What is Wildcrafting?
Wild crafting is the practice or art of harvesting plants, herbs, and fungi from the wild for the purpose of using them for medicine or food.
It is a direct connection to our past. When we practice wild crafting we follow the footsteps of our ancestors, we reflect their deep connection to Nature and there dependence on her. Wild crafting is a reminder that we need not lose or be disconnected from our wildness.
I have fond memories of my many adventures gathering and harvesting. When I am lost in the quiet depths of old growths or swallowed in tall vibrant grasses, a part of me awakens to a deeper primal sense. I am connected, a part of a whole, a balance that requires respect and care. Wild crafting to me is a part of everyday life and maturing my connection with nature.
The Ethics of Wildcrafting
Before you begin your own outdoor adventures, there are a few rules to take into consideration. There are many wild plants now at-risk or to-watch due to overharvesting. Some at-risk plants such as American Ginseng, Echinacea, and Goldenseal are at the brink of extinction. Luckily many wild plant conservation areas have opened with the goal of preserving future populations. Be mindful of how much you take and how much you leave for the future generations.
First, educate yourself. Before you go on your adventure, find reputable sources online concerning the various plants in your area. A source I recommend is United Plant Savers. They are a trustworthy force for good. United Plant Savers works to inform the public about endangered or threatened herbs. On their websites they provide a detailed list of herbs that are at-risk and to-watch. Also search for native plant societies in your area. Make sure to learn which plants are plentiful and which ones are endangered. Do not forget about your local weeds. Most “weeds” are just prolific herbs outside your door. Decide which plants you would like to use for food and medicine. Be mindful of the seasons. In spring, materials harvested are young greens and roots. In summer; flowers, foliage, and berries. In fall; roots, berries, and some fruits. Research which plants are best in each season and take only the amount you need for food and medicine so there will be no waste.
When you decide which plants you want to gather, study the location you want to visit. Is it a national or state park, neighbor’s property, true wilderness or your own backyard? Research the rules and regulations, ask permission, and get to know the area. Never pick from roadsides and industrial lots. Chemicals from passing vehicles and contaminates can leech into the plants, thus transferring to you.
When you have a location, first observe and be aware. Look at the big picture. How do the plants grow and what kind of environment do they grow in? Are they plentiful or are there a few volunteers? Are they essential for that environment’s survival? Do other animals need them for food? Are there other stands of the plant nearby? Also is there any sign of other wild crafters?
If you’re specific plant is not plentiful, not having a large stand or field, move on. If it appears to be a significant food source for animals, move on. If other wild crafters have harvested those plants first, move on. If it’s on the endangered list, move on. It is best to return home empty handed instead of harming an environment that is attempting to thrive.
When you do find a plentiful stand, here is some advice I urge you to practice:
First, make sure you have proper tools. Sharp shears, non-serrated knife, twine, shovel, heavy gloves, burlap, cotton or hemp bags and a solid identification guide. I cannot express how important it is to have a reliable identification guide. There are many deadly look-alikes that could be toxic or poisonous. A good guide will be up to date on new information, have colored pictures of the plant and their look-alikes. Many will contain basic botanical illustrations and definitions concerning parts of the plant.
Second, make sure you tell someone where you are going and wear proper clothing according to weather. Also carry tick and/or mosquito spray, a first aid kit, and plenty of water.
Third, be discreet about your location and be weary of telling others where your location is. One person may not make that much of an impact but a whole group harvesting can be detrimental to a plants populace. I also recommend reaching out to someone in your area who has had experience in wild crafting and ask them to take you along on one of their outings.
What to do and not to do…
The way to harvest the plant properly is to take only a third of the plant; a third of the plant, a third of the stand and then move on. Ensure the plant’s survival, do not rip the entire plant out of the ground. Never tear or rip any part of the plant, this will damage them possibly beyond their repair and may kill them. If you take the roots only take a few plants from the stand and move on. If there are seeds spread them. If you dig roots out, fill the hole. Do not disturb the area around the plant, tread lightly.
Cut at a forty five degree angle preferably above the node, a third of the way down. I cut above a node that has new growth to ensure the plants future growth. If you gather properly most plants will have three to four harvests in a season.
Be mindful of the weather. Hot afternoons are not preferable especially for flowers. Late morning when the dew has evaporated is the best time. The oils in the plants will be more concentrated without heavy sun exposure and will make a more effective medicine.
I also recommend harvesting young plants for food. Younger plants and shoots have more nutrients and tend not to be as stringy or woody. Also keep in mind the rule of seasons. In every season the plants energy is concentrated on certain parts. So, medicine and nutrients will be higher in each part depending on the season. In spring new shoots and roots are produced, in summer the energy moves upwards into mature foliage and flowers, and in fall the plants produce fruit, die back and concentrate their energy in their roots. You can still harvest the other parts but they won’t be as powerful out of season.
What I have experienced is that plants contain a vibrant energy. They are alive and can feel pain. When you harvest a plant you take their energy and transfer it to you, a loved one, or someone in the community. It is vital to remember this and honor the life harvested.
There are two things I do before I harvest or make medicine form the plant. First, before I harvest, I ask permission. I know this may sound a little out there but plants have a form of communicating. It’s an intuitive language you naturally pick up when you work closely with the plant kingdom. It took me many years to hone this and I am still learning. To do this, first approach the plant with stillness of mind. Ask the plant if you may pick her. Let your intuition guide you. You may feel a particular tug leaning to yes or no. It will take a while to perfect it but once you learn it will become second nature. If you feel it is ok to harvest then take what you need otherwise move on.
Second, I perform a small ritual of thanks to the plant. The plant is sacrificing its life force to give me nutrients to survive and medicine to be healthy. It is wise to honor this. This ritual is a personal expression of yourself. Most wild crafters will offer sage, tobacco, hair, or other personal gifts. Most will spread seeds and tend to their wild garden. My ritual has been cultivated since I was in my early twenties and is tailored uniquely to each plant. A deep, powerful pull in my spirit awakens when I perform this ritual. It is a minute of intimate connection with the plant’s spirit and mine. I will not share my entire ritual since it is personal but it does involve prayer, and burning sage. It is a divine moment I relish and helps me to consume with mindfulness. Cultivate your own personal ritual, let your intuition lead. It will feel rewarding and satisfying. Giving thanks and honor is the most enjoyable part of wild crafting, it will connect you deeper to your wildness and the wilderness.
Make your own adventure!
The art of wild crafting will take years to perfect but it can be rewarding and satisfying. It is an art form that our culture almost lost but is now being revived. I encourage you to make your own adventure and experience this beautiful connection. Educate your loved ones and children; teach them. This is an art that should never be forgotten. If you feel lead and have land, consider making a sanctuary for endangered herbs and plants. I am currently gathering many endangered and at risk plants with the end goal of creating a wild sanctuary. I envision future generations experiencing their magic and beauty. Each plant is special and when you make medicine or consume it, you share in that plants individual energy and experience. Each time you gather in the field you are reconnecting; to nature, to your ancestors and to future generations to come. I encourage you to educate yourself, pick up those shears, and step outside your door. A new journey awaits you. It will take you deep within the path of old growths and beyond, beckoning for a re-connection to the wild you.
If you would like to learn more about wild edible mushrooms (and edible plants) and even begin foraging for them yourself, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Wild Foraging eCourse in We Are Wildness U by Dr. Kelley Hagenbuch. Learn identification, preparation, sustainable practices, recipes, and specific techniques to safely begin enjoying Nature’s bounty.