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Ethics of Wildcrafted Herbs

  • DragonflyDew

Hi all you lovely herbalists!

I have a question that I ponder a lot, and that is how do you all feel about the ethics of taking plants (herbs or otherwise) from the wild? I ask because as a lifelong naturalist/environmentalist/gardener type I've always followed the mantra of "Take only pictures, leave only footprints." I've taught that to my children, friends, relatives, blog readers and any other person that goes hiking with me. So, understandably I have a feeling of guilt when I consider taking any part of plant when on my journey, even though I know Mother Nature loves for us to use her gifts. Perhaps it's the engineer in me that calculates out in my brain that fact that if every person who sees something takes "just one" piece of plant, one rock, one bird feather, etc. then there will be none left. It's an irrational thought, but I think it just the same! All the plants I use currently come from my Certifed Wildlife Habitat garden and yard, from dried herbs I purchase, or from the many plants I propagate myself.

So, who can help me out with some interesting perspectives on herbal wildcrafting? I'd love to hear your answers!!

Kathy from Dragonfly Dew

For gardens and gardeners, nature lovers and earth sustainers ~ http://www.gardeningfornature.com
Dragonfly Dew at Poppy Swap ~ http://www.poppyswap.com/shop/DragonflyDew

Replies to this topic

  • admin
  • kiki

Hi Kathy,

Such an important topic!! I can't wait to hear from everyone. 

I harvest mostly on our island. I have areas that I return to every year. Many of my favorite herbs are within walking distance from my cabin. After twenty years of seeing herbs sit in jars on shelves, I tend to harvest very sparingly. I won’t go harvest out of curiosity, just because its the right season or to create a storehouse of medicines. If I don’t have a very specific reason or use for the materials in the present moment I won’t gather. If its a new plant or an old friend that I meet while out in the woods, I may gather a small amount of the plant so that I can spend more time with it, but I don’t consider that harvesting, its more like receiving a very precious gift.

But it's so complex! For example, I came home Monday and my sweet neighbor had placed a small vessel of the most lovely wild rose buds on my porch for me. We had walked up to our stand the day before and I had gathered a palm full to bring home for a weekend guest. Rose is one of my totem herbs and when I saw that little vessel, I felt so graced. Rose in my tea!! Immediately my little greedy mind thought....I should harvest a ton right now so I have rose for my tea all year this year. But while I know that the source is substantial enough in our woods and it would not hurt the plant, I'm genuinely not driven in that direction. I like the absolute delight of this little window of rose every year and I like the experience of going to harvest when the plant is calling me in the moment.

I don't think your statement is irrational at all Kathy. It has the beautiful quality of consideration. It also shows consciousness that is larger than just your own personal life. It's also entirely TRUE! We can't all assume that we have full access to nature all the time.

My hope of course is that the plants are observed closely in their habitat and that the health and vitality of the stand is honored before we reap its rewards. In truth, I believe the plants want relationship with us and that they want to bring their best to the synergy that is the potential of all biological relations. Its up to us to not be bullies or consumers in the fragile balance of a healthy relationship but it is also up to us to take down barriers and enter into relationship with these beauties. If we don't commune with the plants because we are afraid of hurting them, we won't really know how to care for them.....because we won't really know them! We will also be denying them the chance to give. And we all know how good it feels to give......!!!

 

I am so interested to hear from everyone!

Kiki
~bring people herbs~
poppyswap.com

I am a little new to wildcrafting but here are my thoughts from my experience in college taking Environmental Science and from using plants for natural dyeing and herbal products.  I think if you leave most of what you find intact it is okay unless it is invasive.  For example, I use tansy to make a nice yellow on wool but it is invasive up here.  I just take however much I want of that.  I wouldn't do that with rose petals.  I would take maybe a couple of petals off each flower.  I know a lady in town who will make jars and jars of rose petal syrup and I am sure she just de-flowers the bushes.  That bothers me.  To add another dimension to the debate I think it is better to harvest from the wild responsibily than plants foreign plants in our gardens and allow them to go to seed disrupting the local environment.  However, in the case of lichen dyeing which is something I want to try I will only harvest lichen off my firewood or lichen that is blowing around.  They are just too precious to disturb in my opinion.  In fact, it was seeing lichens on logs going into the wood stove that inspired me to learn more about it as it just seemed a waste to me.

Hello~

Kathy I can relate.  I spent a handful of years as an outdoor educator and trip leader I spoke of leaving things as they lay and shared leave no trace practices.  Sharing with kids to take what they needed in the garden and surrounding fields and to be thankful and respectful.  To not take what was not needed and to leave the rest and I feel the same way about wild gathering in some cases. 

