Sunday, May 20, 2012

Wildcrafting Part II - Why Wildcraft?

Xavier's hands covered in cottonwood sap. 
If you have never wildcrafted before let me be the first to tell you - it can be hard work! First you need to be able to correctly ID the plant. Then you need to locate the plant. Then you need to make sure the stand is healthy enough to harvest from. Then you need to know how to harvest it ethically. 

Once these preliminary areas are covered then comes the hard work of harvesting. This can mean wading through marshes to get your cattail, braving thorns to get to your hawthorne berries, scrambling up mountainsides to get to the elderberries. Undoubtably as a wildcrafter you will have to withstand the hot sun, incessant wind, bugs and other pests. It can mean stooping for hours to get enough violet flowers to fill a pint jar or digging through hard-packed rocky soil laboring with all your might to get that burdock root released from the ground.  

Once you’ve accomplished this you are only half through! Plants will need to be taken home, cleaned and processed and then turned into medicine. Phew! 

So, why would a sane person wildcraft? 

Wildcrafting can increase the health of plants and their eco-systems.

 In part one of this series we already looked at one very valuable reason for wildcrafting. We can actually increase the vitality of an area by interacting with it in a conscious way. We will discuss this concept more, but simply put aerating the soils, spreading seeds and pruning branches appropriately are very real ways in which we can tend the wild thus creating stronger and healthier eco-systems. 

By regularly visiting areas we can ensure their health by speaking out on their behalf. Here’s one example. I have a place where I love to harvest mullein. It’s a patch near my home that springs forth many mullein each year. I can easily harvest leaves, roots and many flowers in just one visit. Last year on one of my foraging trips I was devastated to find that the area had been sprayed. I live quite a ways from people on a rough dirt road so this really surprised me. I contacted the neighbor who owned land nearby and explained what had happened and that I had been harvesting the plants there for medicine. This person was fascinated to learn that all those “harmful weeds” were actually helpful for ailments that he and his wife suffered from. He readily agreed to never spray there again. 

There are many similar ways we can actively play a part in educating our communities about keeping our eco-systems healthy. Local public parks where children play are often needlessly sprayed with herbicides. YOU can stop this from happening. 

Wildcrafting is about connection.  

By harvesting our own plants for food and for medicine we connect with the plants themselves, we connect with the ecosystems our plants inhabit and we connect with the living forces of this earth. For me this connection brings me to the joie de vivre or the joy of life. 

Wildcrafting teaches us about plants. 

I have learned so much about the plants from directly interacting with them. Visiting plants through the seasons, sitting with them, watching them shift, observing the land where they live gives us a plethora of information about the plants we would never ever know by simply ordering them via the internet. I really doubt we can truly know the plants we take internally unless we know that plant as a living being whether that be in our gardens or on mountain slopes. 

I've loved watching the cottonwoods shift from buds full of resins

To the female trees bearing their "snow". 

Wildcrafting is mostly free. 

Sure, it will cost you your time, cost for tools and most likely some patience, but is otherwise very easy on the wallet. Finding “free” medicine and food outside your door is another big benefit to wildcrafting. 

Wildcrafting gives us a healthy diet. 

In the spring when many people are itching for fresh greens from their gardens we are harvesting many wild greens at least a month before local agricultural greens hit the market. We also have noticed that we eat a much larger variety of foods than is standardly found in the produce department. Also wild foods commonly have more nutrients in them than domestic foods raised using big-scale agriculture. 

Wildcrafting can result in high quality medicine. 

Harvesting healthy plants and lovingly preparing fresh medicine from there results in a high quality medicine - something that can be found lacking in super-sized herb companies. We already know this as eating fresh tomatoes from the garden is much more enjoyable than eating tomatoes which were picked green and then shipped from thousands of miles away. 

Wildcrafting can be empowering. 

I was recently traveling through the deserts of southern Utah when I got a urinary tract infection. Although I had an herbal first aid kit with me, nothing was very specific for this ailment. I admit, I panicked for a moment. Would I have to find a doctor? I was traveling, was I going to have to stop the car every twenty minutes so that I could find a bathroom? This quickly subsided however when I realized I was surrounded by many plants that were specific to bladder infections. Fairly easily I was able to harvest juniper berries, yarrow flowers and manzanita leaves. Making a tea from these powerful plants I was better within hours. In fact, after chewing on a few juniper berries I was almost immediately better. 

Juniper berries (actually cones). 

There is a a deep sense of empowerment that comes with wildcrafting. It means looking out onto the forest, or meadow or even the southwest desert and knowing that the plants contained there can help us when we are ill and feed us when we are hungry. 

This series of articles was originally written for

Friday, May 18, 2012

Photo Friday - Forest Flowers

Last night we took a stroll through the forest and found so many beautiful flowers in bloom I just had to share it with you all. 

From wild orchids to chocolate lilies to delightful violets, I hope you enjoy this virtual plant walk. 

Chocolate Lilies - Fritillaria lanceolata 

Hooker's Fairy Bells - Prosartes hookeri

Saskatoon - Amelanchier alnifolia

Wild Strawberries - Fragaria spp.

Violet - Viola glabella

Fairyslippers - Calypso bulbosa

Fairyslippers - Calypso bulbosa

Gooseberry - Ribes lacustre

Baneberry - Actaea rubra

Arrowleaf Balsamroot - Balsamorhiza sagittata

Larkspur - Delphinium nuttallianum

Arnica - Arnica cordifolia

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