There are so many benefits to responsibly harvesting your own local medicinal species. The first step is to learn about your local plant communities and which can be used for medicine. This will allow you to forage and benefit from responsibly harvested local herbal medicine, and will reduce your dependence on the commercial herbal market. Why is that so important?
Think about the last time you purchased a packaged herbal supplement such as Echinacea pills from your health food store. Did you realize this plant was on an endangered species list? In order for a company to get this product to the masses, it requires massive harvesting and assembly processes to get herbs from the land and into the grocery store.
Herbal supplements are becoming more and more popular, and that high demand has increased pressure on medicinal plants of the world. Unsustainable harvesting could lead to disappearance and extinction of many medicinal plant species, which means dwindling resources for ourselves and future generations.
Even with this over-harvesting, many packaged herbal products are substituted by cheaper filler plant material, which is both frustrating for the consumer as well as ethically questionable. Plus, when we only depend on herbs commercially shipped from far away places, we continue to support the burning of carbon emissions and use of disposable packaging, which contribute to global warming and degradation of the environment.
We truly have an abundance of wild medicine all around us, and learning the medicine of our bioregional area is the best act of empowerment you can do. You know that you are going to get the medicinal benefits of the plant you harvest yourself, with no need for far-away shipping and ‘disposable’ plastic bottles.Also, plants found in your environment have better chances of building your immunity, because they are specific to your location.
So let’s go outside and admire the medicine of the earth’s apothecary. It’s FREE!
- Know what is edible and what is not: Never guess about whether a plant is poisonous. When foraging, consider taking two bags, a “sure” bag for the plants you know are safe and an “unsure” bag for those you aren’t sure about.
- Find a mentor or take classes on foraging: Find an experienced forager you can trust to give you tips about what, when and where to forage and who can identify plants in your “unsure” bag.
- Stick with what is abundant: Go for a walk or bike ride near your home and study the land. Which plants seem to be growing everywhere? Those are the first plants to learn to identify. If it turns out they are edible, or medicinal you can enjoy them often without worry of damaging the population.
- Learn about look-a-likes: Some plants that are not medicinal (or even edible!) are easily mistaken for others. Learn how to tell them apart. For example, lily-of-the-valley is similar in appearance to ramps. One way to tell the difference is the fragrance: ramps have a pungent odor of garlic, while lily-of-the-valley has no odor.
- Start with a small sample: The first time you eat a new food, only eat a few bites. Even if a food is considered safe, you never know how your body may react to it. Always keep a sample of what you have ingested in the refrigerator. If you become ill, you will have this sample to show what caused the problem. This is a common practice among mushroomers, but is a good idea, in general, when eating any foraged foods.
- Know your Latin: Because common names can vary widely and some wild edible plants share the same common names as poisonous plants, it’s a good idea to know the Latin name of the plants you are foraging. This is not as intimidating as it may sound. Chances are you are foraging for only a few specific plants. It won’t be difficult to learn their Latin (or botanical) names. These are reliable names that will not change regardless of the area of the world you are in.
- Use foraged foods in your favorite recipes: Wild foods are more family-friendly when you use them in well-loved and familiar recipes. When considering how to use your new ingredients, first try to find a similar conventional ingredient, and then substitute part or all of that ingredient into a recipe. Do you have wild leafy greens? Use them in place of spinach in your lasagna or enchilada recipes. Not sure how to handle wild plums? Bake them into your mom’s best peach crisp or cake.
- Consider growing wild edible plants at home: Wild plant populations are under threat from diminished habitat and over-collecting. If your garden conditions match the habitat needs of wild edibles you like, try growing them in your home garden.
- Get permission to forage: Foraging on private land without permission can result in unwanted confrontations and even legal problems. Also, asking for permission to forage is a matter of courtesy.
- Let friends or family know you are foraging: Accidents can happen. If you are going to be in a remote area, it’s a good idea to let someone know where that area is and when you expect to return.
- Use all of your senses: Don’t limit yourself to visual ID alone. Lots of wild edible plants have look-a-likes. Learn how to differentiate similar plants by smell, feel, texture, etc.
- Learn to follow wild edible plants through all seasons: Some plants, like pokeweed, emerge in the spring but are not identifiable until warm months when they are past their point of use. If you note where pokeweed is in the summer, you’ll know where to find it next spring.
- Learn which parts of a wild edible plant are safe to use: Some plants are only edible at certain times of the year. For example, stinging nettle shouldn’t be used after it goes to seed.
- Take too much: Even if the population of plants you are harvesting seems abundant, be mindful that you likely will not be the only person to forage there. Be realistic about what you can use and never take more than that. Always only take what you need no more than 1/3rd of the plant.
- Harvest protected or endangered plants: For one thing, depending on the plant, it may be illegal. For another, a plant that may appear plentiful in one location may be rare throughout its range.
- Collect the entire plant if you only need its leaves: If you want sassafras leaves to make a fine powder, there’s no reason to dig up a young tree.
- Harvest in toxic areas: Areas along busy roads are susceptible to residue from toxic car exhausts and from pesticides sprayed by road crews. If you are going to forage along a stream, know the water source. Avoid collecting plants located near streams that may be contaminated by chemicals and metals from the discharge of nearby manufacturing facilities.
- Don’t get overwhelmed: This is probably the most important piece of advice outside of the safety basics. Instead of trying to digest too much information at once, set a goal to learn just one plant per week or month. Get to know it well. Learn what it looks like in all stages of growth. Get so that you can spot it by pattern recognition. Learn how it tastes and how to cook with it.
- Forage plants that don’t appear to be healthy: Disease, fungi, pests or pollution can afflict plants. Harvesting only healthy plants minimizes the risk of illness and also means you’re getting more nutritious food.
Happy Foraging! & Don’t Forget To Invite Your Friends Into a Wild Tea Party Once You Learn Your Wild Medicinal Herbs!