Herbalism is trending and it’s easy to understand why. Plants are beautiful. They are powerful healers. Interacting with them feeds us-body/mind/spirit. So it’s no wonder that more and more folks are turning towards herbal medicine and learning the art and science of herbalism. For any budding herbalist the most exciting thing is wildcrafting herbs. And if you were to ask most herbalists what their favorite part of their work is, many will answer the same- myself included! But as herbalism gains popularity how can we practice truly sustainable wildcrafting? And what about wildtending and reciprocity? If we’re not weaving these ethics into our harvesting practices then at its worst wildcrafting exploits and harms wild populations of plants. At its best, it becomes wildtending and wild populations are proliferated by human interaction and it becomes a relationship of mutuality. As a person who teaches many students each year plant identification and wild-harvesting skills, I’ve thought about this a lot. These are my thoughts on how we can cultivate a reciprocal relationship with the plants as wildcrafting herbalists.
I’m not anti-wildcrafting. Not at all. In fact, I’m quite for it. Wild medicine is the bridge between the land and our bodies. It connects us to the earth. As a society we are collectively so disconnected- from ourselves, the land, our communities. Wildharvesting is an antidote for the sickness of disconnect; literally a balm. For folks who wildcraft I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. It feeds your very soul. It’s part of our birthrights as humans on this planet. In my own lineage I need only look back four generations to my great great grandmother who was a peasant (read: shepherdess) in Greece who surely collected wild foods and herbs without a second thought- it was just a part of life and had been for thousands of years before that. It’s staggering to think about how much earth-connection we’ve lost in such a short time and I don’t believe our psyches and spirits have caught-up with all the changes of the past 100 years. It might sound like I’m romanticizing that pre-industrialized life (and maybe I am the tiniest bit) but I don’t begrudge certain modern advancements. It’s just that it’s clear that the farther away we get from nature and her rhythms, the sadder and sicker we get. This is why wildcrafting and wild foods matter.
Wildtending & Asking
If we’re going to harvest wild plants we should do so in a way that proliferates their population- rather than depleting it- known as wildtending. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Writer, Plant Ecologist, and enrolled member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi, calls it The Honorable Harvest. This wild-harvesting perspective is implicit in an indigenous worldview. Wildtending includes a variety of practices, and may mean that some years we don’t harvest from a particular patch or population because of drought, disease or pest pressure, or any other situation that might threaten a plant’s population. It also means learning the “At-Risk” and “To-Watch” lists of plants from United Plant Savers, and paying attention to threatened plants and ecosystems locally. But in addition to using our deductive left brain powers of reasoning and observation, we have to sink into our intuition here too and ask the plants if we can harvest. Quite often it’s just a feeling one way or the other. If it doesn’t feel right to harvest from a certain patch or plant, even if everything looks ok on the surface, then follow that. I once asked to harvest leaves from a Peach tree I’d harvested from for years on a friends farm and got a clear “no.” I couldn’t figure-out why but respected what I heard. I told my friend about it later and learned that tree had had a very difficult spring and had been hit incredibly heavy with a gypsy moth caterpillar infestation. I imagine the tree had used many of its resources fighting-off that infestation and needed all the energy it could get and couldn’t spare any leaves that year.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, speaks to this so beautifully:
“Asking permission shows respect for the personhood of the plant, but it is also an assessment of the well-being of the population. Thus I must use both sides of my brain to listen to the answer. The analytic left reads the empirical signs to judge whether the population is large and healthy enough to sustain a harvest, whether it has enough to share. The intuitive right hemisphere is reading something else, a sense of generosity, an open-handed radiance that says take me, or sometimes a tight-lipped recalcitrance that makes me put the trowel away. I can’t explain it, but it is a kind of knowing that for me is just as compelling as a no-trespassing sign.”
