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Collecting Wild Herbs


The first and most important rule about herb collection is: when in doubt, do not pick it. Unless you know that an herb is abundant, not just in North America but in your local area, leave it where it is.

Ethical Considerations

The first and most important rule about herb collection is: when in doubt, do not pick it. Unless you know that an herb is abundant, not just in North America but in your local area, leave it where it is. If we want to partake in the gifts of nature and enjoy her healing powers, we also have to respect nature and be caretakers.

In Canada, no official standards for the collection of wild resources have been established. Even where there are governmental lists of endangered species, these are often so backlogged that species have actually become extinct before finding their way onto the list. In lieu of official standards, there are self-regulatory resolutions and rules set by wildcrafters themselves. Wildcrafters are people who go into the wilderness to collect plant materials such as herbs, mushrooms, roots, bark, cones and berries.

In 1989 alone, wildcrafting industries in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia earned a combined $128.5 million and employed 4,500 harvesters and 4,900 processors. Five items alone had a harvested value of over $35 million: salal and salal tips ($13 million); beargrass ($11.5 million); noble fir ($6.7 million); and baby's breath ($5 million). The temptation to harvest ruthlessly is growing.

Wildcrafting associations on both sides of the border have been working on formulating and following self-imposed standards of ethical plant collection. As with the forestry and fisheries industries, wildcrafters aside from a generally more reverent attitude toward nature-have a great interest in sustaining wild herbs and other products as a renewable resource. The results of greedy exploitation have already been sadly demonstrated by the depletion of fish stocks and clear-cut forests. Pockets of wild areas are beginning to preclude any type of collection because of massive and irresponsible harvesting of herbs that were once found in abundance.

Wildcrafters' Rules

A herb garden is the most environmentally sound solution for the herbalist, but if you want to collect your own, there are several things to consider.

First, familiarize yourself with the herbs growing in your area and make sure you can generally distinguish the very common ones from those that are rare. Local field guides, botanical gardens or the botany department of a local university can supply you with this basic knowledge. The Internet may also be able to provide some answers.

Knowing your local plant life will serve as your general guide, but nothing in nature is absolute. A plant that is abundant further south could be much rarer in your region. Wildcrafters watch for signs of foraging wildlife because harvesting should be much more restrained in areas where wild animals feed from stands of wild herbs. Watch for local insects that might be dependent on a certain stand of plants. The insects may not just be important for local pollination, but may also support a nearby nest of birds. Even a big stand of herbs may be very vulnerable. A stand of plants with rhizomes, for example, may look large, but may have developed from just one or two original rhizomes. If a harvester damages the parent rhizome, the whole stand of plants may disappear by the next season.

Second, if you plan to collect plants year after year, it is important to bring a notebook and fill in precise records. Records should include the date of harvest, a description of the stand of plants and a description of the area where the plant was found. The presence of deer droppings, of insects and of birds and their nests in the area should also be noted. Record how much was taken and how much was left. Detailed records will help monitor your impact on the site and make sure that the plants are returning unharmed to the area in consecutive years.

Third, certain reasonable rules of harvesting have to be followed, no matter how big a given stand of wild herbs seems to be. Wildcrafters have established the general rule of "take three, leave seven," but this rule should be observed with the caveats mentioned above, and the harvest should be diminished or omitted altogether if the stand seems vulnerable in any way. Another rule established by wildcrafters is reseeding the area, that is, at the right time actually digging up the soil and properly planting the seeds of herbs that were harvested. If plants are taken before seeds are ready to plant, it may be necessary to return later to do some reseeding.

The most problematic harvest is that of plant roots because when the root is taken, the plant itself is gone and has no more chance of propagation. Wildcrafters routinely put the seeds of the plant into the hole from which the roots were taken, thus providing some chance of regeneration. In such cases, a well-kept notebook is especially important to check in future years if reseeding has been successful or if it merely served to appease the harvester's conscience. As far as roots go, responsible wildcrafters usually do not take more than one root from even large stands of plants. Any harvesting should be done around the edges of a stand to avoid trampling plants or unnecessarily compacting the ground while harvesting.

