261: Harvesting Plants Responsibly

I’m starting to lead more and more medicinal plant hikes here in my area, and while I love that folks are interested in native medicinal plants, I’m always worried that by giving this knowledge there will be those people who will abuse it. The people who will go out on the trail later and gather up an entire patch of a plant for personal use, or worse, to sell. This fear doesn’t stop me from doing what I do, though, because ultimately I think this sort of education is valuable. While there may be a few abusers, there are also situations where I have people who own a bunch of land and say things like, “I’ve been mowing over that for years!” and because of this new knowledge this plant becomes protected by a land owner, and the person themselves becomes a steward of the land. So, in the end I trust that the knowledge will reach those who will truly use it well. I’m also a firm believer that the plants will hide themselves from those who shouldn’t see them. I’ve experienced this many times when I’m out with people and I’ll point toward an area full of a few medicinals and I’ll say, “Can you find any ____?” and the people, even though they may have seen the plant a million times, look and look but see nothing. The spirits can protect themselves.

Whenever I take people out I always go over how to responsibly gather from the land:

1. First off I tell people that there will be absolutely no gathering of plants on the day we go out. This prevents people from picking up handfuls of things that weren’t meant to be taken. If they want to come back later, that’s up to them. Also, some of the walks I’ve given have been on private land, so out of respect for the owners I tell people to take photos, look, sniff, sometimes taste, but don’t gather.

2. Gather what you need, not what you want. The most important thing you can do for yourself is learning how to identify many of these plants so that you know how to find them when you may need them. Gathering large amounts of plants for storage means those plants aren’t there for other people to use, and in many cases, depending on how much you harvest, they may not be there in future years. A lot of wild native plants take years to germinate! I think it’s in a lot of people’s natures to gather up and store plants like this, but you have to realize that you’re not getting bulk herbs from a store, you’re gathering in the wild, which means that you will absolutely be having an impact up the biodiversity of the area. This is why I encourage people to learn their plants, then perhaps start growing natives at your own home. Resist the urge to gather plants you don’t need. Oftentimes they will spoil before you ever use them! Which is why I encourage people to gather as you need.

3. Don’t gather too much! I never really lead any deep woods hikes, so the likelihood of stumbling upon truly rare plants isn’t very high, but there are many trails where you will see protected or semi-rare plant species like goldenseal, bloodroot, black cohosh, or Ozark witchhazel. While these plants aren’t listed as endangered they are still not what I would call commonplace, meaning taking a few plants, can have a huge impact upon the biodiversity of the area. In the case of plants like goldenseal, bloodroot, and black cohosh you are taking the root, which means killing the entire plant. The rule I tell people to follow is tocount three individual plants then harvest the fourth. This means that if you see one or two plants you won’t be killing an entire patch, you’ll count one, two, then move on because there isn’t enough there to harvest. Judging on how big the patch is (things like wild bergamot and purple coneflower often appear in large patches) you may be able to repeat this process a few times, but with areas that aren’t very big count one, two, three, harvest the fourth then move on!

4. Know your plants! Look at as many photos of the plants as you can, and if you’re able go out to the woods and find them, preferably with a native plants expert who can make sure you’re looking at the right plant. Don’t just say, “That looks right.” then start using the plant medicinally. There are many plants out there that look the same until they flower or fruit, e.g. Solomon’s Seal and False Solomon’s Seal. Know your stuff before ever using any plant. Know if it has any contraindications (which can be found online usually) or possible side effects (like being an emetic or purgative, there are lots of those in the Ozarks). Also, look up modern information about plants. As a folk doctor I’m telling you don’t trust old folk information. Bloodroot was used a lot in the old days and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone today. The internet is a wonderful tool, use it!

In a nutshell…until you know what you’re doing enjoy with your eyes, not with your hands.

Those are the basics, but there are also rules that I personally follow, and encourage other people to follow as well. Things like, always leaving a gift for the plant you harvested. Personally I use tobacco, but this could also be some water (I’ve also known people who leave their own blood) or a simple “thank you”. For me plants are powerful spirits with needs and wants, personalities, desires, so working with plants means you’re working with spirits. These spirits are powerful healers, so if you’re going to use their gifts, leave them a gift in return. Not a big price to pay for healing.

I realize that not everyone has the same relationship with plants as I do, but I still encourage people to only use those plants they know and have a deep connection to. For me this manifests as singing. I have been given songs to sing for each specific plant when I’m gathering and for when I’m making the medicine. I once tried explaining this to someone who was definitely a non-believer when it comes to plant spirits, and so I encouraged them to instead think about it in a different way, maybe that they should use the plant medicine themselves. Go a week drinking infusions or decoctions of each individual plant and see how you feel. Truly know the plant before you give it to someone. I’m always baffled by the number of herbalists who would prescribe plants that they themselves have never used. Even if you don’t think about it in a spiritual way, it’s only responsible to take the medicine yourself before handing it out.

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