How to Sustainably Harvest Botanicals
With the surge of interest in herbalism, botany, wildcrafting, and other plant-based practices, I see a lot of folks taking from the land. The intention is good, but the methods in which they take from the Earth are poor--mostly due to a lack of education. No matter where you live in the world, our botanical allies need our help in maintaining their populations and legacy. Here in California, there is no room for error as our native botanicals are beginning to dwindle and live on only through memories.
As both a gift to you and our botanical allies, please read through this guide to sustainably harvesting plants, and share it with everyone you know.
WHY DO FOLKS HARVEST BOTANICALS?
From picking wildflowers for enjoyment to harvesting botanicals for medicine, the range of uses is vast. People take from the land for medicine making, food, plant dyes, decoration, gifts, and more. These practices are old as time itself, and are a celebration of our connection to nature.
WHY DOES IT NEED TO BE DONE SUSTAINABLY?
Harvesting plants incorrectly can be devastating. A lot of the time people don't even realize that they risk destroying entire ecosystems by harvesting plants using poor practices. Ensuring that you and your community are doing things properly provides a glimpse of hope for these botanicals to be loved and enjoyed by the generations to come.
IMPORTANT CONSIDERATIONS + STEP BY STEPS:
1. Make sure you are on land that permits wild harvesting, and obtain a permit if needed (especially if you will be using the botanicals for profit). Doing a small amount of research before hand should provide you with these answers.
2. Before collecting from the wild, consider using domestic or cultivated plants. Can you grow and harvest these plants in your own garden? Are there alternative plants that you can use instead? Really check in with yourself and ask if this harvest is necessary. I usually anoint myself with the Eyes of the World oil as this helps thin the veil between our reality and nature's reality, helping me respectfully communicate with the plants on a deep level.
3. Before harvesting, make sure you are 110% of the plant identity. Harvesting the wrong plant is wasteful and damaging to the environment. I can not stress this enough. I made this mistake one too many times in my early days of wildcrafting--its easy to do. If you are a beginner, go harvesting with someone that is more familiar with these practices, or make sure you study before harvesting. A solid field guide will do you good countless times.
4. Know what species are at risk in your bioregion. Never collect threatened, endangered or sensitive plants. Local land offices and websites can provide you with this information. Click here to view a short list of the top threatened and endangered plant species in California.
5. Only harvest what you need or can reasonably use. Over harvest is wasteful and threatens the population. If you aren't sure how much you need, always drastically underestimate. You can always go back out and get more. Remember: properly dried and stored herbs have a shelf life of six months to one year. Additionally, take your time examining the plant for bugs, mold, and decay before harvesting. If you see any of these, leave them be and do not harvest.
6. Don’t be in a hurry. Scout out to see if there is more than one population. Find the healthiest population that doesn’t appear to have been harvested. I see this a lot with folks harvesting Sage on hiking trails--they'll take from the first Sage plant they see (and same as everyone else). Explore deeper and try to find a healthier and more abundant population to harvest from. If you can't, leave the small singular plants alone.
7. Be aware of the health of the environment. If the plants are stressed due to drought or other disturbance, don’t harvest them. This is major in California. Additional considerations are if the plants are growing close to highways, frequented roads, run off, or chemical exposures. You do not want these plants, and they are best left untouched.
8. To avoid over harvesting any one population, move around collecting only a small amount of plant material from any one population. The general rule of thumb is to take less than 5% of the entire plant, and less than 5% of the population. Take only the tips, leaving bigger branches and such untouched.
9. Try not to disturb or compact the soils where you are working. If you are stuck on a tough branch, do not yank it because you risk uprooting the entire plant. Bring proper tools with you, like a knife. Remember that if you are harvesting roots or tubers, you are killing that plant. Choose wisely.
10. When you decide to take from the Earth, make sure you give back in return. Give the plant a generous dash of your water and sprinkle a sacred earth offering, say thank you, and really appreciate what is before you. Go back and monitor the effects of your harvest. Become a steward and study the plants and how they respond.
If you are interested in learning more about botanical medicine and wildcrafting in particular, we will be hosting a plant walk for parents + kiddos on March 25th at the Crestridge Ecological Reserve in El Cajon, CA. Click here to find out more information and to RSVP.
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