Harvesting Wild Medicinal Herbs

When harvesting wild plants, there are other things to consider aside from the possible rarity of the species. Plants should not be taken if there is pollution from nearby traffic or possible contamination from spraying by farmers, government agencies or private owners. Signs of other wildcrafters having harvested from a certain area should also be of concern.

The following is a list of wild plants which are so abundant that they can be harvested in good conscience. Together, these plants alone may be all you will ever need in a home herbal pharmacy. Treatments cover everything from digestive disorders and skin irritations to depression.

Ten Very Common Wild Medicinal Herbs

Burdock (Arctium lappa)

Habitat:Burdock likes to grow in disturbed areas such as woodland clearings, roadsides, ditches and landslides. It generally likes sunny locations, heavy soil and moisture, but can adapt to many different environments.
Characteristics: As the name tells us, burdock carries burrs. The burrs, which cling tenaciously to one's clothes, are actually the lower part of the purple burdock flower. It is important not to confuse burdock with cockleburr (Xanthium strumarium). In cockleburr, the burrs grow alongside the stem while in burdock, they grow on the tips of the stems.
Parts Used: Roots (sometimes the seeds) are used in tinctures. Roots can be eaten as vegetables.
Harvesting: Be prepared to get covered in burrs. Make sure to remove the burrs from your clothes so as not to introduce them into pristine areas. Roots are usable at any time of year. Fall is best to find developed first-year plants. Young plants are preferable because mature plants can have incredibly long and tenacious tap roots.
Medicinal Use: Burdock is a diuretic; choleretic (stimulates bile); and diaphoretic (causes perspiration). Roots can be used fresh. If roots are dried, they should be cut lengthwise and then crosswise into small pieces. They should be dried with a heat source (for example, in the sun) and with plenty of ventilation.
Tincture from fresh roots: 1:2 ratio (1 part plant material to 2 parts alcohol), 50% alcohol.
Tincture from dry root: 1:5, 50% alcohol.
Seed tincture: 1:5, 50% alcohol.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Habitat: Like burdock, chickweed is a weed in disturbed areas, especially in cultivated soil. It is very common everywhere, but is especially prolific at roadsides, around dwellings, in lawns and moist meadows. It likes moisture, semi-shaded conditions and rich loamy ground. The plant crawls continuously along the ground, putting down roots, flowering and producing seeds. For this reason, it can be harvested almost year-round. Chickweed can be grown in decorative planters in the herb garden (seeds are available from nurseries). Chickweed will not take over the garden because it does not compete with other plants; it can simply be controlled by harvesting.
Characteristics: Chick-weed looks pretty with its tiny white flowers, spring-green, tender stems and tiny leaves. In mild climates, chickweed flowers all year, from January to December.
Parts Used: The whole flowering plant. The plant is delicious as a salad or a spinach-type dish. It can be used in tinctures and salves.
Harvesting: Almost any month of the year while plants flower. Carry herbs home in airy containers (such as a basket). Chickweed found in wet areas can carry micro-organisms, so wash well before using.
Medicinal Use: Some herbalists consider chickweed a cure-all, having found almost twenty uses for it. The plant is rich in saponins and works as an effective demulcent (a soothing, mucilagenous ointment).
Tincture from fresh herbs: 1:2 ratio with 95% alcohol.
Oil: Tightly fill a jar with the cut-up and wilted herb. Completely cover with oil. Tightly seal the jar and let steep in a warm place (out of the sun) for about a month.
Tincture and oil are used externally for itching and swelling. Fresh herbs are used internally as a diuretic and for a variety of ailments mentioned in your herbals.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Habitat: Very common everywhere, especially at low altitudes.
Parts Used: Whole plant before flowering. Can be used in extracts, tinctures and infusions. The fresh leaves can be used in a salad. They contain 7,000 units of vitamin A per ounce in addition to vitamins B and C. (In comparison, carrots contain 1,275 units of Vitamin A per ounce.) The tea is made from the whole plant, including the root, dried and finely chopped.
Harvesting: If the plant is to be used as a herb, the whole plant, including the root, is harvested before the flowering season. Plants are best taken after a rainy spell when the ground is soft and the stubborn tap root is easier to take out. Since dandelion is such a useful herb, you might consider buying a dandelion digger. Leaves for salads also taste best and least bitter when the plants are young and there are no flowers. However, leaves for salads can be picked and eaten at any other time. Optimal collecting time for the herb is March to May for leaves, and April as well as September to October for roots. Since dandelions are considered a noxious weed, do not gather them from roadsides or near cultivated fields to avoid possible herbicide contamination.
Medicinal Use: Like chickweed, dandelion is considered a universal herb by some healers. It is considered especially useful for liver ailments, and for treating gallstones, jaundice and early symptoms of cirrhosis. It is also used for rheumatism, as a stomach bitter and as a deputerative (blood purifier). Dandelion is an ideal diuretic because it contains enough potassium to replace what is lost during the diuretic process.

