Friday, July 6, 2012

Wild Harvesting Herbs

Wild harvesting herbs comes with a lot of responsibility. It is essential that we harvest in an ethical way. There are many levels to what constitutes "ethical" in this context. There are ecological issues, like not over-harvesting or doing anything that harms the ecosystem where the herbs are growing. This includes other plants and animals as we move through the landscape. There are social issues, such as our responsibility to ensure that the plants we are harvesting continue to be plentiful for use by future generations. There are also spiritual issues, such as cultivating right relationship with the medicines and our Earth Mother. All of these come into play and are interrelated.

As more people develop an interest in herbs and making their own medicines, growing herbs becomes increasingly more important. Many herbs have become rare or extinct in much of their former range because of wild harvesting on a commercial scale. The average person or even herbalist does not need to harvest herbs on that kind of scale, but as more people do it the results are potentially the same.

This reminds me of the growing popularity of the local food movement. The idea of eating locally has many important social and ecological benefits, and I strongly support it in principle. Unfortunately, one of the negative consequences of this orientation is a growing popularity of wild harvested foods. I cringe every time I see wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), fiddleheads (Matteuccia struthiopteris), various wild mushrooms and other wild harvested foods at farmers markets or in supermarkets. They are becoming more popular each year. It is a lot easier to wipe out a wild plant or fungus species by harvesting it for food than for medicinal use because wild foods appeal to a greater proportion of the population and are consumed in much larger quantities. As a result, some local food enthusiasts are promoting practices that are ecologically and ethically destructive. They look upon wild species as free for the taking. Some of them are probably following some ethical guidelines, but they are still contributing to the growing popularity of these foods which leads to more harvesting and more people getting involved who are of questionable ethics.

Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) fiddleheads.

I have often witnessed the results of unethical wild harvesting. For instance, although I wild harvest, walk, canoe and camp in hundreds of different locations in southern and central Ontario, I have only come across wild ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) in very few of them. In every instance they were in provincial parks and conservation areas where harvesting is illegal. Wild ginseng is protected in Ontario anyway because it is rare. I do not harvest it myself. Nevertheless every plant that I have ever come across in my travels has been harvested by some unscrupulous people. I currently don't know any places where it grows.

Although I strongly recommend that people who want to make their own medicines grow their herbs whenever possible, there is still a place for wild harvesting on a small scale if it is done in an ethical manner. Getting to know the medicines in the places where they grow wild is also an excellent way to develop a deeper relationship with them and Nature. This is important even for people who are using commercial herbal products. In fact, it is especially important for them since it provides them with an opportunity to interact with living plants. Observing herbs in their natural environment can also provide us with important information about the kinds of conditions in which they prefer to grow, which is essential if we want to grow them ourselves.

As an herbalist, I am extremely anal about three aspects of my work:

1. The quality of the medicines that I use.

There are no ends to which I won't go to ensure that the medicines I use are the highest quality that I can possibly prepare, both pharmacologically and energetically. I am constantly reassessing what I am doing and remaining open to ways that it can be improved. This means harvesting them from the healthiest plants growing in the habitat that is ideal for them; harvesting them when the conditions (temperature, sun, rainfall) are best; harvesting them at the preferred stage in their life cycle and time of day; using only the most potent parts of the plants; and preparing them in a way that maximizes their potency and minimizes any degradation of their chemical constituents.

As I mentioned in a previous post, for me all aspects of harvesting, preparing, storing and using the medicines are a sacred act. I treat this work like a ceremony, meditation and prayer. At all times I am in a place of gratitude and respect, with a clear intent to prepare medicines that are as pure and potent as possible that are intended to provide those who seek the medicines with whatever healing they require physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I don't want to fill the medicines with the scattered energies of mental chatter or with negative emotions. It is essential that my mind is quiet and my heart open when I am doing this work.

2. The quality of my relationship with the medicines.

For me the medicines are not things, they are living, healing beings. In my interactions with them I come from a place of humility, respect and reverence. That may sound pretty airy fairy, but anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I am one of the least airy fairy people you will meet. I've always found that the mental attitude that works best for me in life is to be an open-minded sceptic. I don't easily buy into things that I am unfamiliar with or don't make sense to me, but I also know that anything is possible. What we know and experience is such an infinitesimally small fraction of what is out there. One of the biggest blunders of our modern society is the belief that through our rationalizations and our sciences we have things all figured out. This is pure arrogance! When I come across something that challenges my paradigm, I have found that the best way to approach it is to give it the benefit of the doubt; to put it into practice and see if it works in my life. If it works, I'll continue to use it; if it doesn't, I won't.

