FORAGING GUIDELINE 1:
Be absolutely positive of your identification before you harvest and ingest any wild food or medicine.
If in doubt, do NOT harvest! Spend time with plants over the seasons—double-checking both photographs and written descriptions—before you make your move. Learn the poisonous species in your region.
Chant to self: Combination of characteristics for proper identification. This is crucial. Identifying plants requires that you look at a combination of specific traits (rather than one or two traits alone), essentially differentiating your plant from the herd. There are over a thousand species of poisonous plants in the world, some of which are so poisonous that one or two bites are enough to kill an adult.
Be especially careful with plants in families that contain deadly poisonous members, such as the carrot (Apiaceae), buttercup (Ranunculaceae), pea (Fabaceae), spurge (Euphorbiaceae), nightshade (Solanaceae), and lily (Liliaceae) families, and remember that there are poisonous plants in dozens of plant families, so this list is by no means comprehensive.
Also, make sure you know which species—within a genus—are used for food or medicine. Do not assume that all members of a genus are used interchangeably! For example, various species of hibiscus have edible flowers or leaves, and some are used medicinally, but they aren’t all considered edible and medicinal. Hibiscus sabdariffa is the only species of hibiscus that produces a fleshy red calyx and is the only medicinal hibiscus in commerce. Since it is a large and varied genus, it is important to examine each species individually for its traditional usage. In other words, we can’t generalize as a whole about the group’s edible and medicinal uses.
In contrast, some plants come from genera in which all species can be used interchangeably, and learning these will be helpful for foraging. The species will vary in medicinal strength and nuances, but there is enough commonality to group them together as medicines. For example, some willow (Salix spp.) species are higher in tannins (and taste and act like strong astringents), and others are higher in salicylic acid and will be more anti-inflammatory and anodyne in nature. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is another example: some species are more resinous in flavor and aroma and will be correspondingly warming, whereas others are more astringent and will be more drying. Their energetics are slightly different, but many of their overarching qualities are similar: anti-inflammatory agents for the urinary and upper respiratory tract, diuretic, and anticatarrhal (decongestant). Just remember that these herbs are the exception. Begin with the premise that species within a genus are not interchangeable, and then see if there is an exception to the rule.
Just be sure to identify these plants by the scientific name of their genera rather than relying on common names. To clarify the point, all trees in the Pinus (pine) genus can be used interchangeably, but there are many plants colloquially called “pine” that do not belong to the genus at all—and do not necessarily share medicinal qualities. Be careful to avoid this beginner’s mistake!
Finally, I highly recommend getting to know the most poisonous plants in your area. It’s beyond the scope of the class to provide a comprehensive list of poisonous plants, but here are a few you’ll want to learn because they are lethal.
SOME POISONOUS PLANTS TO LEARN BEFORE YOU START FORAGING
Water hemlock (Cicuta maculata)
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum)
Oleander (Nerium oleander) (if you live in a warm climate)
Foxglove, or digitalis (Digitalis purpurea) (looks a lot like comfrey or mullein)
This is not a comprehensive list of poisonous plants. The list will vary depending on your bioregion. Consult local field guides or extension offices.
FORAGING GUIDELINE 2:
Harvest in clean locations. Avoid harvesting near roads, foundations of buildings, electric lines, railroads, floodplains of polluted rivers and fields that may be sprayed with herbicide.
Plants can absorb and bioaccumulate toxins, including heavy metals, which means that contaminated plants can have higher levels of toxins than the surrounding soil. Always harvest at least 30 feet from the road (and only harvest near smaller, less-traveled byways), and make sure you are not harvesting in an area with environmental toxicity or herbicides and pesticides. Even hay fields that appear to be untended can be sprayed with herbicides.
If you don’t have a clean place to gather, look around for organic community gardens or your neighborhood’s organic growers and ask to harvest their weeds in exchange for some medicine or apple pie. People are usually quite happy with this type of arrangement.
FORAGING GUIDELINE 3:
Only forage for abundant plants with a large population and favor harvesting plants that are non-native.
Native/non-native: One of the first things I consider when choosing which plants to forage is whether a plant is native and tied into local food webs or is an escapee from other lands. Non-natives displace native species by competing with them for natural resources. These opportunistic plants haven’t evolved locally with the same checks and balances that native plants have experienced, and so they often flourish.
Non-natives often flourish despite local stressors as compared to native plants, which experience more disease and predation. Invasive plants don’t provide the same nourishment in the food chain because many insects have not coevolved with them. That said, many non-native “weeds” stick close to humans, thriving in cities, gardens, fields, and the like. They don’t go into sensitive ecosystems, like woodland forests or wetlands.
Population size: Know your local population size and the range of the particular species you are courting. Is the local population large enough and close enough to other members of its species to consider harvesting? For example, is the range of species along the whole East Coast, or is it limited to your bioregion? You can consult field guides and organizations such as the United Plant Savers (resources listed at the end of this lesson) and state and federal listings of endangered species to learn about at-risk plants in your area. Gather only plants that are abundant, and never harvest endangered or rare plant species unless you are involved in a structured plant rescue.
I continually reassess the ethical harvest of certain plants depending on how their populations are faring. Many rare woodland medicinals, native to North America, are now cultivated in the woods in a sustainable fashion. I highly recommend supporting woodland growers of rare medicinals or growing the herbs yourself. The medicinal understory of the forest is a valuable asset and can be managed for regenerative harvest. The intact forest, with all of its useful gifts of timber, food, fiber, biodiversity, beauty, water retention, carbon sequestering, hammock hanging, and wildlife habitat, is an additional advantage to woodland cultivation of native medicinal flora.
