I was listening to an interview with Paul Bergner the other day and in it he discussed briefly ethical harvesting. He’s a very emotional speaker and I love how often he gets choked up when discussing various plant encounters. His words on the subject were touching and inspiring. However, there was one aspect of the subject that I feel could be discussed in greater detail, it is the one thing that nearly all of my herbal trainings have failed to really discuss in detail and that is what “ethical wildcrafting” means on a technical and personal level. Many people use this term and many of us upon hearing it understand immediately what it means. If we are coming to the plants for healing and teaching then it is only natural that we would respect them and bring with that respect a sense of what quantity we need when harvesting. Included in that respect is an immediate understanding that whether harvesting leaf, flower or root we are taking from the plant of its body. Though it may seem to give us the medicine freely, it is my conviction that the plant is always aware that its hard earned growth is being taken. We owe it to the plant to at least honor it by taking only what we need. The question then is “How much do I need?” Many of you that have been wildcrafting for sometime might be familiar with your needs at this point but I hope I can spare those of you who are not yet as experienced the trial and error process that I engaged in before feeling like I really had an understanding of what ethical wildcrafting meant to me.
The first herb I ever wildcrafted was dandelion. I remember it vividly, it was early January and I walked out into my teachers garden with a small shovel. After she showed me how to wrest the root from the ground, it was my turn. The black soil of the garden gave way with ease as I used the blade of the shovel to cut a neat circle around the plant. One last push into the ground and I leveraged the plant, root and all out into the cold winter air. I picked up the plant and began removing all of the earth that still clung to it revealing a long white taproot the size of a carrot attached to the a green rosette of leaves. It was beautiful, it was magical, I was in love. Food and Medicine it seemed now clear were all around, the often disdained plant of dandelion held a wealth of healing and sustenance and all I had to do to use it was dig. I was so excited by this experience I quickly went home and spent the next day gathering buckets of dandelion. I washed and chopped and carefully dried the many leaves. I filled five pint jars with carefully cut and packed root and poured vodka over them. I labeled them and put pretty stickers on the bottles and set them up on a shelf and thought they were beautiful. Can anyone see the problem here? When would I ever be able to use five pints of dandelion tincture? Unless I planned on making dandelion infused martinis (hmmmm?) what use would I or anyone ever get from all this medicine? Of course I was new to herbal medicine and had no idea how things were dosed but still I could have guessed what would happen, yet nowhere had I really been given specific ideas of how much herb I would use. I soon realized five pints was far too many but I continued making my tinctures the standard way of filling a pint jar and covering it with menstrum and still have some remnants of old faded tinctures I made many years ago on my medicine shelf. The same is true of medicinal oils and god help me if I ever make another herbal vinegar (they are fabulous but I simply don’t use them.) So the question I posed myself was “Is this ethical?” “Was my excitement in connecting with the plant overriding my right to take of it? Even though I approached the plant with so much love and gratitude, even if what I took with me was a small portion of the total amount of wild growing plant, was it respectful and in line with my relationship with the plants if I took so much plant material that in the end was sadly composted or tragically poured down the sink? I think not.
I think to really be in a relationship with the wild plant one must consciously put the effort into knowing how much they actually need or if they need it all. I feel and have heard from others that sometimes the only medicine you need from a plant can be gained from sitting in its presence with the intent to learn from it. I have often felt so drawn to a plant and have only recently begun deeply noting if the medicine I need is physical or spiritual. For instance, for many years I have been unduly attracted to Hawthorn, I never seemed to come across the plant when it was blooming or in fruit and yet I was hoping for its medicine. After doing some research seeing that it was only noted as heart medicine I realized that perhaps the medicine for me had been spiritual. Every time I approached the plant I was elated, I felt a clear sensation of being wrapped up in the arms of a lover and of as though I was transported to another time and place, is this how it was to give me heart medicine? This year I hit the mother load of hawthorn. My eyes were constantly seeking them out, I would dangerously take my eyes of the highway when I spotted one hidden among the highway greenery, I’d see them in people’s yards and in fields and always those pretty gingko-like leaves sparkled as they blew in the wind and dull blood red fruits tinted the branches. One day, I finally stumbled on a patch ready to be picked and the welcoming for me to do so. I harvested a couple of cups and made Rosehip-Apple-Hawthorn Butter. Feeling finally the call to make it into medicine, I reserved merely half a cup and made it into tincture. I felt clearly that seeing as I had no need to use the tincture as a heart medicine I would make a small amount this year and familiarize myself with it and then reassess my need next harvest season. I am finding it to be a soothing tonic for the emotional heart. I feel really good about this process and only regret that it has taken my this long to figure it out.
I thought I might give to you some visual examples of how I base the quantity of medicine I gather now in comparison with my vaguely unaware consumption in the past. Here is pint of Violet Tincture I made three years ago. It is far more then I would ever use of this gentle headache healer in this medicinal form. Below it is the batch of tincture I made this year after careful thoughts on how I made it in the past.
My final suggestion when harvesting is to do the math. Think of some preliminary calculation of how much you or your family and friends might actually need, if you drink nettle infusion make a rough estimate of how many ounces you use daily and multiply by the how often you estimate you might drink it. Balm of Gilead is a tempting plant to harvest and indeed most of the buds are harvested from fallen branches but still, will you ever use three quarts in a timely way? These are the questions I learned over time to ask myself, I hope I can spare you the experience of feeling the need to apologize to our beloved plants as I have had and afford you the opportunity to get another layer of medicine from the green world.