We’re deep into spring and many of our medicinal weeds, herbs and edible wild foods are beginning to grow.
Harvesting from the wild is truly a magical experience, and when done correctly, it can nourish the relationship of people and plants. Many of us herbalists have places we return to in the wild to harvest our plants. When we ethically wildcraft, not only do we ensure that there will be an abundance of medicine the following year to harvest, we also begin to develop a relationship with that place. It is hard to describe the experience of returning to this place in the wild where we have created sacred space and communed with the plants year after year – it feels like the plants recognize and greet you, it feels like coming home.
Healers from different cultures around the world share similar practices for ethical wildcrafting. Their guidelines are both practical and spiritual. Many shamans believe that only by harvesting in a sacred way will the spirit of the plant remain in the plant material we have harvested.
Traditional practices often consist of prayer, giving gratitude to the plants, making an offering, and never harvesting more than what is needed. The ethical wildcrafting guidelines I share with you are a blend of these traditions – what the plants have shown me they appreciate and the teachings I received from the herbalist Sage Maurer.
At a time when many of our beloved plant allies are being overharvested, following these practices is critical.
The guidelines assume you have positively identified the plant and have no doubt about what you are harvesting, and that you also know that it is not endangered.
- Find the perfect patch. It should be abundant, vibrant and healthy. The plants should look like they are in peak health. The patch should also be far away from roads and off of main hiking trails. Take your time exploring, the first patch you find may not be your perfect patch.
- Feel into your heart. Once you have found your perfect patch, drop into your heart and connect with feelings of appreciation, admiration and gratitude.
- Admire the plants. Come down to their level, sit among them. Look at them up close, touch them, greet them and recognize the magnificence that they are.
- Find the grandmother plant. This is usually the largest plant in the patch.
- Create sacred space. You can do this by saying a prayer or burning blessing herbs such as copal or frankincense. The act of creating sacred space takes us out of the mundane and marks this time as sacred. Whenever I burn copal in the wilderness, I can feel my consciousness shift right away and can feel the plants awakening to sacred smoke. When I return to the same place and offer the same ritual, it feels like the spirits of the plants awaken.
- Commune with the grandmother plant. Place your hands around a leaf or any part of the plant, close your eyes, and quiet your mind. Allow yourself to simply feel the energy exchange between you and the plant. You may notice warmth in your hands. When you feel ready, introduce yourself to the plant, ask for permission to harvest and speak your intention. It may sound like this, “Hello beautiful Nettles, I am Marysia. I would like to harvest some of your fresh spring leaves to make a nourishing soup for my family and to dry you, so I can enjoy your medicine at any time of the year. Can I harvest from this patch?”
- You will feel a “Yes” or a “No”. If you feel a “Yes” from the plant, you may continue. If you feel a “No”, trust and respect this message. I once received a “no” from a patch of nettles that I was so eager to harvest. I went home a little disappointed and confused. A couple of weeks later, I felt a pull to return to the nettles patch only to find it had gone to seed! I then understood that the Nettles did not want me to harvest it until it had a chance to create its beautiful seeds. When I asked again, I received a “yes”. I was able to harvest the nettles and nettle seeds, which are amazing medicine as well.
- Make an offering. It is important to give back to the plants when we are receiving so much from them. This practice honors balance and our relationship. Many indigenous people offer tobacco, a plant that is sacred to them. If you feel a connection with the tobacco plant, you will know not to break apart a cigarette that has other harmful chemicals, but you may use organic loose dried tobacco. I have a blend of dried herbs and roses that I often take with me wildcrafting. Water is another great offering that plants appreciate, so if you are hiking and all you have is your water bottle, you still have a great gift! A prayer can make a beautiful gift too.
- Harvest mindfully. With a heart full of appreciation, harvest slowly and mindfully. You can treat your harvesting more like a gardener would prune a plant – rather than cutting at the base of the plant, see if you can harvest the top half or third, allowing the plant to continue growing. Move through the patch, harvesting different plants throughout so there are no “harvest wholes” in the patch. When you harvest mindfully, you are in constant connection and communication with the plants – you can tell when it is time to stop.
- Leave no trace. The patch you harvested from should look no different when you leave it. There should be plenty of plants left; the patch should still look abundant and thriving. Since you harvested plants throughout, there are no missing chunks to the patch. There are enough plants for the animals and bees, enough for them to go to seed and create new plants.
- Close sacred space. Thank the plants once again. If you have been burning a sacred resin, put out the coal and make sure you are not leaving anything behind. You now have a special relationship to this place and this patch. Hold it in you heart and call upon the spirits of this patch when you prepare your herbal medicine.