There are no shortcuts and this article cannot cover all aspects of how to ethically harvest every plant. I will give general guidelines, but keep in mind there are ALWAYS exceptions that can be specific to the plant or the place.
To really get to know the specifics of each plant, learn about that plant as it comes into your life. In this way you can really focus on the plant and get to know it well before harvesting it. Spend time with the plant. Notice how it grows, ask other wildcrafters about their experience. Finally, once you are harvesting this plant, keep records so that you can consciously take into account how your harvesting methods are affecting that particular plant population.
Included in this section are worksheets for you to download. These will include a general questionnaire to consider before you harvest a plant and a record keeping sheet to document the areas you are harvesting from. You might fill these out completely each time you harvest or use them as a general tool to keep ethical harvesting issues in mind while out in the field.
Now for the specifics!
Leaves and aerial portions
Leaves are most often harvested when they are young and fresh looking, generally from spring to early summer. Some tips:
Spread your impact throughout the stand of plants by taking a few leaves from here and there instead of taking many leaves from a single plant.
When harvesting leaves from trees, take them from the branches but avoid taking them from the terminal (end of the branch) stem, unless you are pruning the entire branch. (More on pruning later.)
Many herbaceous perennials can be cut back completely and re-grow again the same year. You can usually get two or three cuttings from these plants by harvesting the entire aerial portion just before the plant goes to flower. Stinging nettle (Urtica diocia) is a great example-you can continually cut off the tops of nettle and in this way get many more harvests from a stand. Kimberly Gallagher shows us how to do this here in a video about harvesting stinging nettle.
Try to harvest leaves and aerial portions when they are completely dry. Mid-morning is probably optimal, but reality may dictate when you are able to harvest, too! Be aware that some aromatic plants lose their potency as the day wears on. One time I harvested rose petals in the evening and realized later that they had no scent. I harvested from the same stands the next morning and they were very fragrant.
Stinging Nettle Leaves (Urtica dioica)
Harvest flowers at full bloom or just before opening, depending on the plant. For example, I like to harvest calendula and chokecherry blossoms in full bloom (before any wilting occurs), but I harvest rosebuds and St. John’s Wort buds along with the full flowers.
Flowers are very susceptible to mold, and must be harvested when dry (no dew present).
(A note about drying flowers. Plants in the asteraceae family (dandelion, arnica, etc) will turn into seed heads when dried. I prefer to let these wilt and work with them fresh. Other herbalists prefer to let them dry. If you harvest these plants in bud stage they won't turn into seed heads as readily. There is no wrong way; a good herbalist is continually experimenting to find what works best for him or her.)
Keep in mind that the flowers you harvest will not go to seed or mature into fruit. When harvesting elderflowers, I keep in mind that I like to harvest elderberries as well.
Evening primroses are unique in that you can harvest them in the evening. Oftentimes the flowers are still vibrant in the morning but they will fade by the afternoon.
An evening primrose in the morning light.
Roots and Rhizomes
Harvesting roots and rhizomes can lead to the death of a plant. Sometimes this is necessary and can be completely ethical. However, there several things to know and consider before harvesting roots.
First, ask yourself whether you really need the roots. Many plants have the same properties in their aerial portions. For other plants, aerial portions can be combined with roots to make whole plant medicine, using less root material.
Again, it’s important to know the individual plant you are harvesting so that you can harvest it appropriately.
If harvesting the roots is your goal, then you can take other steps to keep the plant alive.
Some roots can be divided so the plant continues living.
The crowns of other plants can be replanted after the roots are removed.
Other plants can continue to grow if some of the root is left in the ground. (Comfrey and dandelion are good examples, although generally there is not as much need to proliferate these plants.)
Rhizomes can be followed horizontally through the ground and harvested so that the plant continues to live.
Other plants, like yellow bells and chocolate lilies, can be propagated by harvesting the roots.
In general, roots are harvested in the late summer and fall after the plant has gone to seed and the energy of the plant has returned to the roots. If necessary, you can also harvest roots in the spring before the plant has put its energy into the leaves.
Yellow dock roots (Rumex crispus)
Bark is best harvested in the spring, when sap is flowing through the inner cambium. Typically, the inner bark is used for medicine. Sometimes I harvest new twigs from a tree and use the entire twig; other times I may strip the bark from the twig using a knife or a vegetable peeler.
Bark can be harvested in three ways.
Take a vertical strip from a growing tree. This is the least preferable method. Although it doesn’t kill a tree it can open the tree to infections.
Gather from a recently felled tree. A drawknife (a horizontal knife with two handles) is a great tool for harvesting bark from the main trunk of a tree.
Prune branches and harvest the bark of the branch
Pruning is a fabulous way to tend trees in the wild while also getting the medicine you need. Here are some simple principles:
Have the correct size pruning shears so that you can make a clean cut.
Keep your shears sharp!
Prune branches that are pointing down instead of up to the sky.
Prune branches that are rubbing together or competing for the same space on the tree.
When pruning a tree for bark, prune off any dead limbs to help the tree avoid infestation.
Ant acrobatics on a chokecherry branch (Prunus virginiana)
For more information about pruning see the USDA’s article about pruning here: How to prune trees.
Never harvest bark in a circle around the trunk of a tree as this will certainly kill the tree by literally cutting off its supply of nutrients.
One time, some friends showed me some saplings they had planted that had died. After their third attempt at planting saplings in this area, they had concluded that the soil must be bad. On close inspection I could see the entire base of the tree had been sliced open by a weed wacker. Once they realized their mistake they were able to grow saplings there without problems.
This article is meant as a stepping stone for beginning wildcrafters to learn the basics of harvesting plants ethically and sustainably.
You will learn the most by venturing into the habitats around you, being aware of your impact on an area, and continually evolving your relationship with the ecosystem.
Much information about ethical harvesting has been lost to us in North America. The only way we can regain it is by developing these skills on our own.
Wildcrafting is so much more than the harvesting of plants. It’s the connection to the world around us and a growing responsibility of our own role in keeping an area vibrant and healthy.
It is my hope that with the rise of herbalism we will also see a rise of ethical wildcrafters tending to ecosystems with care and consciousness. By regularly stepping out of our homes and into the world we can be aware of changes, both good and bad, to the areas we depend on for food and medicine. In so doing we can be the voice of the forests, parks, and beaches, and play a part in creating a world where our grandchildren’s grandchildren can safely harvest the bounty of the earth.