Written by Katolen Yardley, MNIMH, RH (AHG)
Wild harvesting and a return to “foraging skills” has become very popular in recent times- essential it is recognizing the bounty of plants that mother earth provides. On one hand, it is fabulous that more people are learning skills in plant recognition and able to harvest the medicine they need, when they need it – plant medicine is essentially medicine for the people; supplied by mother earth.
Wild crafting is very cost effective (there is no markup on the product) and one has complete control over the quality of the medicine; knowing about all processes from start to finish. Perhaps wild crafting can raise awareness of the importance of caring for the earth – it is an ideal practice for those who have an interest in “getting back to the land”; If one spends time in nature, and harvests her yields, individuals may be more likely to care for the earth, recognizing that what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. Pollution, clear cutting and the use of pesticides all impact the quality of our food and affect our health. Many people are disconnected from their food source and medicines; we cannot have high quality food if the soil the food is grown on is contaminated.
Here are some important considerations if one wants to begin wild crafting – many of which should be thought through prior to visiting the land and gathering the plants.
Wild crafting can be defined as a return to mother nature to gather the plant medicine which she herself provides. Plants should be harvested with care for the plant and concern the environment (plant sustainability, the ecosystem around and quality of the soil). Wild crafters return to the land to harvest their herbs, barks and roots- walking through undisturbed forests, meadows or hills. Ethical wild crafting is now an important consideration which ensures care for the environment, all of its inhabitants and the future supply of a plant.
Plants should always be harvested away from pollutants including: toxic rain pollution and soil which has been contaminated with pesticides or herbicides and ground run off . Take time to consider what is “up the hill from a harvest” as animal waste, toxic runoff flows down a hill to setting in and contaminate soil away from the original site of contamination.
Investigate the history of the land. Old train tracks, mining sites and garbage dumping sites are often the sites of soil contamination even decades after visible contamination has been removed. Harvests should be far from car fumes (carbon monoxide), gas fumes as well as animal waste. Do not harvest from designated parkland or private property.
Whenever possible read up and educate oneself about how to harvest a plant part without killing the plant. Sometimes this is not possible – as in the case of wild cherry bark for example – harvesting a lot of the bark can kill the entire tree. So instead consider venturing out after a wind storm and select the boughs that mother nature has herself discarded for your harvest.
If you are harvesting the aerial plant parts, Do not pull this plant out from its roots instead have proper equipment, pruning shears to neatly clip some aerial parts-remember to leave enough of any one plant for it to go to seed or continuing sprouting through the growing season or the next year.
Do not take the first or the last plant – never ever overharvest. Plants need to be able to go to seed and also sustain other life of animals grazing on local nutritive plants for food. Pay attention to what is around the plant. Are bees flocking to this plant to assist with pollination? Many edible plants are also food for bears or deer. Some species grow on other plants – and disturbing their ecosystem may kill more than 1 plant.
Take only what you need– any typically this is far less than what our mind thinks.
Do no harm. Be aware of the environment one is harvesting from- the plant you are using for medicine has a home and is a part of other plant communities; animals and insects may depend on this plant for survival, nutrient uptake, and essential symbiotic relationships. Recognise that you are disturbing this delicate ecosystem. Take only what you need -less than 10 % of a plant grove, preferably in the middle of the grove; so not the first plant you find and certainly not the last one in the grove and leave NO TRACE that you were ever there.
Proper plant identification is essential- especially for some of those plant families containing toxic look alikes which are easily confused with a benign non toxic plant. Have 2-3 excellent plant identification references- preferable with photos to ensure that no mistaken identities occur. Become familiar with local green medicines (often common weeds)- they are numerous!
Do not harvest endangered or at risk herbs from nature, instead take the time and attempt to grow your own herbs- Growing plants on your own land- get creative- (a window sill or even community garden will suffice) and will raise your respect for the delicate plants which are fighting in nature to survive both the elements of nature and enthusiastic harvesters. Some plants take 10-12 years to regrow – this is not sustainable. Chaga for example is a very popular medicinal mushroom which selectively grows on birch trees, it takes years to grow and harvesting the mushroom can often kill the tree it is grown on. Again not ideal – this is an example of an herb/ mushroom which is best purchased from a supplier who grown the mushrooms in grow labs.
Quality and processing of herbs: have the herb leaves been munched by other plant enthusiasts – insects? Is the plant part to use too young to harvest- in which leave it in the ground for another season. Young stalks, fresh vibrant green leaves contain the most vital medicine. Ensure you use the seasons to determine when to harvest certain plant parts. Roots, rhizomes are best harvested when the vital force is highest in the root – the fall and winter is this time. Leaves and aerial plant parts can be harvested through the spring and summer- however older or brown leaves are not vibrant. Is the herb too old? – then leave it as an elder in the plant grove.
Gathering the plants is one consideration however processing and drying procedures are also a consideration. Many plants oxidize poorly when drying, and prefer to have lots of room to dry without coming into contact with other plant leaves. Other herbs stalks can be bound together and hung in a drying room with good air circulation. A dehydrator or drying rack can assist. Color should be vibrant, with a characteristic scent of the plant. Store plants in glass container and dried herbs should ideally be used up within 1 year for maximum effectiveness.
Give thanks for your yield- have an offering which may be a prayer, organic tobacco, or take the time to clean up the environment, pick up litter, help return mother nature to her optimal state. I am a big advocate for researching what plant species may be endangered which naturally grow in a location and obtaining some organic seeds and replanting. We can all play a role in completing the circle for sustainability and ensuring that the plants are available to us for medicine in the future.