Roots are cut into small pieces and dried on a screen or linen cloth with the aid of a heat source, (e.g., the sun). Leaves are dried away from the sun, cut up and added to chopped roots for an effective tea mixture.
Fresh root tincture: 1:2 ratio, with 45% alcohol.
Dried root tincture: 1:5 ratio, with 45% alcohol.

German research has discovered several new bitters in dandelion which have never been identified in any other plant. (These bitters were called taraxacin in older literature.) The plant also contains flavonoids, mucilages and high potassium, but none of the lactupicrine described in earlier herbals.

Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)

Habitat: There are more than 100 species of this herb all over the continent and in other parts of the world. Two North American species are medicinally valuable: Solidago canadensis (Canadian goldenrod) and Solidago gigantea (early goldenrod). Other species have not yet been scientifically confirmed. These North American species occur in low woodlands, especially along rivers. The Canadian goldenrod also occurs in disturbed habitats such as waste places and around cut wood areas. These plants, although native wild flowers of North America, are now cultivated as garden plants in Europe.
Characteristics: The Canadian Agricultural Department describes the Canadian goldenrod as a weed which is not competitive and not very invasive. Both the Canadian and early goldenrod have strong upright stems with deep vertical grooves. Numerous tiny bright yellow flower heads are arranged in a feathery shape (terminal panicled racime). Leaves are green on top and grey-green underneath. The flowering plant has a nice aroma and a pleasant taste. The early goldenrod grows quite tall, to about five feet. The plants bloom in summer and fall.
Parts Used: The whole plant, including the stem, dried and chopped into small pieces. Active ingredients are flavonoids, saponin, essential oils and more.
Harvesting: Plants are best harvested during full bloom (August to September) by clipping off the top six to twelve inches (4-8 cm). Follow the rules of careful harvesting, even if plants seem plentiful.
Medicinal Use: The European variety (Solidago virgaurea) has been documented since the Middle Ages as a bladder and kidney treatment. This is similar to the use now scientifically confirmed for the two recognized North American species.

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)

Habitat: Horehound is a common sight in disturbed areas such as roadsides, vacant lots, dry, sandy or gravelly fields, and waste grounds.
Characteristics: Horehound is a member of the mint family, but has the taste and properties of bitters. The whole plant is about one to two feet tall and is covered with white, downy hair from which it gained its name (originally hoarhound). Stems are upright with opposite hairy leaves. A ring of tiny white blossoms exists above each set of leaves in the upper sections of the plant. Each tiny blossom has two lips.
Parts Used: Whole plant, dried and cut into fine pieces, or juiced fresh.
Harvesting: Clip the whole plant during flowering season (June to September). Leave plenty of flowers for reseeding. The plant transplants well and makes a good garden herb.
Medicinal Use: As a bitter and choleretic (bile stimulator) in stomach and gall-bladder complaints. Also for a lack of appetite; dyspeptic complaints (indigestion), such as bloating and flatulence; catarrh of the respiratory tract. In folk medicine it is used externally for skin lesions, sores and wounds.
Fresh plant tincture: 1:2 ratio with 50% alcohol.

Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)

Habitat: Cultivated ground, stony ground, dry places, roadsides; but also moist places and river banks.
Characteristics: The plant seems like a cross between asparagus and bamboo. In spring there are fertile, brown, leafless stalks that look, and can be eaten, like asparagus stalks. These die down and are followed in summer by infertile green plants with thin branches arranged in whorls. These green plants are the ones used in herbal medicine. Horsetail has characteristic bamboo-like sections which can be snapped apart. The whorly branches resemble horse hair. They also give the impression of scouring brushes and were in fact used as pot scrubbers by the early pioneers. The gritty properties are due to the abundance of silicon the plant absorbs from the ground.
Parts Used: The whole plant, dried and cut into small pieces. An extra heat source for drying is recommended. Drying enhances solubility of the silicon.
Harvesting: Harvest mid-spring to summer when the horse hair-like branches are still standing upright without drooping. Older plants can still be useful, but in older plants the precious silicon is less soluble. Harvest from dense healthy stands and take care to stay at the edges so as not to damage any of the remaining stand. Do not gather from pastures, which are often treated with herbicides. Close to farmland, there may also be traces of herbicides or pesticides.
Medicinal Use: Two-thirds of the inorganic ingredients are silicic acid, of which 10% is water-soluble. There are also significant amounts of potassium salts. Other ingredients are flavonoids and minute traces of alkaloids, including nicotine. Horsetail has diuretic properties and does not wash out body chemicals but maintains the electrolyte balance. Can be taken internally for relief from post-traumatic and static edema to flush the system in bacterial and inflammatory diseases of the urinary tract and in cases of kidney gravel. Some herbalists recommend a maceration where the tea herb is steeped in cold water for 10-12 hours. A decoction to dissolve the plants medicinal substances may be preferable. Can be used externally as an aid in the treatment of poorly healing wounds. Do not use for flushing if the edema are a result of impaired heart or kidney function.

Plantain (Plantago major)

Habitat: Very common in disturbed and cultivated areas such as roadsides, waste areas and embankments. Like dandelion, plantain is also a common lawn weed. Several other species of plantain in North Americam exist, but Plantago major is the most common. Plantain does not make a good garden herb because it is extremely invasive.
Characteristics: Plantain has fibrous leaves arranged in a ground-hugging rosette. In the Plantago major, the smooth leaves are broadly ovate with distinctive parallel veins running the length of the leaves. Flower spikes are four to five inches (10-13 cm) long, upright and stiff. The color of the flower stalk is greenish-white because of the color of the tiny flowers.
Parts Used: The leaves are carefully dried, away from sunlight, and with the help of extra heat, such as a warm room, an oven, or a dehydrator. The dry plant material is chopped small and used in cold macerations and other cold extracts. The leaves can also be used fresh. For insect bites and minor burns, leaves can simply be chewed and the green paste applied to the affected area. Leaves are quite tasty when cooked like spinach. Fresh leaves can be juiced, or they can be pureed for poultices.
Harvesting: The plant can be gathered any time during green, healthy growth and flowering time, April to September. Plants are harvested by grasping them at ground level and pulling. In dry ground, the roots, which are not needed, usually stay behind.
Medicinal Use: Plantain is rich in mucilages, tannins and flavonoids, as well as zinc and potassium. Uses are similar to those of coltsfoot. Research has shown the plant to be antibacterial. Because of the rich mucilages, the plant is useful for respiratory catarrhs and inflammation of the mucous membranes. Externally, it alleviates skin inflammation. The plant is effective as a tea but loses its antibacterial powers in hot water. Cold extracts or juice retain the antibacterial effect.
Dosage and Directions: A 1/2 cup (150 ml) of hot water is poured over two teaspoons (3 g) of plantain. Steep for 10 minutes and strain. Unless otherwise prescribed, a cup of freshly prepared tea is taken several times a day.