I do wildgather plants every season and I feel that anyone that wishes to wildgather needs to have an awareness of there local ecosystem where they live or where we are gathering.  I feel that in order to wild gather we need to understand the natural habitat of these plants there life cycles and concider the impact that will be made if some is taken.  I also believe that this is a time for our  own internal awarness...wild gathering is a time were we need to tap into our inherent ancestral wisdom.  Knowing right well when we should or shouldn't be gathering...because there will be plenty of times when there seems to be abundance.  It is in those times of abundance that can be the greatest lesson on knowing how to harvest ethically and from within. 

I also believe that the plants want to have a relationship with us and share there brilliance and nourishment as Kiki mentioned also.  We just need to be keep present and aware.  I also am a huge advocate of taking a very small grouping of a healthy stand of plants or wild seed gathering to then grow in the garden in which to create thriving plant communities...again this needs to be down in a very sensative way that is steeped in deep awareness.

United Plant Savers http://www.unitedplantsavers.org/ is a fabulous organization I encourage you to check them out.  One thing that we can do for the local plants communites that are on the decline is to start re-establishing them ourselves and create conversation within our communities. 

There are many places that have been depleted due to over harvesting.  From peope harvesting from there head and not from there hearts and this is what needs to be shared.  We need to remember how to gather ethically and to pass this knowledge on as it was done in the past.  We need to re-educate ourselves and then share that with our friends...neighbors and children.  I feel that people in general want to see plants thrive.

Good Luck Kathy I don't know if I even really answered you questions but I am I really glad that

you have started this conversation and I will contiunue to sit with this topic.

Enjoy the day!

Kathi

  • anchasta
  • anchasta

I second these wise women who responded before me...just use intelligence, consideration, and a sense of thankfulness and responsibility when harvesting and you should be fine.

My hill is rife with blackberry brambles, and I harvest a ton of berries, but leave some for every couple I take to encourage reseeding and leave food for the birds.  I have a ton of yarrow that grows wild in my area, but instead of harvesting all wild, I took one plant home last spring and gave it a home. It grew much larger and hardier than it's wild cousin, and I've since dried over 5oz of yarrow flowers, and there's more to come!

Ramps and ginseng and mushrooms are overharvested in this area (western north carolina), and those of us who know and care are quite aware of the problem...but too many others just take and take, assuming there is plenty for everyone.

When I cut mullien from ditches or railroad sides, I tend to take just the top of the plant and leave the root to grow again.

Head Pixie of Pixies Pocket: Honey & Electuaries:
http://www.pixiespocket.com
http://www.anchasta.etsy.com
  • good4you
  • good4you

greetings! i think wild harvesting is fine at the scale we work at. i believe the problem is more corporate driven, when popular interest is reached over a specific herb. i personally have patches of herbs i bike to in my town. they are very wild areas and i only pick an herb when it is prolific and joyously over abundant in an area. red clover blossoms, yarrow, horsetail leaf and dandelions to name a few. i feel it is our human right to accept gifts from nature. i would rather pick a bundle of red clover blossoms in the wild then have it shipped to me. i think wisdom comes with age and each of us is taught more and more every year about natures secrets and how to accept/use them responsibily. if i harvest a flower or a leaf, i:

1. make sure i'm not hurting the plant so it can still grow

2. take only a few of the part i need from each plant, sometimes just one leaf or one flower.

3. make sure the area is away from a road

4. recieve a message from the plant world it's ok or time to harvest

5. make sure i dry/store the plants properly and use them 100%

this is what i currently do. i think it's ok to wild harvest on the scale we do it here. each one of us herbalists has a circle we take care of, and i don't believe we on poppy swap will ever harm nature for it.

  • admin
  • kiki

Oh!! #5!!!

5. make sure i dry/store the plants properly and use them 100%

Big one, Good4You. Big one. I know the pain of failing there!! It is so important to be prepared on all ends before even approaching the plant. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Danika
  • Danika

Oh Kathy, what a timely topic!

I am a vendor at my local farmers market and there is a young man there that is a professional mushroom forager selling morel's and other mushrooms when they are in season. I got to talking to him about the mushrooms and the pickers and he painted a picture of competitive groups of organized pickers that wipe out entire areas of morel's. He is fully aware that they grow after forest fires and the role they play is to alkalanize the soil so other plant life can grow again and yet thousands of pounds of morels are being stripped and removed from the forests and sold to restaurants and city folks as I type right now!