Wildtending might also mean cutting back Asiatic Bittersweet Vines (Celastrus orbiculatus) that are threatening a patch of young Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina)- because, yes, it is ok to remove opportunistic plants from areas where they are threatening endangered or uncommon endemic plants, or even a patch of common medicinals we work with, just don’t use chemicals or methods that cause more disturbance to the area then there was before. It means leaving an area in better shape than we found it, removing trash and litter, or collecting seeds in the fall and spreading them around the site, even if it means an extra trip to that patch if we harvest it in the spring. It looks like moving like an herbivore does across the landscape (have you ever watched a deer browse through a meadow?) when we harvest, taking a little here and a little there, so that you can barely even tell the area has been harvested from, leaving enough for the animals, pollinators, germinating seedlings, and so on. It involves deep observation and becoming a citizen scientist and understanding- intimately- the reproductive cycle of each plant we harvest so we can help it proliferate. A simple example here is replanting rootlets and/or pieces of rhizomes on the edges of patches we harvest from to help the plant spread, or only harvesting from the root tips so we don’t affect the crown where the stems grow from. It also looks like reading the landscape and noticing a habitat where a medicinal would happily grow that doesn’t currently have it and planting it there. An example here is the Northeast would be a wet meadow without any Boneset (Eupatorim perfoliatum) or Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata). This is a habitat which would easily support these two medicinals and you could grow some and transplant it there to start a new population. Or sowing fresh American Ginseng seeds beneath Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) where you see some of its other companion plants growing, like Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum), Spice bush (Lindera benzoin) or Trillium (Trillium spp.) In the case of re-planting I do only promote this practice with endemic plants and not introduced species. Some might balk at the idea of so intentionally altering a landscape, but we know that pre-colonized North America was actually full of wild gardens or forest gardens, tended by the indigenous peoples already here. Humans have always interacted and changed the landscape and nature is not static, it’s a dynamic, living landscape.
Our challenge, as bioregional herbalists who value and understand the spiritual, physical, and ecological importance of interacting with the wild, is that our harvesting practices must include both wildtending and wildcrafting. Ideally they become one and the same. If we’re going to harvest from the wild then we have a responsibility to do so in a way that doesn’t cause habitat degradation and, instead, actually increases the diversity and health of the bioregion in which we live. If we can’t harvest a certain plant without doing so, then that right there is our sign-post that we should not be harvesting that herb and instead we should be advocating for its conservation, because wildcrafting herbalists also need to be medicinal plant conservationists. If a plant is so abundant that it would be quite difficult to over-harvest it, like Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) in the Northeast, then we should still be offering our gratitude to that plant and engage with wildtending other more threatened plants or sites as an act of reciprocity.
Reciprocity means giving back in some way so the relationship becomes mutually beneficial. How do you say thank you to the plants for providing their medicine? How do you avoid bringing a taker, colonialist, capitalist, entitled mindset to your relationship with the wild plants? How do you enter into a deep and intimate partnership with the plants? I don't have all the answers but I know a huge piece of the puzzle is practicing reciprocity. This practice for me is always shifting. For years I ran a medicinal plant nursery from my home and propagated and sold threatened Northeast woodland, medicinal plants. It warmed my heart to know folks were going home and planting Goldenseal and American Ginseng in their woods. To me, helping spread the medicine was an act of reciprocity. Now my reciprocity often looks like advocating for threatened endemic medicinals, like Ramps and Chaga. Other meaningful acts include doing plant rescues from areas that are going to be developed or logged, lodging seeds balls filled with endemic seeds into meadows and vacant lots, guerilla planting, and teaching kids about the Honorable Harvest. Simply being an advocate for clean waters and protected forests and wild lands is an act of reciprocity. And it doesn’t have to always be grand gestures. You can also express it to the plants on an individual level- leaving some dried nettles as fertilizer, watering the plant if it’s a drought, or harvesting seeds to start new patches. It can be this simple- the next time you go to harvest a wild plant, ask yourself, “Am I taking? Or have I asked and it was offered?” From the simple act of asking reciprocity follows; we want to offer back something in gratitude, reverence, and respect.
The Honorable Harvest
I could write my own list of wildcrafting guidelines, but it’s really not necessary because Robin Wall Kimmerer has already done it so incredibly well. Below are her guidelines for what she calls the Honorable Harvest. I just love these and think that wildcrafting herbalists should embody these guidelines in our harvesting practices, and teach them to our students as well.
The Honorable Harvest
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
Returning the Gift
From Minding Nature’s May 2014, Volume 7, Number 2.
By Robin Wall Kimmerer
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and The Teachings of Plants
By Robin Wall Kimmerer
By Sophia Rose
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