Wildcrafting, another name for foraging, is gathering materials usually herbs, plants or fungi that are grown naturally instead of cultivated to use for food, medicine or arts and crafts. Wildcrafting goes back to the beginning of time and it is only recently in the human timespan that agriculture and cultivation are used over wildcrafting to produce food and medicine. Many of us are returning to the old practices of hunting/gathering to either supplement our lives or in some cases, as a total lifestyle. However, when wildcrafting is done without care or knowledge, it can cause harm to our environment as well as ourselves. Here are a few tips and ideas to make your wildcrafting experience safer and more enjoyable for you and the nature you inhabit.
If you can’t forage on your own property, either you don’t own any or it’s too small, then you will have to head out into the wilderness. I live in an area surrounded by mostly empty mountainsides, meadows, and riparian areas but many people do not have access to areas that are this untouched by humans. So, it is important to know about a few safety issues to make your experience one that you will want to repeat as well as keeping the areas you frequent healthy and abundant for future years.
Stay in common land areas away from polluted water, polluted ground or heavy air pollution. Ditches by roadside can have spilled oil, asphalt runoff, litter and garbage, herbicides and also bio-hazards like used toilet paper, etc. Also watch for agricultural runoff, both animal and plant agriculture usually use high levels of synthetic fertilizer and other contaminants that you don’t want in your foraging.
Do not wildcraft on private land without owner’s permission… you don’t want to be chased away at gunpoint. Stay away from railroad tracks which are regularly sprayed with herbicide and are also private property and dangerous to be close to.
When far out in the wild, away from human settlements, watch for wild animals that might be protecting their territory, their dens, young or recent kills. All of these situations are very dangerous to be nearby. Always carry bells, talk or sing loudly and consider carrying bear spray if you live in bear territory.
Know Your Plants
I can’t stress enough how important it is to learn the plants in your area. Get a good book and make sure it is an academic publication on plant identification that includes safety information regarding each plant. It is best to have more than one publication and cross reference them so that if you discover contradictory information, you know that you will have to do more research to be truly safe. Many plants used for medicine have different parts that are used, where some parts may be toxic, and certain ways of preparing them safely. Find out what the poisonous plants are in your area and STAY AWAY from them. Be especially aware of look-alike plants that can be easily mistaken. There are quite a few plants and fungi that are very dangerous to ingest, ranging from immediate poisoning to slow long term organ damage. You want to know what these plants are and how to definitively identify them. There are many look-alike plants that can be deadly while others are non-toxic or edible, and others that are not necessarily toxic but are still unusable. After you have done extensive research at home, and know what you are looking for, get a good field guide with colour photos to take along with you and always keep with your wildcrafting gear.
Choose a few well known and easy to identify plants to get started and create a relationship with these plants. Learn what they look like in each season, when they are healthy or struggling, and where they are abundant enough to harvest. Learn as much as you can about them, how to pick, preserve, and create with them. Establish a small base of a few plants and as your experience grows, add one or two new ones at a time to widen the scope of your preferred wild craft plants. Go slow and don’t try to cram too much information into your brain at one time. Learning plants can take a lifetime so go slow and enjoy the journey.
How Much and How
Never take more than 1/3 of any given plant but usually much less than that. A few sprigs, leaves or branches from each plant will not harm the plant and leave plenty behind for other foragers both animal and human.
Never cause permanent damage to plants or trees such as carelessly ripping out roots or pulling resin off bark, ripping some of the bark off in the process. The bark protects the tree from insects and disease. Never EVER rake the forest floor to gather mushrooms. This is a terrible practice that damages the delicate ecosystems of the fungus and the surrounding area. Plus it is just downright disrespectful.
Remember to carefully intuit the area you are crafting in. Is it a healthy environment or is it struggling? Ask the plants if it is okay to harvest in an area and be still so that you can truly hear the answer. Leave an offering of something like a splash of clean water by the bottom of the plants, and a few words of thanks. Never leave anything that is not organic or biodegradable. Never leave candle stubs, out of area plant matter, plastic or any substance that would not naturally be found in the area.
