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Notes on Ethical Wildcrafting

Posted by Gillian Smith on
Notes on Ethical Wildcrafting

What does Ethical Wildcrafting or Ethically Wildcrafted mean to me?

Wildcrafting simply means harvesting from the wild.  The vast majority of the herbs used in my products are organically grown in my own organic gardens. They are located on our family farm, in the Interior region of  British Columbia, Canada. Of necessity, I do purchase some items from organic gardens and sources beyond our community. Beyond these cultivated sources, I practice wildcrafting, and I adopt a strict ethical standard.

I gratefully collect some key ingredients from the wild herbal gardens around  us, in the Southern Chilcotin Mountains. I acknowledge and give thanks to the St'at'imc people, for whom the Chilcotins form a part of their traditional and unceded territory. 

Ethical and ecological wildcrafting is the standard that dictates how I practice harvesting from wild herbal gardens. It is also a way of life I promote and teach. It means the harvest of wild plants without harming or disrupting the natural ecology that supports them.

In short, this means, having gratitude towards, giving acknowledgement to, and, where appropriate, seeking the permission of the First Nations. What non-indigenous people consider "wild" land is always, first and foremost, their ancestral home. As wildcrafters, we must always try to act like respectful guests. We should never behave like entitled trespassers.

Ethical wildcrafting also means no over harvesting, no waste or littering, and no harvesting near polluted soil, water or air. 

Wildcrafting can be done irresponsibly and to the detriment of the plant’s survival. Wild Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), for example, in its heyday, was so over-harvested by herbalists and greedy herb harvesting companies, it is now hard to find in its natural setting and is officially considered endangered.  

Echinacea populations also suffered the same, compounded by loss of habitat as well.  

Harvesting from the wild involves taking responsibility for everything you take, and how you take it.  

What if, for example, you find a nice patch of Arnica montana and you want some for medicine making?  Begin by assessing its environment. How big is the patch?  Is there enough to “share”, with the birds, other animals, insects, and so on?  Can we harvest some and leave a healthy population behind for the remaining plants to grow out their whole life cycle, from flower to seed to dormancy?  Is the environment too sensitive (too steep, too wet, etc) for humans to walk through without making a huge impact?  Is it anywhere near a source of pollution – roads, power lines, train tracks, conventional farms, etc? 

Is the plant endangered? You should have a list of threatened or endangered plants for your province or state, or bioregion at your disposal. Is this plant on the list? 

Does your need justify the harvest, or is there another plant that can be used just as effectively?

To cite one important case, goldenseal should not be harvested from the wild. No exceptions. Its just as bad to purchase wild Goldenseal. Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium or nervosa) can be used instead, and it can be easily harvested without devastating the population.  

Growing certain herbs yourself, or buying from reputable growers, is another fabulous way to take the pressure off wild populations. I grow my own Valerian for example, even though wild Valeriana officinalis grows quite well in the mountains here. 

Other questions to ask yourself before harvesting include whether the plant is a perennial or annual.  Will harvesting the parts needed kill the plant or can it grow on? You have to consider this question since the answer will dictate the limit of safe harvesting, and the best harvesting method.

An annual needs a certain amount of the population to go to seed for it to come back the next year.  A perennial may not die if you leave a certain amount or part of the plant intact, but that does not mean that there are no risks here. Picking Yarrow (Achillia millefolium) flowers won’t kill the plant, since it is a perennial which means it will come back the following year if you cut only the flowers and some leaves.  However, if you take the root, you’re taking it all. 

I like to harvest a little from each patch and leave a large portion behind, for wildlife purposes (food source), ecological purposes (pollination source, plant interdependence), and environmental purposes, such as erosion control.  I aim to leave no trace of my presence. Failing that, I make sure that my footprint is minimal. If I am working in one of my favourite Arnica patches, I know that I am going to tread the same ground over and over again. For that reason, I always stick to the same trail to get to it, and to come home again.  

Ask yourself, is it possible to collect from a wild garden such that it will look almost exactly the same when you are done? “Clear-cutting” is the notorious ly obnoxious assault on our old growth forests, but the same term can be applied to unethical wildcrafting. No clear-cutting our wild herb plants please!  Be conservative.  Leaving behind a large number of plants also ensures enough medicine for yourself and others in the future.

Only gather what you can use as well.  Make sure nothing goes to waste.  When I harvest Oregon Grape root for example, I use the leaves and stems to make an oil infusion following Michael Moore’s “method A” (see “Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West”, Red Crane Books, 1993).

Find a local ecological restoration project and offer to weed out the invasives! I have found mutual aid partnerships whereby I harvest Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis), Alfalfa (Medicago sativa), Chickweed (Stellaria media), Chicory (Cichorium intybus), Cleavers (Galium aparine), Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and Burdock (Arcticum minus or lappa) from restoration projects and gardens that are seeking to remove noxious or non-native plants. One person's noxious  weed can become healing medicine for others!

These are just a few of the guidelines that I use when I make plans to collect herbal medicines from the wild.  Keep in mind that certain plants will require special consideration.  For more detailed information about individual plant species as well as more information on sustainable wildcrafting or “Eco-Herbalism”, please consult any book by Gregory Tilford. Tilford’s “From Earth to Herbalist: An Earth-conscious Guide to Medicinal Plants” (Mountain Press, 1998), is a gem of a book and a must-have for any herbal wildcrafter.

(photo: an all-too rare example of the wild Goldenseal plant, Hydrastis canadensis.)