Friday, May 4, 2012

Wildcrafting Part 1

Are you interested in harvesting your own plants for food and for medicine? 

Are you concerned about harvesting plants in a sustainably way? 

Wildcrafting is the art of harvesting wild plants, from harvesting dandelion roots at your local park to harvesting uva ursi from the forest floor.

Like all aspects of herbalism, wildcrafting is an art. Each plant is unique and there are special considerations for every ecosystem you’ll harvest from. This series will take you step by step through ethical considerations to tools needed to harvesting specifics. 
This multi-media six part series will cover the following areas: 

Part 1 - Introduction to wildcrafting and the ethics involved
Part 2 - Why wildcraft? 
Part 3- Tools of the Trade
Part 4 - Before the harvest: Important considerations
Part 5 - Harvesting specifics with worksheets and record keeping files
Part 6 - Further resources

Part I - Introduction to Wildcrafting

If we choose to use plants as medicine, we then become accountable for the health of the wild gardens. We begin a co-creative partnership with the plants, giving back what we receive -- health, nourishment, beauty and protection. We have reached a time in history when ignoring this relationship with the resources we use would be disastrous. 

Rosemary Gladstar

Founder of United Plant Savers

As herbalists we are truly responsible for the health of the plants we harvest and use, including plants found in the wilderness and those growing in our neighborhoods. By learning how to wildcraft ethically we can be better stewards for the lands around us. 

There are different perspectives in the modern world about how humans relate to their environment. Many people feel that the earth is ours to use without consideration for future generations. Others feel that the wilderness should remain “pure” and absolutely untouched by humans. 

Neither viewpoint reflects an inherent understanding of the natural world and our place in it. 

Wildcrafting and awareness

Our ancestors had a strong connection to the earth around them. Because they relied on materials, animals, and plants taken from their immediate surroundings, they could not ignore how the health of the environment affected the health of the family. 

A feast of native wild foods

The gadgets, gizmos, foods and building supplies of today still come from the earth, but now the cost is hidden from us. We flip the light switch without thought to the dams impeding our rivers and killing our salmon. We fill up our trashcans each week without having to face the ugly realities of landfills. 

Inherent to the study of plants for medicine is the awareness of how our actions directly affect the health of this planet we call home. Wildcrafting plants for our food and medicine builds this awareness.

Over-harvesting and under-harvesting

In North America we have lost very important medicinal plants to over-harvesting. Echinacea, goldenseal, and false unicorn root are but a few of the plants that are no longer found in the wild. 

It is a less intuitive truth that underharvesting of medicinal plants can also reduce plant populations.

When my husband and I moved to the Methow Valley in North Central Washington, we were thrilled at the wildcrafting possibilities. The Methow Valley used to be the home of the Methow people, who relied year-round on local plants and animals for food. 

Since the area hadn’t been harvested in fifty to a hundred years we thought the wild plant populations would be abundant. As we explored our valley more and more, we were surprised to find that the important edible plants seemed few and far between. How did people survive on the meager supply of plants? 

My husband took these questions to heart and started studying the ethno-ecology of the region. This new realm of study offers insight into how wilderness can flourish with human involvement. 
Yellow bells (Fritillaria pudica)

Yellow bells (Fritillaria pudica) is one of my favorite examples. Also called rice root, the bulb of this plant contains numerous rice-like plant bulblets. If these bulblets stay connected to the original bulb, they do not become a new plant. However, when separated and spread around they grow into new plants. Harvesting this plant can increase the amount of yellow bells in an area by 20-fold. 

The "rice root" of Yellow Bells
Likewise, sweet, juicy berries are a generous offering by our plant friends, but I am sure most of us are familiar with the underlying motivations of plants that produce berries. Berries are made to be eaten by a wide range of creatures, who spread the seeds far and wide after digestion.

So while humans can wreak havoc on the plant world by overharvesting or by overtaking plant habitats, the opposite can also be true. Our interactions with plants can also promote health and balance in the plant world. 

Like people before us who lived closer to the earth, we can harvest plants with the end result being healthier, stronger plant populations.

 Red huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) are an important food source in the Pacific Northwest

This series of articles was originally written for

Wildcrafting Part II - Why Wildcraft?
Wildcrafting Part III - Tools of the Trade
Wildcrafting Part IV: Before you Harvest
Wildcrafting Part V: Harvesting Guidelines

Wilcrafting Part VI: Resources