The Art of Wild Harvesting

Individually, many of us have little ongoing direct experience with plant life. However, big business is quickly recognizing the huge profit potential in selling herbal medicine. At the very least we may say that herbal medicine is re-emerging as people discover its many positive qualities.

Traditional cultures developed a high regard for the healing properties of plants and were intimately familiar with the varieties of their immediate environment. Today we are witnessing a renaissance of interest in the restorative and healing potentials of plants, yet the cultural context is vastly different from centuries ago.

In The Herb Book John Lust states “in all of us there still survives an intuitive preference for the natural healing powers of Nature’s life line, the great continuum of life that both contains and sustains us.” The life line he refers to is the plant kingdom and the immense body of knowledge passed down through millennia on the healing properties of plants the world over.

Potential problems deriving from this are exploitation of plants, misinformation concerning identification and usage and sometimes outright fraud. For example, given the lure of the profit motive, it is easy to imagine the near extinction of certain herbs due to over harvesting, already the case with wild American ginseng.

If we buy herbal medicines, it is necessary to know which companies are reputable concerning dosages, organic ingredients, methods of collection, processing and final production.

Take What We Need

If we choose to gather our own herbs, it benefits us and the plant kingdom to do more than simply learn how to recognize a particular plant. Wild harvesting of plants for food, medicine, crafts, building materials or profit can be a deeply satisfying experience, especially if we proceed with the proper knowledge. Native peoples had a seven generation philosophy, meaning they ensured enough plants would be left after harvest to supply the following seven generations.

This should apply to everything we do as caretakers of the earth, especially concerning wild plants we take for our individual purposes. Seen in this light, wild harvesting takes on a new perspective and doesn’t lend itself readily to exploitation.

Fortunately many plants adapt readily to growing in pots or gardens such as echinacea, mullein, coltsfoot and milk thistle. Others seem to be in no current danger of extinction, such as the ubiquitous dandelion, rose hips, plantain, nettles and yarrow. However there are now 114 plant species listed at risk in Canada and more in the USA. These lists are available from government agencies, libraries or on the Internet.

Much of the threat to plant life arises from loss of habitat with over harvesting playing an ever increasing role.

Currently studies are under way to determine the impact of I profit harvesting on wild echinacea and St. John’s wort, two high profile herbs in the healing market.

In August 1999, during the meeting of the International Botanical Congress in St Louis, Missouri, it was reported – that “humanity’s impact on the earth has increased extinction rates to levels rivaling the five mass extinctions of past geologic history…” The congress predicted “that between one third and two thirds of all plant and animal species, mostly in the tropics, will be lost during the second half of the next century.”

Smart Harvesting

As individuals what can we do in the face of these possibilities? First, keeping these statistics in mind as we harvest wild plants provides a special appreciation for the plant life we still have around us. I personally believe many of the plants we need for our health and healing are usually avail-A able in our general locality.

Become familiar with the plants you are seeking, learn their habitats, life cycles, and uses as food or medicine. Also check to see if they are plentiful or scarce, endangered everywhere or only locally.

Be able to positively identify a plant and know if they are polluted by being near roads, exposed to pesticides or chemical runoffs. How much picking can the plants stand without being threatened, and what can you do to improve their habitat? How will you treat the plant after harvesting to prepare it for its intended use? Is this the best place to harvest or are there larger areas? Can the plant be grown in a garden or pot?

Along rivers, beside lakes and streams, in abandoned fields, and in forests are good places to start to explore. Talking with local naturalists, herbologists and agricultural people, including farmers and university botanists, will often supply good information and helpful suggestions. They are also aware of conservation issues and sustainable practices. Be aware of trespassing and get permission when you need it.

As herbs become even bigger business and population increases, the pressure on wild plants will only grow. Along with practicing the art of wild harvesting we can support organizations such as plant and seed savers, and those dedicated to conservation.

It’s my hope that wild harvesting will provide you with days and years of enjoyment, appreciation of nature and ultimately good health.

For conservation information on wild plants contact Environment Canada’s The Green Lane. Steve Parsons is a writer website at

For a all of species at risk in Canada see or contact The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada

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