He is a great guy but very much a forager for the money he can make from the mushrooms. When I had mentioned I gathered wild plants for food and medicine he immediately wanted to pick my brains for info, he wants to start harvesting wild plants to sell too! I kind of froze up with a lump in my throat and shyed away. I brushed him off and mumbled something about field guides and such. The thought of someone in my community actively seeking to capitilize on the wild plants my family depends on to boost our nutrition intake and help us through illness made me feel awful! Perhaps I should have tried to educate him on the very ethics you lovely herb folks are discussing, I don't know why I didn't or why I froze up. I had visions of hoards of harvesters wiping out areas of sweet cicely, violets and nettles.

The natural world is already so exploited, I can't think of any herbalist I know of that is not incredibly in tune with the ecosystems they rely upon and that is why I can't bear to share anything about the location or uses of wild foods and medicines with those that would like to exploit it.

What should I tell this young man? What do you guys do in these situations? I find it quite disturbing....

  • jim mcdonald
  • jim mcdonald

I'm a wildcrafter - I grow somethings (milky oats and lemon balm and some mint and wood betony), but I wildcraft most of what I use.  One of the "rules" I have about it is that you don't gather things unless you know you can do so in a good way.  Sometimes, collecting can increase plant populations; I do root cuttings when I collect solomon's seal, and there's close to twice as many plants growing there as when I began collecting.  Sometimes you kill the plant.  That's really just the way life is - we kill to eat, and even kill to heal.  I think its interesting the way we as people value life.  Most of us will dig a dandelion root - killing the plant - but get all squeamish about the idea of cutting a tree down to harvest.  Yeah, in many cases we can prune branches instead, but that may, in some cases, make the tree sick.  In some cases cutting it might be better for the habitat.  But why do we feel differently about a tree than a weed?  Because its bigger?  Older (it may not be)?  These feelings are good to sit with, good to go into.  Good to find what the answers are ~to you~.

I live in deep relationship with my land.  I can tell what feels good to harvest and what doesn't.  For around 15 years I've been teaching people how to use and identify wild plants, with a sense of trust that if I teach them in a good way, they won't just ~take~.  And though I know there's no way to know if one day someone will take advantage of the land because they feel they ~need~ something, in that 15 years I haven't seen anyone do so.  

Outside of our relationship with the land and plants, we have to recghonize their relationship with us.  Wild plants aren't "ours" to use, but they ~are~ here to be used by us.  When we neglect them, we take from them a part of what they are, a part of what they're here to do, which is provide for the land and all of its children.  not using wild plants is perhaps akin to not asking for and using the knowledge, wisdom and experience of our elders.  It creates a loss in both.

Matthew Wood has a great essay on wildcrafting I deeply resonate with on this aspect of wildcrafting:

http://www.herbcraft.org/wildcrafting

jim mcdonald
~herbalist~
http://www.herbcraft.org
  • SoulGardens
  • SoulGardens

Hi, I've been wildcrafting for over 40 years, all my life actually. I was brought up naturally picking form the wild, first in South America, then in the northeast of this country. I was taught to avoid plants that were poisonous, or might have poisonous look-alikes, like Queen Anne's lace. I was also taught to be careful of plants that were endangered.

I have always had respect for the plants and loved them immensely. They have saved my sanity over and over again. 

I started using wild plants seriously when I was 16 and learned how to dye wool with them, and also read Euell Gibbons' "Stalking the Wild Asparagus." My dad got me into the wild foods.

By the time I started using more of the plants, I guess I already had the basics instilled in me and it only made sense to treat them and the environment with respect and consideration.

I have many times collected more than I needed at the time, not knowing what I might need later, and sometimes just wanting more, more, more of that beautiful plant.

I have also made more medicine than I needed and wondered what to do with it.

But here's the thing--often I have been grateful to find an herb or medicine in my cupboard after some years, now finding that I or someone around me needs it. And then I go "So that's why I have that!"

I've also found that when I have harvested a plant and not used it, and it just sat around hitting my eye, and I felt guilty not using it, that it was still important. I was around the energy of the plant, I got more familiar with it. I found that that was part of my process of getting to know plants.

And also, I learned from one of Juliette deBaricli Levy's (sp?!) books that when she had old herbs, she just mulched her garden with them! So I have done that with herbs I deem too old, or at least they go into the compost bucket to be returned to the earth.

I think the others who have posted already have said pretty much everything that needs to be said about wild-crafting.

But my little piece is that I think where there is an abundance and it can be done resposibly, wild-crafting is just fine. I get great joy from doing so, and wouldn't have enough herbs if I didn't. I'd rather wildcraft and use fresh (or dry my own) than order dried herbs.

