I use the terms, “ethical” and “sustainable“ quite often, but what do they relate to wild harvesting?
The practice of gathering herbs, berries, and even animal parts, has seen a dramatic increase. Unfortunately, the educational aspect hasn’t moved at the same speed. So, let’s talk a little about sustainable harvesting, ethical practices, and what those actually mean.
First Things First
Have you heard of the saying, "leave no trace" - referring to common courtesy when camping, hiking, backpacking, and spending any time in nature? This is an excellent place to start when practicing sustainable wildcrafting. When out harvesting wild plants, it is important to take into consideration all of the other life in the forest/desert/meadow/coast you are harvesting from. You are not the only one who wants the plant(s) you are after. In fact, it is mostly likely that the creatures who live in the wild area need those plants more than you want them. That being said, it is possible to harvest botanicals and fungi from the forest without having a detrimental effect. My teachers always stressed the practice of leaving it better than you found it - if you were to take before and after photos, you probably wouldn't notice a huge difference between the two.
Some questions to ask yourself while in the wild
•Are you treading lightly, making sure not to crush a lot of the flora, or are you stomping through without much awareness?
•Are you harvesting the first plant you see, or are you waiting until there is a denser patch to trim from?
•Have you properly identified the plant? (Misidentifying can lead to unnecessary harvesting, and potential health risks depending on the plant)
•Have you checked the status of the plant - making sure it is not on the at-risk or endangered lists? Those lists can be found at United Plant Savers.
Another thing to consider is all the people who came before you and will come after you to the same spot, to harvest the same plants. Like I said before, more and more people are going out in nature and collecting things. Some spots that might have been "secret" or not as well known might be more popular just by the increase of people now venturing outside. This might feel like an inconvenience for some, but it could also be an opportunity to find somewhere even more secluded to ensure you are having as little negative impact on the land as possible. (I think this goes without saying, but you should always respect the different rules and regulations for both private and public lands.)
Now that we have gone over the basics of respecting the land, let's talk about how to harvest in a sustainable way. Depending on the plants you are after, there are different ways to encourage more growth. For example, Nettles, Lemon Balm, and Wild Mint like to be cut just above a node (where the leaves fan out of the stem). With certain trees such as Cottonwood and Willow, you can take a branch cutting and simply stick it in the ground about 5 inches. Since they have a high level of rooting hormone, the branch will most likely root and grow into a new tree! Other plants such as violets, calendula, oats, and dandelion can be assisted by planting more of their seeds. And finally, when harvesting roots, it's hard to avoid killing the entire plant, but you can still help with future generations by either planting seeds, or taking a small clipping and returning it to the earth.
There are a lot of ways to practice sustainable and regenerative harvesting. It might take a little more work on your end, but it is worth it!
To learn more about specific plants that grow in the PNW and how to support their future generations, check out our Community Supported Apothecary Boxes