How to Wildcraft Herbs

wild jewelweed

People that enjoy making their own herbal preparations usually find pleasure collecting their herbs from the wild. If you have access to land away from highway fumes and farm chemicals, you can find many of the medicinal herbs you use in that location. Plantain leaves for insect bites, burdock leaves for burns, black walnut hulls for parasites and fungus, or jewel weed for poison ivy are only a few examples of herbs that I have harvested from the wild. However, wildcrafting herbs requires know-how, care for the environment, and proper processing and storage of the herbs once you bring them home.

Gaining herbal knowledge

Before harvesting and ingesting any herbs, you must know what you are picking. A lot of poisonous plants resemble herbs you may want to pick; and harvesting the wrong thing could be disastrous. For instance, the berries on the Devil’s Walkingstick have been mistaken for the common elderberry; yet they are poisonous. Purchase a couple field guides. My favorite is the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James A. Duke. The pictures are especially helpful; but you also need to read the descriptions of the plants. It is better to consult more than one book if you are unsure. My favorite way to learn to identify new things, though, is to ask someone to show you. A person that has been wildcrafting for a long time will not only show you what the plants look like, but where to find them as well.

Harvesting the herbs

Once you are sure that you have the correct plant, there are some methods that you should follow in gathering your specimens. First, you want to harvest your herbs at the proper time of year. If you are gathering flowers or aerial parts, they contain most of their medicinal properties in the spring and summer. If you are gathering fruit or berries, of course you will want to go when the plant is producing the fruit. But if you are gathering roots or bark, you will do best to get that in the fall after the plant is done sending out all its energy to the flowers and fruit.

Next, make sure that there are many of the same plants in the vicinity in which you are harvesting. Many medicinal herbs are in danger of extinction because of over harvesting. Never take the only plant you see. If there are not at least 3-5 other plants, keep looking. Only collect material from healthy looking plants that are free of insects and their damage or any disease. Carry them in an open basket or a cotton bag to keep from damaging them; and use sharp scissors or a knife to prevent damage to the plants. Finally, label your specimens to avoid confusion later on.

If you are digging roots in the fall, plant any seeds that may still be clinging to the dried flower head in the hole that you dig to remove the root. This will encourage more plants to come up in the spring. When harvesting bark, never cut a ring around a trunk or branch. The plant’s nutrients travel up the trunk or stem to the leaves and that would cut off the path for those nutrients. Only cut strips along a branch. If you need a large amount of bark, simply cut a branch from the tree and take all the bark from it.

Proper storage of herbs

Once home with your bounty, you want to make sure that you store your herbs properly so that they do not spoil. If you collected them to make tinctures, by all means make the tincture while the herbs are fresh. If you need to dry them for storage, make sure that you do not store herbs with moisture still in them. That will cause them to spoil. Also, store them covered, in amber colored glass jars in a cool place. Heat and light will cause them to lose their medicinal properties. Stored in this manner, herbs can be kept for about 12 months after harvesting. You may also choose to freeze your herbs in plastic zipper-shut bags. They will keep in the freezer for 6 months. Also, remember to label and date all containers.

Wild plants offer a free source of medicine for the herbally-minded individual. They also have higher concentrations of active constituents than their cultivated counterparts because they are growing in their preferred environment. So I encourage you to try the art of wildcrafting herbs.

Photo by cachemania


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