Wildcrafting: A “simple” life fraught with a host of complex ethical and practical considerations
An ethical harvester of wild plants ponders the best way to preserve and protect the wild plants he depends on.

By Bruce Buren

I’m a lazy guy who enjoys the outdoors and good people, so the growing of native plants in their natural habitat provides the perfect setting for me. The less I do, the better the plants like it, and the people who share my passion tend to be good people.

Of course, doing less does require knowledge. You must be well versed in how to harvest sustainably, and you must have an earnest familiarity with the character and history of the land you tend. This harvesting of plants from their native setting is called wildcrafting.

There are those who wildcraft without regard to the ethics or laws of what they are doing. They are, of course, a threat to the plants and the ecosystems that provide a suitable environment for the plants. These are the people who do not own the land, enter it without permission and virtually strip it of whatever plant they are seeking or happen to find. This type of wildcrafter does not consider the welfare of the plant population. Some plant colonies are very sensitive to soil compaction. Once the soil that supports one of these colonies is trampled, the delicate ecological balance is shattered. The plant colony’s natural potential to adapt and survive climatic change is damaged, usually for years.

At the other end of the spectrum are the ethical wildcrafters. They assume responsibility for what they harvest. They make positive identification of plants before they gather them. They investigate the health of the ecosystem and the plant population before they harvest. They do not gather more than they need. They harvest only in appropriate habitats, never in vulnerable environments. They wear proper clothing and use the correct tools when harvesting in order to minimize any injury to the site. They obtain written permission from the owner before entering the land, or harvest on their own land.

The behavior of wildcrafters paints a bell shaped curve with the smallest number at each end and most falling somewhere in the middle. However, wildcrafters, even ethical ones, may pose a threat to the bioregion.

To be truly responsible, wildcrafters must
have intimate knowledge of the land they harvest

The ethical guidelines for harvesting of plants, alone, are simply insufficient to protect the plants. Wildcrafters by definition take from the wild, so they do not often have the ultimate responsibility or authority for the overall care of the land. It is difficult to gain the in-depth knowledge of the overall population of the plants for a given habitat without daily, first-hand experience.

Wildcrafters generally are not on site throughout the years and so do not have the necessary knowledge to take into account the effect of natural local events such as droughts, floods, erosion, infestations, blights or forage patterns of animals, all of which contribute to the effect of a harvest. Land use practices also need to be taken into account because of their impact and may not be known to the wildcrafter. Logging, grazing, mining, weed abatement programs and recreational use all contribute to the consequences of the harvest.

Actually, I find it disingenuous to claim that an area within our region is “wild” (uncultivated, uninhabited, in a natural state). There is a persistent myth that wildcrafted herbs are unaltered and gathered from pristine habitats. That claim can only be made by wearing blinders. My region of Ohio has been under development for more than 200 years. There are virtually no forests that have not been timbered, no area that is not reached by air, water or soil contamination or human encroachment of some level. It becomes critical to have a familiarity with the land that includes these intertwined elements and a stewardship that encompasses moral and practical aspects. The plants that we are discussing are used for medicinal purposes. To ensure the quality needed for the purpose they serve, knowledge of the land is critical to the sustainability of the practice.

Wildcrafters may not know the history of the land and as a result they may unknowingly gather plants or herbs from undesirable locations. Wildcrafters will gather herbs from along roadways drenched with heavy metal pollutants from road traffic. There may be agricultural chemicals or various kinds of contaminants in the soil that are unknown to the wildcrafter. Power line right of way are another favorite gathering spot for wildcrafters without other land ranges available to them. These right of way areas are a poor choice because most are treated every few years with herbicides.

Sick plants or plants grown in contaminated soil may have altered chemistries. The claim that these plants are wildcrafted and therefore unaltered is a disservice to the buyer and consumer of these plants and has the overall effect of undermining the value of the plants.

Even healthy plants in pristine locales can pose a dilemma. Pristine locales with healthy colonies of desirable plants should probably not be harvested. They better serve as a way to measure the performance of areas that are harvested. Problems also arise where wildcrafters attract attention to a healthy area. The trodding of feet from the curious as well as gatherers may compact the soil and ruin the habitat.

Most wildcrafters are not careless, or unethical. Some are very ethical and very knowledgeable about the land conditions. However, even they may inadvertently contribute to the degradation of the bioregion. Take the scenario where one ethical wildcrafter is followed, unknowingly, by another wildcrafter, each using the common rule of thumb: “take three of ten, leaving seven.” That formula can only work a few times before the problem of over harvesting has resulted.

