Guidelines for Ethical and Sustainable Wildcrafting

By Susan Teitelman, Herbalist and Certified Holistic Nutritionist

Spring is here and for herbalists this means we are itching to start wildcrafting! In the herbal world when we refer to the term “wildcrafting” we mean gathering (typically medicinal or edible) plants from wild areas. Wildcrafting can bring a sense of joy, self-sufficiency, and a deeper connection to the earth. However, if not done properly or with care, plant populations can become decimated and habitats can become depleted. We saw this happen with the plants Goldenseal, American Ginseng, and many others; we should ensure that we don’t repeat those mistakes.

As stewards of the earth, we should aim to leave our natural areas a little nicer than we found them, giving back to the land which benefits us. Collecting plants should be a conscientious and intentional practice. With that in mind, we’re offering up a few guidelines on how to gather plants in a sustainable way, with an eye to the integrity of land, animals, and fellow humans.

1. Need not greed! Never take more than you need. Only gather what you intend to use. If you do end up with more than you can use, share the fresh herb or the finished product with those who need it.

2. Do not over harvest. Gather from areas of abundance and health. When wildcrafting, make sure there is plenty of the plant you intend to wildcraft in one area so the population will not become depleted, and leave enough for the area to regenerate. If plants look sick, leave them alone. Be conscious of whether the plant is an annual or perennial. Don’t dig up the whole plant unless you absolutely must.

3. Avoid threatened or endangered plants. Know the threatened plants in your area before you harvest, and avoid contributing to the endangerment of plants and habitat. You can stay informed by consulting United Plant Savers’ Species-At-Risk list.

4. Proper plant identification. Take a botany class, use your identification books, or go with a biologist or individual who knows their plants in your area. Do not gather until you have a positive identification!*

Here at Meadowsweet we carry several books related to plant collection and ID, including Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West (Tilford) Wild Berries of the West (Derig & Fuller) and books by renowned late herbalist Michael Moore. Soon we will carry the new book Wild Remedies by Rosalee de la Forêt and Emily Han, teaches “how to identify and ethically gather local plants, whether you live in an urban, suburban, or rural environment.”

5. Know the land you are on. Is this public land, private property, tribal land? Are you gathering a large amount for commercial purposes and need a permit? If you need permission, get permission! If you require permission and you’re unable to obtain it, find an alternative area to do wildcrafting. Or, accept the fact that you just may not be able to harvest that plant. Do not harvest on tribal land without direct tribal permission. 

6. Avoid contaminated or polluted areas and assess for toxic materials. Steer away from areas where there may be mining tailings, car exhaust, industrial use, or anything that can pollute the ground and water. There are also many medicinal plants that are considered weeds and sprayed by local authorities. Make sure the area you are harvesting hasn’t been sprayed, or harvest far from the sprayed path. The baseline rule of harvest is at least 10 feet off of a hiking trail, 20 feet or more off of a road or train tracks.

7. Ask the plant’s permission before harvesting. Sit quietly with your intention to harvest and pay attention to the feeling you receive. If it feels wrong, move on and find a population that is more welcoming.

8. Be smart and efficient with the use of proper tools. Bring gloves, and wear proper footwear and clothing! Harvest in a manner that is appropriate for that plant: for example, if you only need the flowers, use cutting shears and don’t uproot the whole plant. Avoid dangerous areas (like steep areas or cliffs)!

9. Leave the area nicer than you found it! Tread lightly, fill in holes, gather seeds in the fall and re-seed areas if possible. Weed out the non-medicinal invasive species that take over habitats.

10. Finally, share information and don’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes herbalists or other wildcrafters are secretive or territorial about their favorite spots. This is sometimes for good reason. Some people’s livelihood depends on this. For others, it is because they do not want to eradicate plants in a particular area. There are many considerations to take into account when it comes to ethical plant collection. Some areas are more appropriate for wild collection than others. If you are a novice wildcrafter or new to an area, don’t be shy about asking a seasoned plant expert any questions you may have.

Here in Missoula, we have many wonderful herbal education resources. Green Path Herb School offers many different courses. Justene Sweet of Wild Iris Herbs teaches classes on local medicinal plants. The University of Montana’s Ethnobotany Garden provides information on plants that are significant to Montana tribes. The Montana Native Plant Society educates the public about plants native to our state. You are also most welcome to visit us at Meadowsweet to find out about more herbal education opportunities!

There is room for growth for plant neophytes as well as seasoned wildcrafters. You may consider further exploring botany, ethnobotany / indigenous plant usage, ecosystem restoration, plant constituents, plant energetics, and much more. By deepening our knowledge of medicinal plants, we become more connected to the bigger ecological picture and reaffirm our commitment to caring for Mother Earth.

*Some plants are poisonous or toxic and must be avoided. Familiarize yourself with the plants in your area, learn from a local/regional plant expert, and do not harvest plants unless you have a 100% positive ID.