So you want to go wildcrafting but don’t know where to start or how to do it safely. Below are 20 tips for wildcrafting medicinal herbs to get you on the right path to safe and responsible gathering of food and medicine in the wild.
20 tips for wildcrafting medicinal herbs
- Learn to identify plants. Familiarize yourself with the weeds, herbs, bushes and trees in your area. Learn the shape, size and color of their leaves. Do they give fruits and berries? How tall and wide do these plants grow? Are they edible? Are they medicinal? Both? Not at all?
- Learn what grows where. What kind of soil do they grow in? Do they thrive in the shade or do they prefer full sun? Do they prefer rich or poor soil? Do they grow in urban areas? Do they grow in coastal areas?
- Learn about look-alikes. There are many non-edible look-alikes that can easily fool you. Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) is poisonous and similar to the edible ramps (Allium ursinum). So make sure you are picking the right plant and never eat anything you can’t positively identify.
- Get identification books. Get 2 or 3 good plant identification books and use them to cross identify herbs before you eat anything from the wild.
- Know your Latin. Many edible and poisonous plants share the same common name, so it’s always a good idea to learn the botanic name of plants. You don’t have to learn the name of every herb out there but it is helpful to know the botanic name of the herbs you want to wildcraft.
- Get a mentor. When you are a beginner, books are often not enough. It’s much safer, and also a lot more fun, to have an experienced herbalist mentoring you. You’ll develop the confidence to go wildcrafting on your own much sooner than if you only learn from books.
- Learn which parts of an herb are safe to use. All parts of some plants are edible. Ramps, also known as wild garlic is all edible and has medicinal value. The berries of Black Elder (Sambucus nigra) are toxic when eaten raw and must be processed before consumption.
- Learn to identify poisonous plants. Invest on good plant identification book that compares medicinal herbs with their poisonous look-alikes. This is a must have for serious foragers and wildcrafters.
- Follow wild edible plants and medicinal herbs through all seasons. Learn how a plant changes as the seasons progress. Some plants can only be safely identified when they are past their point of use. So it is helpful to identify them at this stage and mark the area where they grow. This way, you can safely pick them the following year.
- Consider growing wild edibles and medicinal herbs at home. If you have a garden, it is a good idea to collect some seeds, cuttings and bulbs from the wild and plant them in your garden. This way you always know what you are picking. Make sure you are allowed to pick the plants.
- Let friends and family know you are wildcrafting. To be on the safe side, let friends and family know where you’re wildcrafting and when you are coming back.
- Be prepared. Before you leave, put together a backpack, bag or basket with plant identification books, water, scissors or pruners, a small pocket knife, one bag for collecting leaves, another bag for collecting whole plants and bulbs you want to plant in your garden, several napkins or small bags to collect seeds, pen and paper for notes and labeling, a small gardener’s trowel if you want to dig up bulbs or a whole plant and a small first aid kit. Also take garden gloves with you and consider wearing knee-high boots to protect your skin from herbs like common nettle. Make sure you are allowed to remove a plant from the site.
- Walk slowly and look. This is not a hiking experience. Walk slowly and be mindful about where you are. Look at your surroundings. Try to identify the plants you see. The more you do this, the easier it gets for you to learn to surely identify medicinal herbs.
- Document it. It is also helpful to bring a camera along and take pictures of wild herbs. You can also use a camera to document your route.
- Respect nature. Learn which plants are on the list of endangered species and don’t pick them. Not only it is unethical, it is also illegal to pick endangered species.
- Only pick as much as you need. Never take more than you need. Leave enough for the plant to recover. If harvesting roots, ask yourself if the plant is strong enough to sustain a harvesting of its roots. When in doubt, don’t collect. And always think of the wildlife that depends on the plant and that other wildcrafters might want to pick as well.
- Let the sick be. Don’t wildcraft a sick or bug infested plant. These plants are stressed and don’t have their full nutritious/medicinal potential.
- Don’t collect from nature reserves. Nature reserves are areas set up to protect wild species. It is unethical and illegal to forage and wildcraft in such areas. Let these plants be.
- Don’t pick in polluted areas. Don’t pick in areas prone to pollution. This includes roadsides, industrial areas and neighborhoods, areas subjected to pesticides and herbicides like the perimeter of fields. Always go further into the land to forage and wildcraft.
- Don’t litter. Take back everything you’ve brought with you and leave the area as you found it.