I must admit that wild harvesting/crafting my own herbs is one the best parts of my job. Thankfully I don’t have a lot of unpleasant tasks as a herbalist, but spending time in nature and harvesting my own medicine from the land is definitely one of my favourite things to do. There is something that I must address though…
When people think about a herbalist wild harvesting, often images such as this come to mind; long skirt blowing in the breeze, floppy hat, flowing hair and a hand woven basket filled with flowers.
If this is what you are hoping for when you head out into the field you might be a little bit disappointed. Floppy hats blow away, skirts get dirty (and bugs fly right up them) and baskets are cumbersome and heavy. In addition a basket only allows you to harvest one herb at a time unless you want to sort through them when you get home.
After most successful harvesting trips I come home sweaty, tired, hair matted and with a few new bug bites.
So now that I have successfully de-romanticized wild harvesting let’s chat about why you would want to bother with it in the first place (since I’ve made it sound unpleasant to some I imagine 😉 ).
Why You Wild Harvest Your Medicinal Herbs
The goal when making your own medicine, as a herbalist or lay person, is to use the healthiest and most vital plants that you can access. Plants that grow in the wild, in their own natural habitat, are not pampered or watered like our herb gardens are. They are forced to survive droughts, late season frosts, pests and blistering heat. Not all survive, but those that do are the strongest of their family and go on to populate their species. Strong plants have strong medicinal herbal properties which is exactly what you are looking for when you want to use plants as medicine.
You also have the unique opportunity to observe a plant in it’s natural habitat. What kind of climate does it prefer? What soil does it like? When does it flower and what other plants grow near it? The more you learn about a plant, the deeper your relationship with that plant becomes. For many herbalists, including me, a deeper relationship with the plants we work with is another one of our goals. It is truly a lifelong goal, but a goal nonetheless. The more I can use, harvest, touch, taste and observe a plant, the more I learn about it. The more I know, the better I can use it in a clinical sense. This also helps to foster the spiritual relationship I’m developing with plants since I do view them as a living being and not simply a commodity or a means to an end.
Finally we cannot overlook the benefits of spending time outdoors and in Nature. There are physical benefits from hiking itself including exercise, increased vitamin D production and deeper breathing. In addition there are emotional and spiritual benefits as time in Nature helps you to de-stress and increases happiness levels. In my books these benefits are definitely worth the sweat and matted hair!
Where to Wild Harvest
I get asked about this one a lot, either “where should I harvest?” or “where do you harvest?” Us wild harvesting folk tend to be a bit tight lipped about our harvesting locations and there is a good reason for this. They aren’t always easy to find and once other people start harvesting in locations I use, I have to move on and find another one. This isn’t desirable for me so I don’t usually share my wild harvesting spots. I truly believe that if you want to work with plants on this level, part of the work is finding your own spots to harvest from. Herbalists, myself included, work very hard at scouting out locations that meet our needs. It’s part of the work and well worth the investment time.
So while I won’t share with you where I harvest (information that would only benefit you if you live in southern Ontario anyway), I will instead tell you what to look for in your own harvesting spots.
It must be legal to harvest in your chosen area. Conservation areas are not legal harvesting spots. Neither is sneaking onto someone’s property or field! Try to choose spots away from urban centres and instead focus on wilderness locations. They should be free from obvious sources of pollution as well. What does this mean? The location should not be beside a road (100-200 metres away ideally) or beside a large scale commercial farm (as they often spray). Organic farms are fine. If your harvesting location has a source of water ensure that it isn’t used to dump chemicals, industrial waste or urban pollution (sewer).
What I Bring With Me
Everyone wants to know what’s in my herbal bag of tricks when I’m out in the field so I will tell you! Please note that some of these are affiliate links. For the full disclosure scroll on down.
Herb Identification Guides
When harvesting in the wild it is imperative that you know what you are harvesting. Unless you are very familiar with a species, herb identification guides are a must. I have yet to go out on a harvesting trip where I didn’t refer to it for something. My favourite is by far the Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. I find it easy to use and very accurate. I also have The ROM Field Guide to Wildflowers of Ontario and Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs.
I collect my herbs in plastic shopping bags. For a while I used paper bags because I thought it was more sustainable, but it was actually the opposite. The herbs would sweat and eventually the bag needed to be recycled. Plastic grocery shopping bags last forever (unfortunate in some respects of course). I reuse them constantly and keep about a dozen in my office for harvesting.
I also always bring my spring scale. In order to ensure I don’t harvest too much (or not enough) I always weigh my herbs in the field to see how much I’ve collected. Check out the ethics section below to see why this is so important.
Finally you need tools for cutting your herbs. I always have a knife and a pair of scissors with me and which I use will depend on the herb. Honestly, most of the time I go for the scissors because I find it does the least amount of damage to the plant. Neither of these needs to be fancy. The above links are just some examples. I do recommend a folding knife for ease of transport and ensure you look up the laws for your area and that you aren’t carrying something illegal.
Because wild harvesting and the use of herbs for medicine is spiritual for me, I always have an offering of sage and tobacco with me. Part of my work is thanking the plant spirits for working with me and providing me, and the world, with their medicine. This is something that is personal to my practice and is not necessary for all those who practice herbal medicine. To each their own and do what feels right and calls to you.
Ethical Wild Harvesting
This section is extremely important, so I know I’ve left it to the end, but no skipping people! There is no way around this one. if you are going to forage for or wild harvest foods or medicines, it absolutely MUST be done in a sustainable and ethical way. This is a big one folks! If you have ever come to one of my herb walks you’ll know that I hammer this down at least ten times during the walk. If you forget everything I say, remember this point right here. So what exactly does “ethical” wild-harvesting entail?
- Only harvest species that are common – to both the area you are at and to the region. Ensuring the survival of the species is vital and there is no better way to wipe out a plant species than to harvest an uncommon one
- Never take more than 10% of the herb’s population for the area you are harvesting in.
- Do not harvest in an area where someone else has been harvesting. Look for signs like uprooted plants or stems without flowers etc.
- Always harvest a plant early in it’s flowering season. This benefits us in two ways; one it gives the plant a chance to produce more flowers and reproduce and two it ensures the most potent medicine possible.
- Locate 3-4 harvesting locations for each plant you which to harvest. We do this so we don’t have to return to the same location each year for the same herb. For example, in year one I will harvest red clover from Spot A, in year two Spot B and so on. After three years you can return to your original harvesting spot. We do this to ensure the species has time to recover.
- Never ever take more than you need. This can be hard to figure out, but I can tell you that as a practicing herbalist I rarely need more than 1-2 litre of any given herb in a year. If you are only treating yourself or your family you can easily get away with 100-500 ml per year, depending on the herb.
I wish you the best of luck on your harvesting adventures! Go forth and gather herbs my friends.
DISCLOSURE: In order for me to support myself and my herbal clinic, I may receive monetary compensation or other types of remuneration for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any product or services from this blog. I truly appreciate all the support you have shown my blog and my business and I will only ever recommend products that I use myself, truly love or covet. Many thanks.