I have moved several times in the last few years and would have had a very difficult time with only gardens to rely on.

Also, I agree with Jim MacDonald that the plants are here to interact with us and share their gifts. I am immensely grateful to be able to partake of their offered bounty.

Iris Weaver

  • RosaArtemisia
  • gwendolyn ♥

Danika, I would like to respond to your post:  you said you wondered why you didn't feel compelled to try and educate this man about the ethics of wildharvesting.  I would like to say that I think your initial response- a sense to protect the land, the plants, and the best interests of your family were spot on.  Change takes time- and often more than one voice.  If you feel like attempting to educate this man, then do so.  But my mother always taught me that actions speak louder than words, and I would never reveal my treasured harvesting places to anyone that I felt was ungrateful or irresponsible towards nature and the Earth.  That is just my two cents- I too am learning to trust my instincts and make no apologies for choosing to protect the land first.

As for wildharvesting... I have only just begun to really wild harvest within the last few years.  I did overharvest in the beginning- not to the destruction of the plant.  I took more than I needed overall, over estimating how much I would use or give away.  It didn't take me long to realize the waste, and the next time I went out I took much much less.  I love being in the wilderness, and I feel so gifted when I can come home with a plant.  Often times, I go out and see some of my favorite plants, but I don't feel compelled to do more than sit with it or touch it, and I come home empty-handed but with a heart full of healing plant energy.  I have learned to trust the abundance of nature, trusting that the plant will be available when I need more than to keep company with it.  When I do wild-harvest, it is with care.  I never take more than just a little from each plant and never more than I know I will use.  I don't have a problem with taking as much I will need to last me a season -if there is enough.  When the plant is in a smaller stand, I take a far smaller amount, if any.  I do feel that while I'm wild-harvesting that I'm living up to my human legacy as inherited by my ancient ancestors, and I will not deny myself this gift.  Wild-harvesting strengthens my health and my spirit exponentially.

However, after reading some of these posts, I realize that I still have a lot to learn about my local ecology and about the propogation of plants to increase its health.  I trust that my harvests are not causing any harm whatsoever to my local ecology, but am I strengthening it?  That is something I could stand to learn more about.  No doubt I will be learning over my lifetime.  I am grateful for the wisdom that I have picked up over the years from the posts and writings of more experienced herbalists, and I feel that their wisdom most certainly put me on the right track in regards to ethics.  Experience is helping to hone my sensitivity to the plant, and further education will no doubt enhance my wild crafting skills.  However, I must learn to forgive myself for any mistakes I have made- for example, I wish I had pulled out more Blessed Thistle, which is an invasive herb in these parts.  Now, I see its seeds scattered all over the wild blackberry, and I wonder if next year will welcome me with an invasive stand of Blessed Thistle wiping out some more of the wild native plant communities.  I saw stands of Hummingbird Sage and Nettle be wiped out earlier this year before I had a chance to do anything about it thanks to the over-grazing of cattle and the mowing of plants for wildfire abatement, which helps to create the ideal environments for invasive plants.  I wish I would have had more confidence and knowledge and understanding to act when I did have a chance later in the year.  Ecology is complex and sensitive, and I have much to learn. 

Gwendolyn Rose Botanicals ~ ♥
http://www.GwendolynForever.etsy.com

Oh, I long to be back in the country but do really appreciate the cultural diversity in the city ;) Reading through the post got me thinking about wildcrafting when I did live in the country; though I still do in the city much more precaution about dog pee spots, pollution, legalities, etc needs to be heeded.

I am a harvester of more common plants, weeds and other abundant plants, and even so will not wipe the colony out. That just seems disrespectful to me. However, with berries, fruits and vegetables I will harvest most leaving a few for wildlife. My other thought is that when plants are not harvested, they die and go back to the Earth and when they are harvested, if we are composting, the marc also goes back to the Earth. So the cycle continues. I think it's important to consider intention, biology, ecology and how much I need. I think that many plants want to be harvested and used. I was always taught to harvest 1/3 or to harvest and leave enough so that it doesn't look like any has been taken and that second point works for me.

Jim, your question about a weed versus tree is a good one. On the level of life, in what is alive, well yeah they both are. I think from an ecological perspective there is a big difference though, because the tree provides for much more other life, animals, water system, soil nutrients through leaf decomposition, filtering pollution, etc whereas the weeds/single plant doesn't have the same breadth of provision for other life. Which also gets into an ethical spiral ;)

http://www.wildly-natural-skin-care.com
~Learn about naturally caring for your skin with the wild flair and passion of the green Earth~

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