Absolute prohibition on gathering endangered plants
… or research, development and regulation?

There is a market effect that must be considered as well. Wildcrafters who go out and gather huge quantities of plant material without an order for the plant drive down the value of the plant. Usually such a wildcrafter must quickly sell the product to maintain its value, and can do so without having to add in the costs of landownership, taxes, or maintaining the plant population. This artificially low price makes it more difficult for the ethical harvester to compete.

It is important to also consider the overall heath of the biocommunity before a harvest. If a plant is an endangered species --or even at risk if gathered on a commercial basis --then any wildcrafting may present a threat to the species.

Yet it may be as necessary to the plant population's heath to be gathered as it is to try and protect it by not gathering it. Please let me explain.

In one sense, it would make absolute sense to not gather any plant that was endangered. But to do so, I think, fails on a very practical level. Plants are generally held to have their greatest value if they are used. I believe that the greater the plant’s value, the greater chance it has of surviving long-range—with organizational help. Research and development to manage and propagate a species that has commercial value may do more to protect it than prohibiting its harvest “under any circumstances”. Many organizations are geared toward preservation and, although I applaud their efforts, it may often be counterproductive.

Plants grow old and die. Would it not be better to harvest the mature plants for use, allowing space for the younger plants to grow, rather than to simply let it grow old and die without its commercial value being appreciated?

The preservation concept of absolute prohibition championed by some wildlife organizations may make theoretical sense, but for the most part it simply generates a relatively small and ineffectual following whose contribution to the cause does not offset the commercial demand for the plants. Certain plants that are deemed by the preservation groups to be endangered or at risk command prices reaching 375 dollars or more a pound. Under these circumstances, advocating absolute prohibition applies a lock that keeps honest people honest but does nothing to protect against the determined thief.

Prohibiting the harvest of a plant rarely turns back the blade of the bulldozer. Plants must be used in order to demonstrate their value. If plants can be shown to have a demonstrable commercial and health value, then the market demand may have a positive effect on the plants survival because it will result in a substantial effort to produce commercial quantities.

A more effective approach, in my opinion, would be to teach how to guard against improper harvests, propagate these important plants and develop an ethical market for their trade. This in turn would stimulate a market demand for sources that cultivate and preserve and sustain.

This is an important issue to me. The land in our region is being developed and used for many different reasons. Unless we can demonstrate that the value of the plants in their undisturbed habitat exceeds some of the other land uses, the plants will continue to lose ground.

Land use patterns are a greater threat to native plants
than even the most unethical harvester

Farmers commonly look at woodlands as unproductive land. They measure land value in tillable acres. Thus the woods, once timbered, are of greater value to them as field land … and more habitats are lost. Landowners look at the woods for the timber value and take out of it what they can because they don't realize the value of the plants … and so habitat is lost. Farmers and other landowners who view these habitats as unproductive sell the land off for development or other uses that are destructive to native habitats.

I believe that land use presents a far greater danger to the plants we are trying to protect than harvesters. Some of the plants that are in great demand like American Ginseng and Goldenseal require eighty percent shade, they prefer mature woods and a northern face with good drainage and significant organic matter. Current timbering methods generally do not leave this type of habitat and it often takes decades to restore the ecosystem.

When important wild plants can be shown to contribute to the bottom line of the farm, there is a greater chance that the necessary habitats will. This requires, however, that the farmer turned wildcrafter become serious about understanding and maintaining these plants in their perennial, multi-year cycles.

There is much that we can do to preserve and protect and enhance the viability of these plants, which will in turn make a direct contribution to the bottom line of any farming operation. It takes work, patience and education, as does all farming, but at a time when we are all challenged to make our farms more productive and efficient, herbal farming is one viable method to add to our farms’ production. To make it sustainable, we must learn and accept the limits nature has set. Mother Nature is the best teacher for the cultivation of these crops.

I recommend that if you are interested in learning more about this fascinating and profitable aspect of farming there are a number of good books available. The best way to learn is by spending time in the field with a good field guide like Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants published by Houghton Mifflin and written by Foster and Duke. To order or learn more about this and other books on medicinal plants, click here.

There are several good organizations that I am aware of that have a great deal of useful information to pass along. Join worth-while organizations like United Plant Savers and Abundant Life Seed Foundation.

Be aware, protect, preserve and cultivate; and above all learn how to sustain.