Getting back to the medicines, when we approach the plant people with humility and an open heart and mind, things start to happen. They communicate with us and teach us. When that first started happening to me I was sceptical but open to the possibility. What I found out pretty quick was that when I listened, things worked out; when I didn't, things screwed up. It didn't take long for me to learn to stop fighting it and just accept it. The only issue for me is not the existence of or accuracy of these communications, it is whether or not I have the clarity to receive them. I have learned that when things aren't clear it's because I'm not clear. I will do whatever is necessary to become clear or leave it and come back to it when I am.

Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) is one of the first medicines that "called" me.

I don't work with herbs because they are readily available or because of curiosity. I only work with the medicines that call me. In working with them, it is important that I approach them with the right attitude. It is also a universal understanding within indigenous healing traditions that energy always moves in a circle. That means that when we take something it is important that we always give something back. On one level that includes the humility, respect and love that I approach the medicines with. I also pick up any garbage that I find when I'm out on the landscape, whether I'm harvesting or not. However, there is also an understanding that it is best to give something back that is more tangible; something for which we've made some sacrifices to grow it or working to earn money to purchase it. In North America the most common gift that we offer is tobacco. Cornmeal is also used, especially in the southwest. In many traditions it is said that the main reason tobacco is used is because the spirit of tobacco offered itself to be used for this purpose. It is part of it's medicine. Tobacco is used to carry the prayers of those who smoke it in a ceremonial way using a sacred pipe. Many of the peoples of Mexico, Central and South America traditionally use it in the form of cigars. Tobacco is also used for healing, connecting with the world around us, and as a form of energy exchange, as an offering or gift whenever we receive something. Tobacco is a very powerful medicine. There are healers for whom it is the only medicine that they use. One of the consequences of using powerful medicines is that they make great demands on those who use them and there are often significant repercussions when these medicines are used in an inappropriate way. In our society we don't need to look very far to see the negative consequences of the misuse of tobacco.

Wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica).

Having said all of this, there is something that I've mentioned in previous posts and I need to reiterate here. I want to be clear that I'm not saying that the way I practice herbalism is the only way to practice herbalism. There are many different traditions of herbalism and many great herbalists working within each of them. This way of practicing and living herbalism is the essence of the tradition that I come from. It is what works for me. That being said, it is my experience that the deeper our relationship with the medicines that we use, the more profound the results that we will witness in our lives and in our healing work. Deepening our relationship with the medicines is something that will benefit any herbalist regardless of what herbs or system of herbalism that they use. The same applies to anyone who is working with herbs on a personal level. It also helps us on our own path of healing and the greater the depth of healing that we experience in our own life, the better we are able to be vehicles for the medicine on behalf of others. This way of relating to medicines is common to all of the ancient healing traditions. In my experience, it is something that has largely been lost in Western herbalism, but is making a resurgence. I'm putting this out there to demonstrate how it works for me. Hopefully it will help other people on their own path. This theme will definitely come up from time to time in my posts. However, for people who want some guidance on how to experience more of this in their lives, you might want to check out The Spirit of Herbs workshops on my website. There are other people offering these kinds of teachings as well.

3. Ethical wild harvesting.

The issues that I discussed in point #2 above are very personal. This is not something that I talk about much with my clients or even other herbalists unless they express an interest in it. Similarly, although I'm quite open about where I'm coming from with my students and this stuff comes up periodically in the courses that I teach, I present it as a way of looking at things (as opposed to the way of looking at things). I also introduce it in greater depth and help my students to experience doing herbalism in a this way in The Spirit of Herbs workshops, but ultimately it is up to each student to decide to what degree they want to integrate it into the way they practice herbalism (if at all) once they begin to practice on their own. However, the issue of ethical wild harvesting is something that I stress repeatedly. I have a handout that outlines guidelines for ethical wild harvesting that the Traditional Herbalist students probably receive a half dozen times in various classes over the course of their program. I am going to provide those guidelines here (see below). For those who are interested, I am also making this handout available as a PDF file on the Herbal Resources page of our website.

Link to PDF file.

