Independence & Interdependence: What to Know About Wildcrafting Medicinal Plants
Wildcrafting medicinal plants is both art and science. It is also a celebration of independence and paradoxically, a celebration of interdependence. Wildcrafting and preparing herbal medicine from local plants becomes an act of independence in our modern world where almost everything we need is produced in a distant city by giant corporations that care little about our health or the health of our community. My teacher, James Green, described herbal medicine-making as the “technology of independence”—medicine by the people, for the people. Exercising this independence requires knowledge of the plants in your bioregion, the skills to create your own herbal medicine, and the wisdom to use it safely.
Done with care and respect, wildcrafting is an also act of interdependence. It recognizes that our health, the health of our communities, the health of our air, water, and ecosystems, and the health of the medicinal plant communities are all interwoven. People taking responsibility for their health, growing food and medicine, making medicine, and providing basic healthcare for their family and community begins with the wildcrafting.
Start small. Harvest what grows in your own backyard. Plant and grow native medicinal plants. Before you wildcraft a single medicinal plant, recognize and acknowledge your own interdependence. Whether harvesting herbs in your garden or gathering medicinal roots in the wild, always offer wholehearted gratitude in recognition of life supporting life. Honor and offer respect for the plant, the plant community, and the other creatures that may depend on it. Slow down, listen, ask permission, offer your gratitude, and make an offering. Meditate, offer a prayer, a song, or native seeds. You can do this in your own way, according to your own traditions or you can create a new tradition for this purpose. Only then is it appropriate to harvest.
The Art & Science of Ethical Wildcrafting
Plant Identification, Status, and Respect
The science of wildcrafting (or harvesting in your own backyard) requires correct plant identification. Many plants have lookalikes and some plants even have poisonous lookalikes. Learn from a botanist or herbalist, your local community college, or organizations like your local Native Plant Society. There are also excellent medicinal plant books. I recently reviewed some of my favorites in this post, 6 of the Best Wildcrafting Books for Identifying and Harvesting Wild Medicinal & Edible Plants.
In addition to correct plant identification, you need to know the status of the plant. Is it rare, threatened, or endangered? United Plant Savers is an excellent source on the status of rare, threatened, and endangered medicinal plants. Never pick rare, threatened, or endangered plants. Take only a picture and a loving memory.
In addition to an offering of gratitude before you begin, ethical wildcrafting also demands that you proceed with sensitivity and respect. Leave the ecosystem healthy, walk softly, replant rootlets and seeds where possible, and restore disturbed ground. Harvest only where the plant is abundant. Even if the plant is abundant in your bioregion and the stands you have encountered are large, take only a small portion, no more than you will use that year; never more than 10%; and less if you are harvesting medicinal roots. Make certain that neither the plant nor its water source has been contaminated by human activities—mining, farm fertilizers and pesticides, urban runoff, and the like. Do not harvest near roads even though some medicinal plants love these disturbed areas.
Horsetail (Equisetum spp.) grows in wet, wild places, but will pick-up any toxins present in its water supply. When wildcrafting be certain that the area is clean and free of pollutants.
When to Forage Medicinal Plants
You can enhance the potency of your herbal medicine by harvesting at the right time of day and in the correct season, when the plant is in the optimal stage of its growth. You may also align the harvest with the stage of the moon if you feel guided by lunar phases. In general, the optimal harvesting time corresponds to the time when the energy of the plant is at its peak in the part of the plant you intend to use as medicine. This will vary depending upon whether you are harvesting flowers, leaves, or aerial parts, seeds, berries, bark, rhizomes, or roots. Of course, knowing which part of the plant to harvest is part of the knowledge base you will acquire as you get to know the plant and before you venture out
Bee Balm (Monarda spp.) is found both as an ornamental landscape plant and in drainages in the southwest. Its medicine is most potent when in flower.
