Wildcrafting herbs has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. I love being able to provide my family with natural remedies, even foods, by foraging through the woods, finding and harvesting what the forest has grown to perfection. If you’ve never tried it, I encourage you to learn a little and reap the benefits. But before you don your hiking boots and head for the hills, there are a few important things to know.
First, get familiar with a handful of plants that grow in your area. Purchase a good guidebook such as the A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs and become familiar with some local species. Take some trips to the forest before you ever harvest a leaf, just to familiarize yourself with what’s growing there. Become confident you know what you’re looking at (just a couple of herbs to start with is best). Don’t get overwhelmed and feel you have to know the entire forest floor! Two or three herbs known very well is much more beneficial and safe than having only a general knowledge of dozens.
Understand which herbs are safe to harvest. United Plant Savers provides an “At-Risk” list that is good to keep onhand. Print it out and stash it in your guidebook if you’re afraid you’ll forget which plants are protected species and should not be touched.
Make sure before you head out that you have what you’ll need. A guidebook, a small trowel, a folding knife, an over-the-shoulder bag or backpack for carrying your items (preferably lightweight and something that’s okay to get dirty), natural bug repellant, and of course proper clothing for the weather. I also suggest long pants as opposed to shorts. You’ll most likely be off the beaten path where prickers and itchy things grow. Which reminds me – please be familiar with what poison ivy, poison oak, and other poisonous plants look like before heading out!
Once you’ve positively identified an herb you want to harvest, it’s very important to take only what you need. If you’re going to dry leaves for tea, for instance, don’t dig up the whole plant. Take some healthy looking leaves from several different plants of that species. I try and move from plant to plant, gathering a few healthy violet leaves, for example, from several different plants so I don’t strip one down. Never take all of a plant in any area. If there’s only a few there, leave them and find the same plant somewhere else. You never know when you’re looking at the last one in an area!
Overall, my best bit of advice is to educate yourself as much as possible, starting with just a few safe and common plants such as violets, dandelion, or plantain. Spend time in some great herb books such as Matthew Woods’ Earthwise Herbal books, or James Green’s The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook. While it may seem overwhelming at first, remember that herbalism is medicine for everyone! Our grandmother, their grandmothers, and every generation before them relied on their local plant life to bring health and comfort to their families. With a little effort, you can enjoy the same natural health benefits and the beautiful wonder of wildcrafting as your ancestors did!