to eating plants from the wild is that they will accidentally poison themselves. While most plants are not harmful, and at worst will make you a bit sick, there are some that will kill you.
It should go without saying, but...you must be 110% sure that the plant you are harvesting is the plant you think it is. It's a good idea to get familiar with the dangerous plants that grow in your area. Know how to spot them and how to differentiate from look-alikes. Some plants in the parsley family are especially lethal and could be easily confused for a harmless wild carrot by novice foragers.
It's a good idea to consult a few difference guidebooks and resources to make sure you've got the right ID. The jury is still out for me on plant ID apps - they can be great when you're trying to figure out what an unfamiliar plant is, but don't rely on them alone - especially if this is a plant you intend to ingest.
And of course, when in doubt, skip it. Never eat a plant that you aren't super, extra, really super extra sure about.
All of this goes triple for mushrooms. All of them are edible...but some only once. And there are many deadly look-alikes.
All this can seem scary, but don't get freaked out! With time, you'll feel comfortable identifying and harvesting dozens of different plants. Our brains are wired to remember which plants are which. Soon, they'll become like the faces of old friends you could never forget.
Side note: if you want to get pretty good at keying out plants without taking a full botany class, Botany in a Day; The Patterns Method of Plant Identification by Thomas J. Elpel is a book I highly recommend.
2. Know which plants are rare or endangered
As I mentioned above, there are certain plants which have been harvested from the wild almost to extinction. Find out what plants in your area are on the watch list, and always avoid harvesting them from the wild. If you need ginseng, for example, there are tons of small growers and ethical companies where you can purchase some, leaving the wild population alone to thrive. An excellent resource for figuring out what plants need protection is United Plant Savers.
The good news is that there are very often prolific alternatives to the rare plants you might need. A great example is here in the States is barberry - it has a high berberine content, which is the same main constituent that makes goldenseal so valuable...but unlike that endangered plant, barberry grows like mad, to the point where some people consider it a pest.
3. Get to know the place
Even in a small patch of habitat, things can change significantly from year to year. One summer there may be a big, healthy patch of motherwort growing under the mulberry tree. The next, pushy, brazen mugwort may have taken over that spot, limiting motherwort to a much smaller population. Conversely, a stand of nettle may be small one year and tripled in size the next, and you'll feel fine about taking a big basket full of her prickly green leaves.
Visiting regularly, you may notice how much the bees depend on a particular flower, see what birds are nesting in the Elder bushes, witness what butterflies are landing where. Who is dependent on what? Who lives where? What plants have a harder time thriving? For this reason, I think it's ideal to witness a full cycle of growth in a place before harvesting. This is the best way to gain an understanding of what and how much is acceptable to harvest without having an outsize impact on the delicate web of the place.
Again, this is an ideal situation. Many times while foraging, especially if you don't have regular access to the same spots, you may be wandering far and wide, encountering new meadows and woodlands on each journey. In this case, you'll have to employ the tactics below when determining whether to harvest.
4. Observe your surroundings and respect the habitat
If you don't have a whole growing season to observe a place, take a few minutes to see what's going on in the area. Is it the only patch of flowers around, and it looks like a lot of bees and other insects are depending on it? Were deer sleeping in this patch of cleavers last night? Is there enough to take some without altering this little ecosystem?
A general rule I've always heard is to make sure that for every plant you harvest, there are ten more. While this is sort of a good rule of thumb, it doesn't take into account the rarity of the plant. If you see 11 black cohosh plants growing on the mountainside, you should still leave them all alone, because this is a plant that could disappear from the wild - it may seem prolific here, but you know that on a wider scale it's struggling. The best thing to do is get to know the plants on an individual level so that you know when it's appropriate to take some, and how much.
It's also a good idea to make sure that you aren't harvesting within 50 feet of a road or paved area, as runoff with toxins can leach into the ground and end up in the plants you plan to eat.
Think about the other humans who might come to this place, too. If you're harvesting from, say, a park, don't harvest a big patch of wildflowers that others were enjoying. Leaving patches of hacked up plants and trampling on stuff is just not cool. Try to leave a place looking how it did when you found it. If you dug roots, cover up the bare patches. The idea is to have the smallest impact you can.
Also, make sure you're allowed to harvest. If you think you're on private property, ask permission before trespassing and taking something. Some parks may require you to get a permit. It's a good idea to take a minute to check before heading out.
5. Take only what you need
Before you head out on a foraging trip, take a minute to think about what you need, and how much. Make a list. Have a plan for how you will process the plants when you get home. Are you going to dry them for tea? Cook them for dinner? Tincture them? Or make an infused oil? Do you have time to hang up all that nettle to dry today? It can be really easy to get excited and take too much, especially if you come across a big stand of the plant you were looking for - having a solid idea of how much you need keeps stuff from being wasted.
*Side note about tinctures: I choose to tincture many of the herbs I harvest. Much of the time, a tincture will work just as well as a tea or decoction. Tinctures last for years, take a relatively small amount of plant material to make, and are potent enough that you only need a few drops. So, think about what the plant will be used for. Does it lend itself well to a tincture, or should it really be taken as a tea to achieve the desired effect?*
6. Harvest in a way that creates reciprocity
If we are careful and conscious of how we are harvesting a certain plant, we may actually help it to thrive and propagate. Get to know how the plant reproduces. Is it an annual or perennial...does it propagate by seed or root, or both? Some bushes thrive if cut at the leaf nodes. Harvesting the top thirds of nettle during the spring will often cause a surge in growth, and you might even get a second harvest in the fall. If you need the roots of a plant, try to replant its seeds so that it can be replaced.
In this way, we can give back to the plants and create a cycle where we help each other instead of us just taking what we want and going on our way.
7. Listen to the plants
Plants are living beings. They don't look like us or act like us or think like us. Their consciousness may not resemble ours, or even that of our fellow animals. But they have a life energy nevertheless, and it should be respected.
Before you harvest a plant, sit with it for a minute. Look at it, appreciate it. It may sound funny...but try to engage your intuition and be open to what might come to you. You might be surprised what comes up. This is something that's very hard to describe unless you've spent time doing it, and I'm sure it sounds very woo to some...it's a bit like a mixture of your own intuition and the energy of the plants. If you get a strong feeling you shouldn't harvest in a place, move on. There will be other chances. If you feel good about harvesting, send out a little gratitude to the plants.
Building a relationship with the earth is sort of like building any other relationship - respecting boundaries is always a good idea, and it takes time to really understand each other.
8. Don't beat yourself up
We all make mistakes. If you've harvested things in the past in a slap-dash, rushed way, don't feel bad about it. If you think maybe you weren't listening to the plants and took something you shouldn't have, it's ok. If you take too much of something and it goes to waste, if an infused oil goes rancid, if you forget to cook up those wild greens...forgive yourself. We're humans. And the plants are really pretty nice. They're forgiving, and I think they like us humans if we have a good attitude.
Experiment, have fun, and enjoy this rich and gorgeous earth.
All information herein is strictly for educational purposes and has not been verified by the FDA. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease.