Wildcrafting & Ethics
Wildcrafting: (also known as foraging) is the practice of harvesting plants from their natural, or 'wild' habitat, primarily for food or medicinal purposes.
Ethics: moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity.
By: Jessica Godino, Red Moon Herbs
Start with a few easily recognized plants, and get to know new plants slowly.
Study the poisonous plants that grow in your area, and always know whether the plant you¹re harvesting plant has any poisonous lookalikes.
Always be sure you have identified a plant correctly, either through the use of a field guide or an experienced harvester.
Give your full attention to your task; its easy to make mistakes if you¹re distracted.
Some plants have parts that are edible and parts that are toxic (example; violet), and some plants have parts that are edible at certain times of the year but toxic at others (example; pokeweed). Make sure you know which part to use, and when to harvest it.
As with all foods, some plants will not agree with certain people. Start with small amounts of any wild food that is new to you.
Ask permission before harvesting on someone else’s property
Avoid areas that are likely to be sprayed, for example around power lines, train tracks, golf courses, and weedless yards. Don¹t gather within 50 feet from a busy road, especially downhill from one.
Return often to your harvesting sites, to get to know the plants at different phases of their lifecycle.
Learn which plants are endangered in your area and avoid harvesting them altogether. (Luckily, many edible and medicinal plants are prolific weeds, and you don¹t need to worry about over-harvesting.)
Created by Jessica Godino, March 2001
Wildcrafting for the Practicing Herbalist
This handout is to help familiarize herbalists with some of the practicalities of wildcrafting plants. The term wildcrafting is loosely defined here as gathering plants one did not specifically plant. This includes harvesting from natural ecosystems such as fields, marshes and forests as well as vacant lots and weeds from gardens and farms.
Wildcrafting entails much pleasure and many perils. It can involve gathering plants in striking high slopes with the sun gleaming down as you take in the beauty of the scenery, or, just as likely, spending days on end in hot, muggy locales searching for a desired plant only to not find gatherable amounts.
In concert with the last sentence, an experienced wildcrafter knows that they may not always find the plant they are seeking, and yet not get too discouraged, since this is common enough and just the way of wildcrafting.
My entreaty here is for all reading this to please take into consideration the ecology of the area in which you are harvesting. This should come before your personal needs for a specific plant. Wildcrafting is a time-honored art but the earth has seen its share of ravages and so it is now our business, as people who work with plants, to limit the damage we may cause by our plant gatherings. Please read through this handout and take special note of what I consider the ethical obligations of the wildcrafter.
These notes are my personal reflections on wildcrafting, having been honed over the past 25 years of gathering plants throughout the United States.
There are two main reasons people wildcraft,
1) to gather plants to prepare as their personal medicines and
2) harvesting plants to sell to others.
The second of these, gathering plants to sell, can be a tricky. First there are the ethical considerations of not overharvesting which happens easier if you are trying to gather large amounts. Difficulties arise from scrambling around trying to find enough plant material to gather, keeping the plants from becoming moldy while you deliver them, and finding people willing to pay you a reasonable sum for a hard day’s work. And then there are the bugs, the weather, and the long days of digging, pruning, washing and cutting. For those uninitiated this work may seem dreamy, and indeed at times it is, but it is also demanding. There is often a tight time limit of what plants can be gathered from a specific area given how long you may be there.
Naturally it can also be rewarding. You may find yourself alone, in a handsome location, far from the daily noises of civilization. It can be exuberating meeting new plants in their native or naturalized surroundings. Wildcrafting also allows us to get a real picture on which plants are endangered and should be left alone to grow. This means traveling sufficiently and seeing plants in their growing in their habitats. I feel that herbalists benefit greatly from seeing many of the plants they use as living, CO2 breathing entities. For me, it enlivens the art of herbalism, being the gatherer of what I prepare and offer as medicine. There is a lot of satisfaction in continuing this ancient grassroots tradition.
While gathering plants it is important to know which plant and plant parts you seek, when the best times are to gather them and finding favorable locations. You may be a wildcrafter who stays in their own neck of the woods or one who travels widely. Either way, there can be a feeling of independence and deep satisfaction in gathering your own medicine.
Take only what is provided in abundance, and only take what you can and will use. Be considerate of the land from which you are gathering. Consider this piece of earth from many perspectives. Contemplate it from the perspective of the animals living there, from the humans who visit, and from the perspective of the plants themselves in their ecological niche.
Leave an area as beautiful as you found it. Before you gather anything, let your eyes sweep in the terrain and consider how you can leave the least amount of impact.
If there is a lot of trash from a given gathering area, gather some of this too.
Learn which plants not to gather, including endangered, over-harvested and scarce plants. With current sprawling development coupled with a popular resurgence of herbal medicine, many plants are currently threatened. Check resources such as native plant societies, conservation groups, United Plant Savers, regional groups, and state environmental departments for guides to endangered plants. Also, check it out for yourself. Which plants are proliferating in your area and which plants are disappearing? With an eye towards the future, consider not gathering plants that are not yet in jeopardy, but are becoming scarce, or may be so in the future as more plants are harvested for the burgeoning herbal market.
Teach responsible wildcrafting ethics. Teach by example and let other folks know why you don’t harvest particular plants or gather from specific locales. Help instruct other gatherers whom you feel may be over-harvesting. Let buyers know why you won’t gather or sell certain plants. Speak up at conferences, workshops and meetings.
Learn about the most prolific plants, especially the common weeds. Many of these have well-established uses and can be harvested readily. They generally easily reestablish themselves.
Learn how to make accurate plant identification. It is important to know how to accurately identify plants to the species level. Books based on floral plant keys are the primary source of this information.
Learning how to use a plant identification key will help in a number of ways. It will assist you in the identification of uncommon plant species, which may otherwise be indiscriminately gathered or trampled on. And it can also be instructive in finding species analogues of over-harvested plants.
Be discreet when showing people your wildcrafting locations. If one person tells one person, who tells one person, etc., an area can easily be over harvested. When demonstrating and teaching wildcrafting skills, take people to places that can handle a group of gatherers and gather the common plants.
Rescue plants from areas that are going to be developed or destroyed. Besides gathering these plants as medicine, you can also help relocate the less common ones to similar habitats and gardens.
Bring medicine making equipment (see list) on wildcrafting forays so you can prepare fresh plant medicines on your travels.
Wildcrafting and the law: Since most land is either privately owned, state or federally controlled, you may want to obtain permission before gathering. Since wildcrafters may be eyed with suspicion (not a typical sight) make sure your ‘papers’ are in order, i.e., car registration and insurance, personal identification, appropriate cash, etc.
Gather seeds and replant them.
While gathering roots and rhizomes, replant root crowns and rhizome pieces, especially if there is a bud present to help the plant re-grow.
Gather and sell wildcrafted plants locally. Encourage the use of locally common plants as medicine.
Wildcraft from organic gardens and farms. These places often have an abundance of medicinal plants such as dandelion, burdock, alfalfa, and red clover. Also support local organic farmers in helping them grow and market medicinal plants.
Leave some of the strongest and most lush plants from an area you are wildcrafting. These are important to continue the local health and survival of a species.
Be respectful of the plants you are gathering. This means gathering thoughtfully as if you were working in a garden including careful pruning, and not leaving big gaping holes in the ground.
Be careful not to gather from polluted areas. These include roadways, railroad tracks, industrial and agricultural runoff, urban areas, sewage zones, oil spills, and places heavily sprayed with pesticides and/or herbicides.
It is important to initially learn all the poisonous plants growing in an area you may be wildcrafting to be absolutely sure that you have not harvested these.
International borders: Many plants are not allowed through foreign borders and may be confiscated, such as in Mexico and Canada. Keep this in mind while gathering or bringing plants into or back from other countries.
It is helpful to have an assortment of plant field guides while wildcrafting. These botanical identification books can range from technical floras with keys, to books with photographs and drawings. Black and white botanical line drawings are often the most useful since they can give the plants’ basic character as well as botanical details such as seeds and hairs.
The old Eclectic medical dispensatories are helpful to see if a plant you’ve come upon has been previously used for medicine. These books (along with Michael Moore’s books and booklets especially for the geographic west) may state other species used similarly, as well as the part(s) utilized and how to prepare them for medicine.
Also remember to bring along a good topographic map to explore less traveled roads and mark down places that you have found accessible.
Two of our favorites are seen
Medicinal Plants of the
by Micheal Moor
Edible & Medicinal Plants
of the West
by Gregory Tilford
Tools and Equipment
Below are some of the basic tools and gear helpful to wildcraft and prepare herbal medicines. This is followed by a list of supplementary supplies that are useful on wildcrafting adventures. Personal preferences will play a big part of which supplies you purchase, so if possible try out some of this equipment before buying. If you plan on doing a lot of wildcrafting, these tools will be close friends, so choose carefully.
As a rule, the more expensive tools are of better quality and last longer. This translates into them being easier on your body and less likely to bend or break while gathering. It can be helpful to buy tools from reputable companies that offer a long-term warranty.
Check the condition of your equipment before going on a gathering sojourn. It is frustrating to spend hours finding a good wildcrafting spot only to have tools malfunction. Good tools are generally easier on the plants too. Keep pruners sharp, this makes for a cleaner cut and less damage to the plant you are trimming.
Primary Gathering Tools
Hand Pruners ($30-65)
Probably the most commonly used wildcrafting tool. Pruners come in different sizes and should be able to open fully in your hand otherwise you hand will get tired after long-term use. Keep them sharp for yours’ and the plants’ sake. It is much easier to cut with sharp pruners and does less damage to the plant.
There are two basic styles of pruners; bypass and anvil. I prefer bypass pruners in which the two blades pass each other giving a cleaner cut, this is better for the plant. The anvil type is where the blade meets a flat (anvil type) surface. They are better if you are cutting thicker stemmed woody plants. I also suggest getting a holster to carry the pruners, to keep them handy and ready for use.
Pruner Holster ($8)
A convenient way to carry your pruners.
A very useful hand-held digging tool easily replacing the all-too-bendable trowel while wildcrafting. Also known as a soil knife. There are a number of styles, I like the one that has a wooden handle and a rabbit on the black plastic case it comes with.
Digging Fork ($35-$70)
I use digging forks much more often than shovels. They are easier to use and do less damage to the terrain by loosening the soil rather than by digging holes. Buy a sturdy one with square, not flat, tines. Fork tines notoriously bend, so purchase with care. You may also want to carry a lead pipe to bend back errant tines, and a wire brush to clean up the tines to prevent rust.
Shovels should be heavy-duty with reinforced handles for digging into rocky ground. Poaching or tree-hole styles with a thicker more curved narrow blade are often better for wildcrafting in hard-packed earth whereas a broader blade is better when digging through sand or loose ground.
These are useful to cut branches and to process roots and other large or hard bits. Two main types are bypass and anvil. The bypass type is generally easier to make cuts and it gives a wider bite, but the anvil type is better for thicker plant material, especially when processing plants for medicine. Both are useful for different situations.
I use a foldable saw if I have limited space and use a larger pruning type (curved blade) otherwise as they are sturdier. I mainly use saws to cut thick branches and stems.
Draw (debarking) knife ($5-$40)
These tools are used to remove the bark from tree stems and branches. Different styles can be helpful for different size woody plant parts. I use a small cleaver for peeling bark off of smaller stems and a larger traditional type draw knife for larger branches.
Burlap bags (Free)
These are very useful for gathering and transporting wildcrafted plant material. They are sturdy and breathable. Call your local coffee roaster, they almost always have these or free. In Spokane try Indaba, in Post Falls try Doma.
Tools for Processing & Preparing Plants for Medicine
These are large square-bladed knives for cutting and processing plant parts. There are many types of cleavers; a medium-sized one is helpful for most plant chopping and a larger butcher cleaver for large tough plant parts. Keep them sharp and make some kind of case to keep them in.
Cutting board ($5)
Helpful when cutting up plants. Plastic or wood are good choices.
For weighing out herbs to prepare as medicines.
Measuring cup ($4)
A durable one to prepare fluid medicines.
Canning jars-Various sizes for preparing tinctures, oils and other medicines. Canning jars are a stronger glass than regular jars and the boxes they come in are handy for the road.
Alcohol ($60/gallon)-95% ethyl alcohol (ethanol)
It is usually less expensive to mail-order high-proof alcohol than to purchase it in liquor stores. Make sure alcohol is in a well-protected, safely stored, tightly sealed, spill-proof nonbreakable container. Alcohol is very flammable, make sure it is clearly marked. Buying in Montana means no sales tax.
Wear comfortable clothes you can hike, climb or otherwise meander about in the woods. Wear long-sleeve shirts and a hat when working in the sun; overexposure is the energy downfall of many a wildcrafter. Bring and drink plenty of water.
Hat-wide-brimmed for sun protection, or at a least a baseball cap or visor.
Shoes-Sturdy shoes with ankle support and protection from poison ivy, brambles and digging. Sandals for wading.
Rain jacket-A resilient breathable one can really make a difference in inclement weather.
Protective clothing for dealing with thorns, brambles, nettles. Heavy-duty gloves, denim or long-sleeve jacket, thick pants, boots.
This is written as a quick guide to get people started considering the different categories of collect-ability of plants. Please use common sense, look and ask around to see whether these plants fit into these groupings where you gather them. They are divided into three groupings; common plants, less common plants and uncommon plants with each category described below.
I would like to reiterate that it is important to respect all plants and their environment. Please be considerate when gathering, listen to your gut instincts, if you feel you shouldn’t be gathering right then, just enjoy the company of the plant and environment and leave it be.
Note: Spp. is an abbreviation for ‘species’ and is used to mean that many species of the same genus can be used.
Common plants are often considered weeds. If they are prolific in your region, they can be readily gathered. Many of the common plants have a long history of use as medicine. Some others are not as widely known, but as wildcrafting herbalists we can help others appreciate their medicinal qualities. Some plants that are used in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine also grow wild in the United States and can be gathered here.
Some of these plants may be common in certain locales but not in others (i.e. Passionflower) please use discretion while harvesting. Before picking any plants, survey the area and see what is common in the larger ecosystem. Don’t gather the first plants you find, though they may be abundant in front of you, it may be the only patch for many miles. Once again, it is in our best interests to cause minimal impact and help keep these plants flourishing.
Some of these plants may be grown in your own garden, if they are less or uncommon, and you desire that plant, perhaps you can grow it yourself!
The following list has common names & Latin names that you can look things up at your leisure.
Agrimony Agrimonia spp.
Alfalfa Medicago sativa
Barberry Berberis thunbergii
Bayberry Myrica cerifera
Bedstraw Galium spp.
Blackberry Rubus spp.
Blueberry Vaccinium spp.
Buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica
Bugleweed Lycopus spp.
Burdock Arctium spp.
Burr marigold Bidens spp.
Catnip Nepeta cataria
Cattail Typha spp.
Chaparral Larrea tridentata
Chickweed Stellaria media
Chicory Cichorium intybus
Cleavers Galium aparine
Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara
Comfrey Symphytum spp.
Corn silk Zea mays
Couchgrass Agropyron repens.
Curly dock Rumex obtusifolius
Dandelion Taraxacum officinale
Dooryard knotweed Polygonum aviculare
Eclipta Eclipta alba
Elecampane Inula helenium
Ephedra Ephedra spp.
Fennel Foeniculum vulgare
Figwort Scrophularia spp.
Gill o’er the ground Glechoma hederacea
Ginkgo Ginkgo biloba
Globe Mallow Sphaeralcea spp.
Goats head Tribulus terrestris
Goldenrod Solidago spp.
Gravelroot Eupatorium maculatum
Greater celandine Chelidonium majus
Gumweed Grindelia spp.
