Wildcrafting can be very enjoyable, idillic, and rewarding but also very daunting, boring, and perilous.
You might find just the plant you are looking for, that the sun is streaming down, the breeze is cool and the harvest is plentiful and easy. You also might encounter snakes, heavy storms, rough terrain, ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, heat, nothing interesting, the right plant on the wrong day or in the wrong conditions, a spoiled harvest after hours of work, or the terrible recognition that you can’t possibly process all that you brought home.
The Guidelines of Harvesting:
1. Know what you are harvesting~ It is of paramount importance, and the MOST important rule of harvesting is that you know, without a doubt that the plant that you are harvesting is the plant that you think that it is!!!! Investing in a good field guide that describes poisonous lookalikes and taking a botany course so that you are more familiar with plant parts and distinguishing family characteristics are great ways to avoid disaster. It can be helpful to watch a plant throughout the seasons so that you know what it looks like in different stages before harvesting it.
2. Research what part of the plant to harvest, when, and in what process it is most effective BEFORE you harvest it~ It is very tempting to go out and just see what you can find- and I am all for that. But DO NOT get excited and just start plucking. Look it up! I can’t tell you how many plants I have wrongly harvested, extracted, or processed because I was a little too gung-ho when I was just starting out.
3. Don’t gather contaminated plants~ This includes road sides (at least 50 feet), power lines, railroad tracks, industrial and agricultural runoff, urban areas, sewage zones, oil spills, and areas prone to and exposed to contamination such as fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides or other forms of chemical pollution. Don’t harvest plants found around the foundations of old houses, especially those high in minerals, as they may take up any lead in the soil from old paint jobs. Don't gather sickly plants (mold, brown spots, etc.), or from an area that doesn’t look healthy. If you are unsure as to the health, safety, or spray history of your gathering site ask the land owner.
4. Do not harvest at-risk or endangered plants~ Learn what plants are threatened or at risk and only use Organically Grown or Wild Cultivated varieties (a list can be found below). Check resources such as native plant societies, conservation groups, United Plant Savers, regional groups, and state environmental departments for guides to endangered plants.
5. Leave an area as beautiful as you found it~ Before you gather a thing, let your eyes gather in the site and consider how you can leave the least amount of impact. Do not destroy plant habitat while harvesting (make it look like you were never there). Just like good table manners are a must, so are good harvesting manners. When harvesting I like to think that I am a guest in someone’s home or holy place, and I show courtesy and respect for the amazing gifts of nature. If you see trash, pick it up!
6. Don’t take more than 1 in 10 plants to ensure the continued presence of the plant in that area ~ You will often see in government permit guides and books a suggested harvest ratio of 1 in 3 (33%) or 1 in 4 (25%) and may be acceptable but I never harvest this much of a stand because it drastically changes the appearance of the stand. Even if the stand can recover in a year or two the visual impact is clear. By harvesting 1 in 10 you leave most of the stand for reproduction and wildlife, and minimally impacts the ecosystem. But in reality, no one counts or comes up with a ratio of how much of a plant to harvest. Each plant and ecosystem likens itself to a different ratio. If a plant is weedy, tough, enjoys a heavy pruning, and is prolific then go to town and vice versa. If you are consciously limiting yourself to 1 in 10 then you aren’t in the right stand. Find a stand that is much larger than your need and harvest some of the best plants not taking all of the best plants of course.
7. No matter what percentage of the stand you can pick, you should never harvest more than you can process and use~ It seems like this is rather obvious but as a bourgeoning herbalist I have gotten a little too over zealous and picked way more than I could process or use nor did I have enough herby friends at the time to designate my concoctions to. Washing and cutting roots can take as long or longer than the harvesting process. Roots often become very hard after a few days, and a hacksaw,cleaver, or other motorized device might be required if you don’t process the roots immediately. While waiting to be placed in an herb dryer, plants will lose potency.
8. Cultivate the plants your are harvesting in their natural habitat and in your yard~ Gather roots after seeding, scatter seeds, replant crowns and learn to harvest rhizomes without pulling the growing portion of the plant from the ground, gather seeds and replant them. Even better, learn to wild cultivate the plants that you use so that you not only don't hurt their populations, you help sustain them. Utilize organic gardeners and farms and wild craft in collaboration with them. Also, support local farmers and help them grow and market medicinal plants.
9. Learn about the most prolific plants, especially the common weeds and utilize those~ Many “weeds” have established and well documented uses and can be exuberantly harvested. They are often good for food and medicine.
10. Teach responsible wildcrafting ethics~ When sharing the knowledge of wild harvesting make sure to teach by example and share the whys, and hows of ethical harvesting.
11. Be discreet when showing people your wildcrafting locations ~ If the peanut gallery now knows where you harvest then they might come right behind you and a site might end up over-harvested. When teaching/sharing take people to locations that can handle a group of harvesters.
