The Ethics of Wildcrafting

Wildcrafting, wild harvesting, and foraging all mean the same thing: taking whole or parts of a plant from a space where it grows naturally.

It can be very exciting when you come across a patch of a plant you have an interest in working with. Fresh plant matter is so different than dried, especially commercially dried. Seeing a plant in its natural habitat and being able to watch it through its growth cycles can teach you a lot.

So what about when you are ready to take it home with you and make some preparations? Wildcrafting is a lot of fun, but it is also a great responsibility. There are a great number of endangered plants, a lot of them due to over harvesting. For example, American Ginseng.
300 years ago, the Ginseng trade was booming. It was a huge export from the new world to China. The Chinese used American Ginseng as a staple in their medicine to cure depression, diabetes, fatigue, inflammation, nausea, tumors, and ulcers. A single pound of Ginseng could cost $500. Because it was such a hot commodity and people could make a high profit, “‘Seng hunting” became extremely popular. In 1841, more than 600,000 pounds was shipped to Asia from the United States. Roots in general take longer to grow than flowering parts so they cannot replenish fast enough to hold up to the exorbitant harvesting rates. American Ginseng is now under threat of extinction because of hundreds of years of grotesque harvesting and trade. This plant is indigenous to the South East and many will never see it in their life time.

As you can see, we can have a huge impact on what medical plants will still be around for years to come. Some plants can withstand high foraging rates due to how fast they spread, such as Dandelion, Purple Dead Nettle, Chickweed, and Yarrow. Some plants or mushrooms are actually good to forage as they are parasitic and can damage giant trees, like Reishi or Squawroot. As with most things, discretion is greatly needed. Below, I will list my ground rules for foraging.

  • Only forage if you are 100% sure of the identity of the plant or mushroom. This is where having an in-depth identification guide of your area comes in handy. You don’t want to risk taking an endangered species or poisoning yourself or others. There are many plants that look similar such as Wild Carrot and Water Hemlock, or Elderberries and Pokeberries. Make sure you know the differences between the two before you ingest or take any of them home.
  • Harvest like you want your grandkids to be able to harvest from this patch for generations to come. My rule of thumb is 1/5, 1/5 of the population, and 1/5 of the plant (again depending on if it’s a fast regenerator and invasive). This rule doesn’t really apply to the fast-spreading plants as I mentioned above. But say you are looking for Elderberries. Take a look around and see how many healthy-looking plants are in the area. If there are a bunch, it’s fairly safe to assume it is a healthy population size and you taking from it will not negatively affect the lot. Again, stick with the 1/5 rule for the group and per plant. You also need to take a few other things into consideration. Does local wildlife depend on this for food? Is the plant healthy enough to withstand my interference? Is the soil healthy or has it been contaminated by chemicals or waste? Is there a lot of traffic nearby so the plants are taking in unhealthy air? Is the plant covered in good feces or other things that can contaminate your harvest? All of these things contribute to the effectiveness of the plant as well as the sustainability of harvesting.
  • Ask permission and listen for its answer. This may seem a bit “out there” but we all know plants are alive. If you look into it, many scientific studies have found that plants actually communicate with each other through root systems and natural chemical excretions. Always ask the plant for permission to take a piece. We don’t know if that plant is the sole food source for something else or if it is a home for an insect. When we respectfully ask, we are opening up communication with nature, something all of our ancient ancestors did. They lived in direct reciprocity with the land, which our modern age lacks. By speaking to a plant, we are not only respectfully engaging in a relationship, but we are also going back to our roots and reenacting ancient actions. Listen and “feel out” the plants response. You may be surprised.
  • Leave the area as undisturbed as possible. This is particularly important when digging for roots and tree barks. For roots, you can’t get to them without disturbing the earth but you can approach it respectfully and try to clean up after yourself. The 1/5 rule roughly applies depending on the species here. Goldenseal for example can grow back from a tiny piece of rhizome left. So you need to really know your plant and how it reproduces. Make sure after you dig up your root, you pack back in the earth and even pour some water over it. For tree barks, do not cut the bark off of full live trees. Most herbalists will look for recently fallen trees or branches. We do not want to kill or maim a healthy tree just for our own sake. There are times when it is possible to cut off a branch and then scrape the backoff of it. Take the questions from the second point into consideration. Also, contemplate how you can utilize the rest of the wood so it is not a waste.
  • Watch the weather. You do not want to harvest wet or dewy plants. This will lead to rotting faster and dilute down your preparations. Wet plants are extremely hard to dry and usually end up going bad. Also do not rinse off your plant matter after you collect it. This will lead to the same effect.

There are a multitude of things to take into consideration when it comes to wildcrafting, but really it comes down to respect. Respect the plants and respect the timing of nature. Respect the slow process and the work. With more experience, you will learn a lot about your area and its unique ecosystem. It is truly powerful to return to a spot you once foraged in and see it healthy and thriving.

Below I have added a list of At-Risk species. This list was developed by the United Plant Savers nonprofit. They have done decades of work to preserve these plants and educate others on how we can help. Please keep in mind how we can impact these habitats and let’s work together to preserve these plants for generations to come.

Sandalwood – Santalum spp. (Hawaii only)
Kava Kava – Piper methysticum (Hawaii only)
American Ginseng – Panax quinquefolius
Venus Fly Trap – Dionaea muscipula
Sundew – Drosera spp.
Maidenhair Fern – Adiantum pedatum
Cascara Sagrada – Frangula purshiana 
Squirrel Corn – Dicentra canadensis
Goldenseal – Hydrastis canadensis
Lady’s Slipper Orchid – Cypripedium spp.
Ramps – Allium tricoccum
Lomatium – Lomatium dissectum
False Unicorn Root – Chamaelirium luteum
Peyote – Lophophora williamsii
Stream Orchid – Epipactis gigantea
White Sage – Salvia apiana
Osha – Ligusticum porteri 
Bloodroot – Sanguinaria canadensis
Virginia Dutchman’s Pipe – Aristolochia sp.
Trillium, Beth Root – Trillium spp.
True Unicorn Root – Aletris farinosa
Blue Cohosh – Caulophyllum thalictroides
Echinacea – Echinacea spp.
Elephant Tree – Bursera microphylla
Wild Indigo – Baptisia tinctoria
Butterfly Weed – Asclepias tuberosa
Stone Root – Collinsonia canadensis
Wild Yam – Dioscorea villosa 
Yerba Mansa – Anemopsis californica
Black Cohosh – Actaea racemosa 
Eyebright – Euphrasia spp.
Pipsissewa – Chimaphila umbellata
Chaparro – Castela emoryi
Pink Root – Spigelia marilandica
Mayapple – Podophyllum peltatum
Slippery Elm – Ulmus rubra 
Lobelia – Lobelia inflata
Arnica – Arnica spp.
Gentian – Gentiana spp.
Goldthread – Coptis spp.
**This does not apply to herbs purchased from farms. A farm grown at-risk plant does not affect the wild grown ones.

I encourage you all to get outside, discover the wild lands around you, and embrace a reciprocal relationship with the land.

***All information and content on this site are presented for educational and entertainment purposes only. Nothing presented on this site is intended to constitute or be used as a substitute for advice from a licensed medical professional and should not be taken as such. If you are experiencing any medical emergency including possible envenomation, please contact your local emergency services immediately. Always consult with your primary care physician before beginning any herbal treatment.***

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