Here are some rare plants from North America that I recommend to never harvest from the wild:
• Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius, Araliaceae)
• Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis, Ranunculaceae)
• False unicorn root (Chamaelirium luteum, Melanthiaceae)
• Unicorn root (Aletris farinosa, Nartheciaceae)
• Sundew (Drosera spp., Droseraceae)
• Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium spp., Orchidaceae)
• Trillium (Trillium spp., Trilliaceae)
FORAGING GUIDELINE 4:
Be aware of the optimal time to harvest and the most regenerative practices.
Timing: Observe the reproductive cycles of the plants you harvest to ensure regeneration. For example, it is generally best to harvest roots from perennial herbs after a plant has already flowered and seeded. Knowing how a plant changes throughout the seasons also helps you know when to harvest food and medicine for optimal flavor and medicinal strength. Many wild greens become chewy or bitter or both as the season progresses. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a prime example of an edible with leaves that become exceedingly bitter as the season progresses. Some fruits, such as autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), become sweeter after the first frost. We generally harvest roots when plants are dormant, or mostly dormant—for instance, in the fall, winter, or spring.
Regeneration: Know how each plant grows, and observe its form and habits. For example, when harvesting bark, I harvest a whole limb and use all the bark and twigs rather than taking bark off the main trunk, which exposes the tree to pathogens by creating a wound with a large surface area. When gathering roots, I often take a side root if the plant is growing clonally (if it spreads by sending out runners) or replant the root crown with enough plant matter to support regrowth. If you are replanting a root crown or portion of a root system, take care to cut back some of the aboveground stems to compensate for the root loss. In addition, make sure there are some buds present in the root system and replant them pointing upward and at the same depth as they were growing when you first harvested the plant. Always refill your holes and leave an area more beautiful than when you came.
When harvesting leaves and stems, try to take just a couple of shoots off each plant so the remaining plant may still photosynthesize and reproduce. Spread your harvest out over a larger area, and be sure to leave plenty of flowers and fruit for the plants to reproduce. If you’re harvesting leaves from a woody plant, pull the leaves off the stem and leave the twigs and branches to form new leaves in subsequent years. These regenerative practices don’t necessarily need to be followed for invasive weeds with global distribution.
Preparation: Tinctures, as opposed to tea, concentrate the medicine of plants, so you need to gather less of a plant. If you are working with a less abundant plant, consider this form of medicine to stretch what you have so you don’t need to harvest as much.
Legal and neighborly considerations: Always ask for permission from the landowner if harvesting on private land. If you want to harvest on governmental land, you can check with the managing agency for regulations and permits. Be aware of the different classifications of land management. In the United States, national parks are often visited for their natural beauty and are not generally logged or leased for grazing cattle. The US national forests are often managed for resources and may be clear-cut and grazed by cattle. You can often obtain permits to gather wild plants for personal use from the US Forest Service. Check with your local office.
Gratitude and respect: Even when you gather plentiful (possibly pesky) plants, attune to a code of ethics. You’re interacting with living, breathing beings, after all. Take only what you need, leave beauty in your wake (leave no trace), and bring an offering to make before you go—a song, some water, your hair, a handful of grain. An offering invites a feeling of gratitude, reciprocity, and reverence. If you’re more science-minded, perhaps you’ll take a moment to breathe intentionally, meditating on the reciprocity of plant-human gas exchange, cellular respiration, and photosynthesis. You might feel silly at first, but allow yourself the opportunity to be surprised. This is how we participate in the ancient plant-human dance of mutual connection, communication, reciprocity, and care.
FORAGING GUIDELINE 5:
Harvest the correct part of the plant that is traditionally used for food and/or medicine.
Note that just because one part of a plant is edible or medicinal does not mean that the rest of the plant can be used interchangeably. For instance, some plants possess both edible and poisonous parts. Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is a good example—it has medicinal flowers and flower buds, but its fruits are poisonous. Similarly, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has a medicinal root, whereas its berries are toxic. There are many plants that fall into this category, so do your homework before using any new-to-you wild food or herb.
Various parts of the same plant can also have different medicinal properties or potencies. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), for example, has medicinal leaves and roots. But where the leaves are bitter and strongly diuretic, the root (also bitter) acts as one of our best liver tonics and blood cleansers. The leaves and roots have some shared medicinal qualities, but they are different enough that it’s important to note their respective actions. Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is another example—the leaves, which are mild and mucilaginous, are customarily used as a food plant. The root bark, on the other hand, is highly concentrated in spicy essential oils and is preferred for medicinal preparations. For other wild foods and herbs, refer to a reliable foraging field guide.
FORAGING GUIDELINE 6:
Pay attention to tradition when preparing herbs and wild foods.
Preparing food and medicine according to tradition is more than a nod to custom; it’s using the time-tested knowledge of our forebears to safely consume wild plants. Often, a plant or mushroom needs to be prepared in a specific way to make it digestible or even edible. Take poke, or pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), as an example. The young leaves of poke, which are used to make a traditional Appalachian dish known as poke sallet, must be harvested at the right time (the shoots in very early spring) and prepared a certain way (leached in boiling water three times) before they are edible. Other parts of the plant are very toxic.
Another important herbal tradition is the extraction of minerals from plants using water (tea) or vinegar. Both are wonderful solvents for drawing out the nutritive qualities of herbs like chickweed (Stellaria media), stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), burdock (Arctium lappa, A. minus), and violet (Violet spp.). Alcohol extractions (tinctures) aren’t able to accomplish this, as minerals are not soluble in alcohol. Along these lines, consider how certain parts of herbs (roots, seeds, and bark) must be simmered to make a potent tea, while others (leaves and flowers) only need to infuse in hot water.