Guidelines for Ethical Wild Harvesting

  • Only wild harvest a species of herb that is common in the region that you are harvesting, and is common in general (i.e. don’t pick an herb that is common in a specific region if there are only a few regions where it is common).
  • Only wild harvest a species of herb that is plentiful in the immediate area that you are harvesting it.
  • Only wild harvest individual herbs that are healthy and from a strong, healthy, local population.
  • Never wild harvest more than 10% of the plants of a particular species in any specific area if you are harvesting roots or rhizomes, or from 20% of the population of the species if harvesting the aerial parts, as long as in the latter case you are harvesting them early enough for them to produce more flowers and reproduce.
  • Never wild harvest any species of herb from any specific area if there is evidence that someone else has been harvesting the same species in the same area.
  • Whenever possible, always wild harvest individual herbs at a time and in a way that allows the particular plants that you are harvesting to reproduce (i.e. early enough in the season that they can produce more flowers and there is time for their seeds to mature if you are harvesting the aerial parts, and late enough in the season that they have finished producing their seeds if harvesting roots or rhizomes).
  • Always locate at least three different areas from which you can obtain each species of herb that you need to wild harvest in accordance with the above guidelines so that you never wild harvest any particular species from any specific area more than once every three years.
  • Never harvest any more than you need. 100-250 ml (4-8 ounces) is enough per year for personal use. You might possibly need 500 ml (16 ounces) of a very few herbs that you use a lot. Double these amounts if you are harvesting for a family rather than a single individual.
  • Herbs should not be wild harvested in urban areas. They should be harvested in healthy wilderness areas of a significant size that are free of any obvious sources of pollution. Don’t harvest herbs near major roads or near areas of intense agricultural activity. The herbs should be growing at least 50 m from any minor roads (100 m if they are dirt or gravel roads) and 200 m from any small scale farming unless it is an organic farm. If a species of herb that you are harvesting is growing in or along the edge of water, there should not be any major sources of urban, industrial or agricultural pollution upstream or adjacent to any body of water where the herbs are being harvested.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing your insights! Most of what I have learned so far is about the medicinal value of plants. Seeing plants as living, healing beings is new to me and it makes perfect sense. You have introduced me to a whole new way of thinking for which I'm very grateful.

  2. Hi Michael.
    I recently found your blog. It's amazing. I have some questions. 
    You wrote on the pictures Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) is one of the first medicines that "called" me. how was it? Did you feel some kind of energy or it was some images in your mind? How do you get response from them? That's really interesting.

    Thank you

    1. That was way back in the mid 80s when I first started to work with plants directly in their natural environment. Much of herbal education at the time was somewhat unidimensional. A lot of book knowledge and most herbalists' engagement with the medicines was purchasing dried herbs or tinctures made from dried herbs to make formulations. The herbs we were taught about were an eclectic group of plants from all over the world. My interest was in learning about the medicines in the area where I live. Unless you could find an older experienced herbalist to apprentice with who worked with the local flora (who were very rare in most areas), you weren't going to get any field work and certainly no engagement with plants on deeper levels. I used to go out with a backpack full of field guides and try to identify every plant that I could. Sometimes I could spend a whole day and not move very far! I would identify as many plants as possible and then go home and learn what I could about their medicinal properties by looking them up in the dozens of reference books that I had. It was a slow process, but by learning about and working with the local medicines I was eventually able to replace the majority of exotic herbs that I learned about with local medicines. I had a strong calling to work with the plants on a deeper level and spent a lot of time in nature just being with them. When blue cohosh "called" me it was at the beginning of this process. I already had a familiarity with the medicinal properties of the plant, although I had never seen it or used it. So, you could say I already had some kind of relationship with blue cohosh and a very deep relationship with the land where it lives. In this instance the communication was pretty simple. One day when I was walking in the woods in April I came across this very unusual looking plant sprouting out of the ground. Just like the one in the photo, it was already starting to flower even though it's leaves hadn't begun to unfold. While I was looking at it "blue cohosh" popped into my head. I had no reason to think that as I had never seen the plant nor even a picture of it, but because it was flowering I was able to identify it easily and sure enough it was blue cohosh. This happened with a number of plants when I first started learning about them in the field. Sometimes I would have to return weeks or months later to verify it because they weren't in flower the first time I saw them. My plant identification experience was pretty rudimentary at the time so I still needed the herbs to be in flower to make a clear identification. It is possible to obtain much deeper information in this way, but it takes a lot of commitment—both to developing a deep relationship with the plants and nature, and to learning how to silence our mind as the mind by nature will tend to muck up this process. I hope that helps.