Hawthorne Crataegus spp.
Heal-all Prunella vulgaris
Horehound Marrubium vulgare
Horseradish Armoracia rusticana
Horsetail Equisetum spp.
Japanese honeysuckle Lonicera japonica
Japanese knotweed Polygonum cuspidatum
Kudzu Pueraria lobata
Mallow Malva spp.
Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria
Milk thistle Silybum marianum
Motherwort Leonurus cardiaca
Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris
Mullein Verbascum thapsus
Nettles Urtica dioica
Oats Avena sativa
Passionflower Passiflora incarnata
Peppermint Mentha piperita
Periwinkle Vinca minor / V. major
Plantain Plantago spp.
Pleurisy root Asclepias tuberosa
Poke Phytolacca americana
Prickly ash Zanthoxylum spp.
Ragweed Ambrosia artemisiifolia
Raspberry Rubus idaeus/ R. spp.
Red Clover Trifolium pratense
Rose Rosa rugosa / R. spp.
Sagebrush Artemisia tridentata
Sarsaparilla Smilax spp.
Sassafras Sassafras albidum
Saw palmetto Serenoa repens
Scotch broom Cystis scoparius
Shepherds purse Capsella bursa-pastoris
Shiso Perilla frutescens
St. Johnswort Hypericum perforatum
Tansy Tanacetum spp.
Teasel Dipsacus sylvestris
Thyme Thymus spp.
Toadflax Linaria vulgaris
Usnea Usnea spp.
Wild lettuce Lactuca spp.
Willow Salix spp.
Wolfberry Lycium pallidum
Yarrow Achillea millefolium
Yellow dock Rumex crispus
Yucca Yucca glauca
Less common plants
While some of these plants may be regionally plentiful, please be extra cautious while wildcrafting them. Avoid taking the largest and hardiest stock, allowing these to proliferate. Although other wildcrafters may gather large quantities of some of this plants, that doesn’t mean you need to if the plants seem uncommon or over-gathered.
Try not to gather from areas where other people gather. If you see holes dug in the ground or clipped plants, find another gathering site. I suggest wildcrafting the following herbs for yourself and perhaps to sell to herbalists or small companies that you personally know. This will help avoid overharvesting.
It also matters which part of the plant your are taking. When gathering underground structures such as roots and rhizomes, you may be killing the plant, which lends extra consideration as opposed to fruits or leaves.
Caution: some of these plants are potentially dangerous for internal use. Please know and read up on any plants you are wildcrafting.
Am. Pennyroyal Hedeoma spp.
Angelica Angelica spp.
Arnica Arnica spp.
Artists conk Ganoderma applanatum
Balsam poplar Populus balsamifera
Balsamroot Balsamorhiza sagittata
Baneberry Actaea spp.
Bearsfoot Polymnia uvedalia
Bee balm Monarda spp.
Black birch Betula lenta
Black cohosh Actaea racemosa
Black haw Viburnum prunifolium
Black walnut Juglans nigra
Blue cohosh Caulophyllum thalictroides
Blue vervain Verbena hastata
Bogbean Menyanthes trifoliata
Boneset Eupatorium perfoliatum
Calamus Acorus calamus
Clematis Clematis spp.
Corydalis Corydalis aurea
Crampbark Viburnum opulus
Desert willow Chilopsis linearis
Devil’s club Oplopanax horridus
Iris Iris missouriensis
Juniper berry Juniperus spp.
Lobelia Lobelia inflata
Mayapple Podophyllum peltatum
Oregon graperoot Berberis spp.
Osha Ligusticum porteri
Partridgeberry Mitchella repens
Pedicularis Pedicularis groenlandica
Prickly ash Zanthoxylum clava-herculis
Pussy-toes Antennaria spp.
Red cedar Thuja plicata
Redroot Ceanothus americanus
Reishi Ganoderma tsugae
Rhatany Krameria spp.
Silk Tassel Garrya spp.
Skullcap Scutellaria lateriflora
Solomon’s seal Polygonatum spp.