12. Be a plant rescuer ~ Save/transplant plants from areas that are going to be developed or destroyed. Besides gathering these plants as medicine, you can also help relocate the less common ones to similar habitats and gardens.
13. Wildcrafting lawfully and lawlessly~ Since most land is either privately owned, state or federally controlled, you may want to obtain permission before gathering from private land owners. In the case of state owned lands collecting is NOT permitted. Since wildcrafters might be a curious sight make sure your ‘papers’ are in order, i.e., car registration and insurance, personal identification, appropriate cash, etc.
14. Inquire about regulations regarding certain plants and international borders ~ Many plants are not allowed through foreign borders and maybe confiscated, such as in Mexico and Canada. Keep this in mind while gathering or bringing plants into or back from other countries.
15. Say a prayer of thanks~ Some people say leave a bit of something in exchange for what you took but I think that doing #’s 3-7 means more to the plants that a bit of tobacco or a piece of your hair. They will thank you for your actions.
Botany in a Day by Thomas Elpel
Botany Coloring Book by Paul Young
Plant Identification Terminology, an Illustrated Glossary, Harris and Harris –Excellent companion to any flora; Helpful in understanding botanical terms used in technical keys
Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by L. Newcomb
A Field Guide to the Trees and Shrubs of the Southern Appalachians by Robert E. Swanson
Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas by Radford, Ahles and Bell -this is a technical dichotomous key with species descriptions it would be more for the experienced botanist
Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio valley and the Southern Appalachians by Horn, Cathcart, etc. - great color photo guide; it would be for a lay person
Trees of the Southeastern United States, Duncan and Duncan
Native Trees of the Southeast by L. Katherine Kirkman, Claud L. Brown
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
Field Guide to Mushrooms National Audubon Society
Alabama Wild Flowers by Jan Midgley
Native Plants of the Southeast by Larry Mellichamp
Edible, Medicinal, and Wild Life Uses:
Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses by James H. Miller and Karl V. Miller
South East Foraging by Chris Bennett
Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places by Steve Brill with Evelyn Dean
Wild Edibles by Sergi Boutenko
Edible Wild Plants and Useful Herbs by Jim Meuninck
Harvesting must haves:
- Hori-hori- or digging knife- I replaced my trowel with this and never looked back.
- A Shovel- don’t skimp on quality here. Your shovel should be able to stand up to the rockiest soil.
- Digging Fork-these work wonderfully to break up soil instead of trying to cut through it which won’t work with the rockiest of soils…
- Pruning Shears-
- Pruning Holster-
- Loppers- you can purchase either the anvil type or the bypass type. Both are useful but the bypass is easier to make cuts with. The anvil type is handy for thicker plant material.
- Limb Saw- I use a limb saw for limbs (big surprise) but specifically limbs that are bigger than those that can be cut with the loppers
- Draw Knife- These are used to remove the bark from trees and limbs.
- Hatchet- Misc chopping.
- Plastic grocery bags- I really like these for harvesting because I can put multiple bags on my belt as I walk through the woods and collect multiple plants at one time as I come across them. A warning: DO NOT leave your harvest in plastic bags they will rot and mold lickity-split.
- Brown paper sacks
- Burlap bags
- A belt
- Plant ID books
- Back pack
If harvesting food:
- Plastic bins
- Paper towels or hand towels
- Spray bottle full of water
Ticks Chiggers and Lymes Disease:
Lyme's Disease : “In the United States, Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, carried primarily by blacklegged or deer ticks. The ticks are brown and, when young, often no bigger than a poppy seed, which can make them nearly impossible to spot. To contract Lyme disease, an infected deer tick must bite you. The bacteria enter your skin through the bite and eventually make their way into your bloodstream. In most cases, to transmit Lyme disease, a deer tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours. If you find an attached tick looks swollen, it may have fed long enough to transmit bacteria. Removing the tick as soon as possible may prevent infection. If you remove a tick within two days, your risk of acquiring Lyme disease is low.”- The Mayo Clinic
How to not get them-As an herbalist getting ticks is somewhat of an occupational hazard, or so I thought. But after I started doing this protocol when I go a’hunting I GREATLY decreased the instances of ticks from 4-5 a trip to 1 every 5-10 trips.
1. Always wear a hat.
2. Clothing Arrangement- tuck your pants into your socks, your shirt into your pants
3. Geranium- Rose Essential Oil put directly on the skin where the common entry points are and then again on top of the clothes around the waste, neck, sleeves, socks/boots.
4. Tick Repellant Clothes are an option as well but I am not a huge fan.
5. Always do a tick check and shower well~this will ensure that if you do have any hangers on you can catch them before they can transmit anything. It also has saved me from chigger bites many a time.
- Know what it looks like…
- Don’t forget that they grow up trees…just sayin'
- Eat a small young leaf rolled into a bread ball and taken like a pill. This is a southern folk medicine ‘cure’ for PI sensitivity.