If you are picking flowers or flowers and leaves, harvest just before the flower reaches full bloom—when the color and fragrance are most attractive to pollinators. If only the leaves are to be gathered, do so when they are fully developed, but before the blossoms develop and the energy of the plant moves in to flower production. In either case, if you are harvesting the aerial parts of a plant, the best time of day is late morning after the dew has dried and before the heat of the day, which can temporarily wilt the leaves. On or near the full moon is considered the best time to harvest the aerial parts of plants. For highly aromatic plants which are rich in essential oils, optimal harvest time is during the hottest part of the year when the medicinal oils are most prominent. This includes many of the culinary herbs you may have in your garden like Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano, Mint, and Lavender.
Prickly Poppy (Argemone spp.), native to the southwest US, is harvested when in flower. All the aerial parts of the plant are used as medicine.
If you plan to make medicine with the entire plant, flowers, leaves and roots, harvest when the plant has freshly flowered. In general, rhizomes and roots are best harvested in the fall, when the aerial parts of the plant have begun to die back or very early in the spring before new growth begins. If you are harvesting the rhizome or roots of a perennial allow two to three years of growth, and in some cases longer. On or near the new moon is considered the best time to harvest roots.
Use heavy kitchen shears or garden clippers to harvest aerial parts of plants. You can usually get by with a good strong trowel to harvest roots. Collect the plants in a basket or brown paper bag, which allows the plants to begin to dry. Avoid collecting in a plastic bag which will trap moisture and invite your newly cut plants to mold.
How to Dry & Process Wildcrafted Plants
Herbal medicine of superior quality is made with plants that have been harvested at the right time, handled with respect and delicacy, and carefully dried or processed while fresh. Whenever you harvest, be sure to allow time for immediate processing of the plants. Allowing the cut plants to sit around for days is not only disrespectful, it invites mold and decay.
Roots and rhizomes need to be washed, scrubbed clean, and chop into thin pieces for drying. Aerial parts of medicinal plants that grow close to the ground (Mullein for example) tend to collect dirt and need to be washed in cool water. The upper leaves and flowers often do not need to be rinsed, but you will need to make this judgment call each time you harvest. Once cleaned the plants are prepared for drying unless you plan to make a fresh plant extract.
These fresh roots of Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica), another southwest native, have been washed, scrubbed clean and ready to be made into a medicinal extract.
Plants that have been dried well resemble the fresh plant in color, aroma, taste, and texture. To dry leaves and flowers on stems, bundled them together with a rubber band and hang them to dry. Attention to detail is very important. As you prepare the bundles carefully inspect the plant and discard anything that does not look healthy or that fails to meet your standards of excellence in medicine-making. Strip off leaves at the end of the stem so that no leaves are trapped under the rubber band where they will mold. Your banded bundles should allow circulation among the leaves. If they are too large and dry too slowly, the possibility of mold and decay increases. Hang bundles in a warm dry place with good circulation. I often use a small closet dedicated to that purpose and leave the door ajar. A drying screen or dehydrator is useful for drying roots, flowers, leaves, or berries. I do not recommend trying to use the oven (too hot) or a microwave (too damaging).
Wild Mint (Mentha spp.) has been bundled using rubber bands and is ready for the drying rack.
Your medicinal plants are ready for the next stage of processing when all the parts feel somewhat crisp to the touch. The timing varies widely; some plants take only a couple of days to dry thoroughly, others can take a week or more. After the plant is dry, it’s ready for garbling! Garbling is a term unique to the herb world and refers to the process of carefully separating the best and most medicinal parts of the plants from those parts that are not going to be used as medicine. Attention to detail is paramount. Carefully inspect the dried plant and compost any parts that are discolored or show other damage. Gently strip dried leaves and flowers from stems if the stems are not typically used medicinally. Your dried herbs should be stored in jars out of direct sunlight.
When you next venture out to wildcraft, make it a celebration of independence and interdependence. Reflect on the ways we can take back control of our health and the health of our communities—and take action. Make your own herbal medicine and teach this “technology of independence” to your children and grandchildren, to your friends and neighbors. And, remember our interdependence—the reality of our dependence on each other and the Earth.
I’d love to see and hear about the plants you’re wildcrafting n your bioregion. You can share in the comments section below or snap a picture and tag us on Instagram with #nectarherbandtea.
For the Earth,