Stillingia Stillingia sylvatica
Stoneroot Collinsonia canadensis
Sweet cicely Osmorhiza spp.
Syrian rue Peganum harmala
Uva ursi Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
Valerian Valeriana officinalis
Violet Viola spp.
Wahoo Euonymus atropurpureus
Western coltsfoot Petasites frigida
White cedar Thuja occidentalis
White pond lily Nymphaea odorata
Wild cherry Prunus serotina
Wild ginger Asarum canadense
Wild hydrangea Hydrangea arborescens
Wild indigo Baptisia tinctoria
Wild yam Dioscorea villosa
Witch hazel Hamamelis virginiana
Yellow jessamine Gelsemium sempervirens
Yellow pond lily Nuphar polysepalum
Yellowroot Xanthorrhiza simplicissima
Yerba mansa Anemopsis californica
Yerba santa Eriodictyon angustifolium
The following plants are ones that are infrequently seen in the wild and should not be gathered. These are included as some of them are commonly traded on the herb market and it important to know they are imperiled in the wild. Many of these plants are cultivatable. Other less scarce species can be used for similar medicinal uses as these plants. Depending on where you live, many other plants could be added to this group, please learn how to recognize uncommon and endangered plants. Please do not gather these at all, but rather find yourself lucky to have come upon them in their native habitats.
American ginseng Panax quinquefolius
Chaparro amargosa Castela emoryi
Echinacea Echinacea spp.
False unicorn root Chamaelirium luteum
Goldenseal Hydrastis canadensis
Lady’s slipper Cypripedium spp.
Pink Root Spigelia marilandica
Seneca snakeroot Polygala senega
True unicorn root Aletris farinosa
Venus flytrap Dionaea muscipula
Virginia snakeroot Aristolochia virginiana
UPS Species At-Risk List
Sandalwood – Santalum spp. (Hawaii only) (75)
Kava – Piper methysticum (Hawaii only) (68)
American Ginseng – Panax quinquefolius (63)
Venus Fly Trap – Dionaea muscipula (61)
Sundew – Drosera spp. (58)
Maidenhair Fern – Adiantum pedatum (52)
Cascara Sagrada – Frangula purshiana (51)
Squirrel Corn – Dicentra canadensis (51)
Goldenseal – Hydrastis canadensis (50)
Lady’s Slipper Orchid – Cypripedium spp. (50)
Ramps - Allium tricoccum (recently added) (50)
Lomatium – Lomatium dissectum (50)
False Unicorn Root – Chamaelirium luteum (49)
Peyote – Lophophora williamsii (49)
Stream Orchid – Epipactis gigantea (49)
White Sage – Salvia apiana (49)
Osha – Ligusticum porteri (48)
Bloodroot – Sanguinaria canadensis (47)
Virginia Dutchman's Pipe – Aristolochia sp. (47)
Trillium, Beth Root - Trillium spp. (46)
True Unicorn Root – Aletris farinosa (46)
Blue Cohosh – Caulophyllum thalictroides (45)
Echinacea – Echinacea spp. (44)
Elephant Tree – Bursera microphylla (44)
Wild Indigo – Baptisia tinctoria (42)
Butterfly Weed – Asclepias tuberosa (41)
Stone Root – Collinsonia canadensis (41)
Wild Yam – Dioscorea villosa (41)
Yerba Mansa – Anemopsis californica (41)
Black Cohosh – Actaea racemosa (40)
Eyebright – Euphrasia spp. (40)
Pipsissewa – Chimaphila umbellata (40)
Chaparro – Castela emoryi (39)
Pink Root – Spigelia marilandica (35)
Mayapple – Podophyllum peltatum (34)
Slippery Elm – Ulmus rubra (34)
Lobelia – Lobelia inflata
Arnica – Arnica spp.
Gentian – Gentiana spp.
Goldthread – Coptis spp.
Give thanks for the plants you have found, they are not there for free, but rather to cultivate a relationship with, how can you help the plant? The Wild? The habitat? Happy Wildcrafting!