- Wear full coverage
- Undress by pulling off your clothes inside out
- Wash with dish soap
- Always wash from the top of the body downward
- Wash like you stuck your hands in motor oil and are washing THAT off…
What to harvest and when…
All plants have different stages of growth and with that comes different amounts of potency. Potency is often affected by different variables such as timing of the day, soil conditions, predation, and microclimate. Take yarrow for example, if you harvest it in the middle of the day after two weeks with no rain it will be much more potent than if you harvest it in the morning the day after rain. A lack of fluids equates to a higher concentration of chemical constituents. Herbs located in different locations also may have different potencies. For example, one patch of yarrow may taste and smell very strong whereas another patch just a few feet down the trail may be less potent. The skill of knowing when to harvest plants will be learned in time. Tasting and smelling each herb as you harvest it will help you hone in on these skills.
The old adage says follow the energy of the season and you will know what to harvest and when:
- Roots: The prime time for harvesting roots is in the Fall before the plant has seeded or in the Spring before new growth begins. Not only is the time of the season important, but also the time od day. Morning time before the sun has been out for long is the ideal time to harvest unless the foliage of the plant has died back then harvesting throughout the day is acceptable. Make sure to be an ethical harvester and leave plenty of plants in place to ensure the population will continue and replant the crowns if possible. Don’t dig up the rhizomes but locate where the stem meets the ground, follow the rhizome out a few inches from the plant and then cut the rhizome without removing the growing part of the plant from the ground.
- Bark: The season for harvesting bark is early Spring or Fall (when sap is either flowing up from the roots or to back to the roots). If the of peeling bark from wood is not easy, then the sap is not flowing. At the proper time the bark will be damp with sap. Make sure to cut bark vertically or use branches. Never cut bark around the tree in a circle for this will cut off all nutrients and kill the tree (called girdling.)
- Sap: Spring (rising)
- Leaves: Just before flowering
- Flowers: When fully mature and before pollination and preferably after a few days without rain and in the peak of the day at its sunniest.
- Fruits and Seeds: Seeds are to be gathered when ripe. For some plants, such as Nettles, cut the tops of the plants off and hang them upside-down to dry. When dry, shake seeds loose over a clean surface and collect the seeds from there - this will save considerable effort (and, if you are gathering Nettle seeds, an inevitable sting or two. . .).
- Aerial Parts (top stem, leaves, flowers, sometimes seeds and seed pods): harvest when flowers are fully open and some things can be harvested up until the are freshly seeding)
1. “Garbling” is the processing of the plant, which includes; cleaning and sorting what you have harvested by washing off dirt, removing other plants and bugs, or separating the various parts of the plant. Garbling can be really daunting or really fun, and is best done with friends. Always try to garble just after harvesting otherwise things then to go bad, get forgotten about, or get too hard to process.
2. Processing~ At this point the herbs are ready to dry or tincture. After harvesting, dry or tincture your herbs as quickly as possible. When drying herbs, they must be placed in a well aerated, dry, warm-ish (77-95 degrees), clean place. It is a good idea to cut up your roots or bark while they are still wet because once they are dry they can be rather dangerous to cut up. Leaves dry to approximately 1/10th their fresh weight and roots 1/2. Make sure to periodically check your herbs to make sure they aren’t molding. Screens work well for drying, as well as above your fridge, or hanging somewhere. You may test if your herbs are completely dry by breaking the stem and if there is a crisp snap like a twig then you’re herbs are dry!
3. Storage~ After drying, the herbs can be placed in air tight jars and placed in a cool (below 65 degrees) dry place. Check the jars after a few days to make sure there is no condensation on the sides of the jar. If so, remove the herbs and dry for a few days more to get out the residual moisture. Leaves and flowers are best used within one year, roots, bark, and seeds are best if used between 3-5 years of harvesting and drying. As I mentioned earlier, the smaller the herb particles, the more quickly they degrade. Make sure to label your herbs with the location they were harvested and the date.
Why label really, really, really well? Because you will forget the contents of your bottle bag or package. You will; I know from experience.
What to include in your label:
- Plant common name(s)
- Botanical name:
- Plant parts used:
- Date of harvest (if you know it) or procurement and source
- Where you harvested
• 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?
*Wildcrafting is Stewardship*
by Howie Brounstein
Blankespoor, Juliet. “Wild Crafting for Future Generations" Blog Castanea. N.p., 13 Dec. 2011. Web. 07 Oct. 2015.
Brounstein, Howie. “Wild Crafting for Beginners." Columbines School of. N.p., 1995. Web. 07 Oct. 2015.
Brounstein, Howie. “Wildcrafting Ethics." Columbines School of. N.p., 1995. Web. 07 Oct. 2015.
McDonald, Jim. “Gathering your own herbs." Green Writ. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2015.
Song, 7. Wildcrafting for the Practicing Herbalist (n.d.): n. pag. Northeast School of Botanical Medicine. Web.
Wood, Mathew. "The Spiritual Dimension of Wildcrafting." Green Writ. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2015.