St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Habitat: St. John's wort is often considered a troublesome weed; it tends to invade corn and wheat fields and can be found in open woodlands and in disturbed areas, such as waste grounds and roadsides. There are at least four North American species, with Hypericum perforatum the most widespread. St. John's wort is very competitive and should be planted in containers if used in an herb garden. However, seeds are tiny and easily dispersed, so unless you have a great need for this herb, you might want to keep it out of your garden.
Characteristics: St. John's wort is a perennial that reaches a height of one to two feet (thirty to sixty cm). Flowers are about three-quarter inches (2 cm) in diameter, bright yellow, five-petaled and occur in multiple clusters (inflorescences) along the top of the plant. Leaves and flower petals have translucent black dots which contain the active ingredient, hypericin. If you rub a leaf between your fingers, you will notice a red color. The perforated appearance of the dotted leaves gives the name "perforatum" to this most common species.
Parts Used: The flowering tops of the plant, including some stems and leaves.
Harvesting: Gathering time is the beginning of bloom (late June to August). Clip the upper six to twelve inches off the top of a mature plant (one with multiple branches). Wear gloves when harvesting this plant to prevent staining of hands. Hypericin can cause photosensitivity, especially in fair-skinned people, so during harvest its absorption through the skin should be kept to a minimum.
Medicinal Uses: St. John's wort is one of Germany's most prescribed herbs, available in every pharmacy. It has a calming, antidepressant and sleep-inducing effect. Active ingredients are hypericin, flavonoids, tannins, essential oils and small amounts of antibiotic substances. In recent North American studies, the herb has proven effective in the treatment of leukemia and in alleviating the symptoms of AIDS. Because of high tannin content, it has also proved helpful for diarrhea. This herb has also proven successful in relieving nervous conditions and for children who are bedwetters and/or afraid of the dark.
Tea: 2-4 g drug (tea herb), or 0.2-1.0 mg total hypericin in other preparations.
Oils and Ointments: Use chopped or powered in liquid or solid preparations for oral use. Use liquid or semi-liquid preparations for external use. Preparations with fixed oils can be used internally or externally. Chop the wilted herb as small as possible and cover with oil, adding an extra half inch (1 cm) of oil after plant material is covered. Steep in a warm place away from sunlight for at least one month. Strain through a linen cloth and store in the refrigerator.
Tincture from fresh whole plant: 1:2 ratio, 50% alcohol.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Habitat: Yarrow is common and widespread in North America. It can be found in dry meadows, on hillsides, in gardens and other cultivated land, in empty lots, at roadsides and by garbage dumps. Traditionally, yarrow was grown in every herb garden, where it thrived in a sunny location.
Characteristics: Yarrow is an erect plant, which can grow as tall as two feet (60 cm). It is a rhizomatous perennial with finely divided leaves which have gained it the name "millefolium," meaning a "thousand leaves." The flower heads are white or pinkish in a false umbel (a flat umbrella-shape). Once you can spot this plant, you will also learn to recognize it by its very characteristic odor.
Parts Used: The whole above-ground flowering plant.
Harvesting: Flowering season is May up to October in milder climates. The only part not used is the lowest hardened part of the stem. Cut yarrow about two inches (five cm) above ground. Cover bunches with paper bags open at the bottom and hang upside-down in an airy place to dry. Finely chop the whole dry plant.
Medicinal Use: This is another plant with broad application. The herb contains essential oils and bitters which are useful for the following applications: gastrointestinal and gall-bladder disturbances, lack of appetite and digestive complaints. Use in folk medicine includes the treatment of nervousness and sleep disorders. In addition, the herb is used in preparations to alleviate symptoms of menopause. In ancient Greece, the herb was used externally for wound treatment. The name Achillea comes from the legend that the centaur Chiron taught Achilles to heal battle wounds with yarrow.
Fresh herb tincture: 1:2 ratio, 50% alcohol.
Dried herb tincture: 1:5 ratio, 50% alcohol.

Other plants may be harvested in the wild, depending on circumstances: angelica (Angelica), catnip (Nepeta cataria), cow parsnip (Heracleum spondylium), fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) and mullein (Verbascum thapsiforme). These herbs are not quite as invasive or prolific as the ten selected above, but depending on the area may still grow in abundance. Use your own good judgement when harvesting, take notes, and revisit the area to find out how plants are doing over the years.



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD