Saturday, June 25, 2016

Wildcrafting Basics: How to Reap the Healing Bounty of Mother Nature

So, you want to start using the abundant medicines of Mother Nature? To herbalists, the practice of harvesting wild plants and fungi is called wildcrafting. This can be a long trek through deep woods or a quick step into your own backyard. It counts as wildcrafting as long as the plants sprung up independently--in other words, they weren't grown by people.

Wildcrafting is a great way to get your herbal medicine for a few different reasons. For one, the plants are very fresh and rather inexpensive (by which I mean free). Wildcrafting is also a way to get in tune with the wild world and appreciate the bounty that grows all around us. It’s a practice that brings us back to our roots, literally and figuratively. Long before our ancestors farmed, they were hunters and gatherers, counting on what they brought home in their baskets to keep them alive. Even now, we too can return to nature and rediscover the life-giving plants that our ancestors used. 


Yarrow Leaf
The single most important aspect of wildcrafting is learning how to properly identify the plants--it can mean the difference between medicine and poison. Get yourself a good field guide for your area and start with what’s in bloom--flowers are by far the easiest way to identify plants. Even better, take a class with an herbalist, or find a trusted person who knows the local flora and go on a plant walk together. 

Before harvesting a plant, do some research to find out if it has any poisonous look-alikes. Queen Anne’s Lace is a notable example here, as its look-alike Poison Hemlock can be fatal when ingested. The two plants have several notable differences; for example, Hemlock has purple blotches on a smooth stem, and Queen Anne's Lace has a furry, green stem. But, every year a few people perish from picking Poison Hemlock by accident. (For more information on identifying these two plants, here's a more in-depth comparison.) When in doubt, don’t take any chances—especially with mushrooms. (Our fungal friends can provide delicious food, powerful visions, and deep healing...but they can also melt your insides. Identification is tricky at best, so be certain that you're certain.) Better safe than sorry!


When taking plants from nature, respect is crucial. Humanity in general must learn to revere rather than pillage our planet, and although herbalists are usually nature-lovers, the same is true when it comes to medicinal plants. Some herbs have become endangered due to over-harvesting, and it is the responsibility of each of us to ensure that these plants stay on the planet for future generations. 

St. John's Wort
United Plant Savers is an organization committed to this goal, and they have compiled a list of at-risk plants (click here to check it out). If your desired herb turns out to be rare and endangered, it’s best to leave it alone in the wild. You can often find suitable alternatives, as many different plants can be used to treat the same condition. But, if your favorite at-risk plant is simply irreplaceable in your eyes, believe me--I get it. Each plant has its own unique personality and spirit, and sometimes only the one you want will do. 

In this case, consider buying it from a sustainably-grown source--or learn how to grow it yourself! While growing at-risk plants like Goldenseal can be a challenge, it can also be an empowering experience, in which you also foster your own growth. In this way, you enter into a deeper relationship with your beloved plant and give back to Mother Nature. But I digress--back to wildcrafting!

Permission and Gratitude 

Sarah with Grandfather Pine

In keeping with the spirit of respect, it’s nice to practice gratitude when harvesting plants. Although many herbalists view the plant kingdom as simply a body of useful materials, those who are spiritually-oriented feel that each plant possesses a consciousness and a spirit. To honor this spirit, it’s best to ask permission from the plant before harvesting. Express your intention to harvest, and wait to receive a response; it could be an answer in your mind or simply a feeling. Plants are natural givers, so it’s likely that permission will be granted. If not, there is probably a good reason for it--perhaps the plant is trying to protect you from a nearby patch of Poison Ivy, for example. I've also heard stories from herbalists who've asked permission to harvest and heard a distinct "No," only to walk a few more feet down the path and discover a much bigger, better stand of plants waiting for them. Trust the guidance of the plants, and trust your own intuitive senses to receive their guidance.

During and after your harvest, give thanks to the plant. Be especially mindful when harvesting roots, for this usually requires taking the life of a plant. Many herbalists leave ceremonial offerings in return for their bounty. A bit of tobacco or cornmeal are traditional, but you can also leave a wooden bead, a lock of hair, or even a song—the important thing is that it has meaning for you.

Picking Potent Plants

Red Clover Harvest

When you’re ready to harvest, there are several tips that will help you pick healthy plants for your medicine cabinet. 

  • For starters, be mindful of the area: Is there much pollution? Is there a chance of contamination from chemicals? Tempting though it may be, it’s best to avoid roadsides. I know it's exciting when you see gorgeous medicinals on the side of the road--they seem to call your name, saying "Pick me! I'm right here!"  But consider all of the road trash, car exhaust, oil, and herbicides that land in those zones. Do yourself a favor and find those same plants elsewhere. Similarly, if you’re picking Dandelions from someone’s lawn, be sure they don’t use chemical fertilizers. In general, the more remote your location, the more pure the plants--with the exception of chemicals used in conventional farming. Avoid the edges of fields that are sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Again, I know this can be a tempting prospect, as many medicinals grow in border zones. But trust me--you want to make healthy medicine to use and share with your family and friends.
  • This may go without saying, but choose plants that look healthy, vibrant, and lush. Pick leaves that are green, not wilted, spotted, or browned. Use common sense--if a plant looks unhealthy or diseased, leave it alone. 
  • Consider your timing, as the rhythms of Nature are a crucial aspect of plant life. It helps to understand that each herb puts its energy into different parts of the plant at different times of the year. Spring is the best time to harvest leaves, because the plants are putting all of their vital energy into their green growth. After the plant begins to flower (the timing will vary depending on the plant), the leaves will lose some of their potency, as the energy has moved into the blossoms. Roots are best harvested in the fall, after the top portion has died back and the plant has pulled its essence underground. This may mean deferring gratification—perhaps you spot a bunch of Burdock in mid-summer, but wait until fall to harvest the roots. In today's society of instant-gratification, a little patience is a welcome lesson from our green friends.

With these tips in mind, you’re well on your way to a happy and healthy wildcrafting session. If you keep your eyes and heart open, you can discover the joy of providing yourself and your loved ones with healthy medicines straight from the wild heart of Mother Earth.


  1. Hi Sarah, just found your blog and am soaking up all the amazing information and guidance!
    Just a quick question about permission while "wildcrafting". What are your thoughts about asking permission from or honoring the Native population in an area before harvesting?

    1. Hi there, and thanks for reaching out! Absolutely, I think that is a beautiful idea. Some plants (like White Sage for example) are being overharvested in the wild, so that Native people don’t have enough for ceremonial purposes. So with plants like that, I only use cultivated sources. I think it’s especially important to be respectful there considering that we (speaking as a non-Native American here) got the concept of smudging from them. That’s an example of an over-harvested plant, but with other plants you might be questioning yourself about, I would say follow your inner guidance about what is ethical and what feels right to you about honoring the land and its original peoples. It sounds like you’re already really mindful about these issues. :)