You can learn how to dry, distill, tincture, infuse, make salve, teas, and use in food for both medicine and culinary use. Be careful of allergies- I learned this the hard way. I put a little cottonwood resin on my skin because I love the scent and that resulted in an allergy reaction that lasted more than a year and left me highly sensitive to other substances. After you have gone to all the hard work of gathering and harvesting, you don’t want anything to spoil or go to waste. Learn about the different oils for infusing, alcohols for tincturing, drying methods, and storage. Always use fresh or fully dried plant material for tinctures, tea or infusing. Some plants give off a toxin when they wilt, as a defense mechanism, but that disappears when fully dry in most cases. Livestock have been poisoned by eating wilted leaves of pin cherries, etc. It is best to assume this might happen and to only use fresh or fully dried. Again, know your plants really well before gathering or using anything.
Plants- a few examples that I use.
Plantain: wide leaf (Plantago Major) or long leaf (plantago lanceolata, also called ribwort plantain)
Use fresh in salads in the spring or dry for tea in the winter. Infuse in oil for salves. Crushed and chewed, it will immediately stop an insect sting, works especially well for bee and wasp stings. It is best if the person using it is the one to chew it, as the saliva mixed with the plant material has an enzyme that neutralizes the sting on that person. However, do not expect a young child to do this, as they could choke. In that case, crush the plant between your fingers and apply to the sting area.
Dandelion (not false dandelion). Tarasacum Officianale
All parts of the dandelion are nutricious and edible but gets bitter as the season progresses.
Elderberry – blue or black. Various species of Sambucus. Do not use the red variety as it contains a high level of cyanide producing glycocides and should not be used. Of the blue and black varieties, only the flowers and berries are safe to use. All other parts of the plant are poisonous. The berries should be either tinctured in alcohol or cooked to be fully safe to ingest. The flowers are lovely in tea and the berries are good for tinctures and elixirs taken to prevent or reduce colds and flu.
Mahonia- Oregon Grape. (creeping and tall varieties). Mahonia Repens and Aquifolium
Mahonia berries make wonderful jam and jelly, very nutritious and delicious. They can also be used the same way as elderberries.
Mullien. Verbascum Thapsus (the seeds are toxic, use leaves only)
Mullien leaves are used for lung tea, very good for lingering coughs. Some people are sensitive to the tiny hairs on the leaves so use with caution.
Red and White Clover. Trifolium (use only in spring and early summer)
Clover is used mainly for teas; it can be eaten but is hard to digest so should be used with caution. It is good for coughs as it has a calming effect.
Black Cottonwood Bud- Balm of Gilead. Balsam Poplar. Trichocarpa
There are many uses for cottonwood but I have only used it for infusing in oil to add to skin salves that are used for bruising, soothing sore muscles and healing infection. Use with caution as it can irritate sensitive skin.
Fir and Spruce tips, gathered in early spring and young pine needles can be used to flavour meats, in tea and to flavour alcoholic beverages. Pine needles are very high in vitamin A and C. Use in moderation.
Pine and other conifer resins can be infused in oil and used for salves for arthritis and infections. Be sure to test for allergies before using.
I make my own incense to use and sell in my shop. While I usually gather plants, berries and resins for this specific purpose, it is also a good use for the bits of plant material left over from other uses. It is respectful of the plant to use all the parts you have gathered and not waste anything. I use both wild and garden herbs, flowers, bark, resin, leaves and stalks. I use pine, fir, spruce, cedar, bark, cones, leaves and resin. I use flowers such as yarrow, lavender, rose and clover. I add crushed berries such as saskatoons, mahonia or elderberry as well as honey and mead for binding. Making my own incense 2 or 3 times per year is intensely satisfying and a spiritual way to honour the land. It is also a great alternative to buying incense and resins from countries on the other side of the world that have a huge carbon trail. Using locally sourced products is good for us and for the planet. Happy wildcrafting!