Harvesting Herbs - Wildcrafting
It is so gratifying and empowering to collect herbs in the garden, field or wood-land area and then lovingly dry them for tea or make them into an herbal elixir, tincture, salve or other healing medicine. These simple skills should and can be available to anyone willing to take the time to learn. Today, I will discuss harvesting techniques with you.
Harvesting of plants can be split up into a couple categories. Harvesting from your garden and wildcrafting. Harvesting from you garden is simpler than wildcrafting. Wildcrafting has a few additional requirements to consider. We will go over these before we get into the nitty gritty of how to collect herbs. If you are harvesting from your own land or garden, you can skip the legal issues and social responsibilities of wildcrafting that follow below.
Legal Issues and Social Responsibilities When Wildcrafting
Wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting plants from their natural habitat for the use of food or medicine. When wildcrafting there are a number of things to account for. If you are harvesting on your own land there will be no legal issues but if you are harvesting on someone else’s land be sure you have permission from the private land owner or if on publicly owned land make sure you know the state or federal laws and abide by them. Often with public land it is as simple as getting a permit that can be obtained for free. Permits can be obtained from the ranger station, BLM office or parks and recreation office, depending on who is maintaining the land you wish to harvest from. They will usually want to know where you are going to harvest, what you are harvesting, how much you will be harvesting, if it is for self use or market use and do you know what you are doing.
One thing I would advise you to inquire of them is if there is going to be any new road installation, timber sales (clear-cuts specifically), power line installation or buildings/parking on the land they are managing. If there is, you may want to scout that specific area out for herbs you can use. If they are going to cover the area with roads or buildings or clear-cut the area, there are many herbs you can collect and use rather than seeing them wasted under asphalt or concrete. In clear cuts it is a bit more complicated as you would only want to take the herbs that will be not be able to continue living in an open field. This requires additional knowledge on your part.
Harvest With Respect
Wherever you are harvesting, respect for the environment is important. Making sure you do not damage the environment necessitates your knowing how the various plants interact with each other and how your removal of plants is going to affect a specific ecosystem. If you remove plants without knowing how to do it in a careful and respectful manner the ecosystem is damaged and further availability of those plants is threatened.
Be honest with the land manager about what you are doing. Harvest conservatively, clean up your garbage and maintain the area of harvest. As herbalists we want to preserve but also manage the environment. The act of our harvesting changes the environment so it is best if we do this in a well thought out manner.
Become a permanent caretaker of weeds
Consider long-term contracts with land managers if that is possible. This will allow you to truly manage a piece of land and get a continual harvest off of it. This is most readily accomplished with private land managers.
The Nitty Gritty of Collecting Herbs
First get your tools ready
Tools that most wildcrafters find helpful are clippers, knife, shovel, and handsaw. However, I have done a lot of collecting with sticks as a digging tool and rocks to pound off root bark. Sometimes a rock is the best tool in fact. You also need collecting containers. If the weather is hot, you will need to bring something to keep the plants cooled down.
If you are collecting in warm weather and want to get back to your house with fresh plant material that is still in good shape, figure out how you will accomplish that. If you drive two hours in mid-July in a hot car or truck, how will your plant material look when you return with them. Things to consider are protecting them in coolers with ice, in boxes or large insulated containers with ice, a car air conditioner, or perhaps even processing the plant in the field.
Where will you harvest the plant?
Look for an area that has an abundance of the plant you want to harvest. Make sure the plants look healthy that you plan to harvest. Never take more than the forest or field can replenish in a reasonable amount of time, and never more than you can use. Some surrounding influences to plants that might effect their health is:
- Power lines
- Soil quality
- Clean water
- Is there any ground contamination nearby? (Don’t harvest near the town dump or in a farmers field that uses pesticides or herbicides or grows genetically modified seed)
- Do other plants they are in community with look healthy?
- Are there a lot of pollinators around? If not, there may be insecticide use on the land.
Harvesting the plants
Now you are ready to actually harvest the plant. Do this in a respectful manner. What that means to you can vary from person to person. Some people ask individual plants permission or permission from a grandmother plant. Some people like myself are simply grateful for the plants. I thank spirit for everything I harvest be it a wild plant, a garden plant or a chicken. I thank the being that is giving its life so that I and others may continue to live our lives in a healthy manner. You do what works for you. Whatever your words or thoughts are, they must be followed by actions of respect. If you devastate the area by harming the environment while you harvest or harvest so many plants/seeds that the plant can not maintain itself there anymore, your words and thoughts were hollow shells and were not truthful. Walk your talk for your talk to have meaning. It is your actions that show the truth of your intention.
The right time to harvest
Many things affect when you should harvest the plant. Some of these are the season, time of the day, the phase of the moon and other planetary activity, if the plant is dry, if it is flowering, budding, been pollinated or not etc. There is much to know about when it is best to harvest.
In general, the aerial plant parts are best harvested in the spring and summer, before or during flowering. They should be harvested in the morning after the dew has dried and before the full sun is upon them. Seeds are best harvested when fully ripe and dry. Roots are best harvested late in fall to early spring when the plants' energy is down in its roots.
Getting Specific About Collecting Herbs
I have taken some of the most basic and useful ideas for harvesting and listed them below. They are categorized by the plant parts you would be harvesting.
- Harvest prior to pollination
- Early in the morning
- In the appropriate stage for that flower such as with many Asteraceae flowers you usually harvest them when their ray flowers are pointing straight up in the air.
- Make sure the flowers are dry. Harvest after the dew is gone.
- Don’t harvest more than 10% of the flowers in that area as you are removing their ability to make seed and create future generations.
- Harvest at maturity generally
- Dry seed only
- Don’t harvest more than 10% of the seeds in that area as you are removing their ability to generate more plants.
- Spread the seed – In some cases spreading the seed around will help the plant. If you know how the seed naturally spreads and best grows, you can do a better job of it.
- Collect and grow your own seed for next time
Aerial leafy parts
- Harvest early morning in bud or flower stage but, this can vary. You need to know what is best for that specific plant. Each plant will vary slightly as to what part of the aerial parts you will be picking. It might be the entire aerial part of the plant in bud or flower stage. It could be just the leaves or just the flower tops. You really need to know the specific part of that plant that is used before harvesting the herbs. The dirty or scraggly and woody parts of the plant are not harvested.
- Dry plant material only.
- Be careful not to harvest too much of any one plant in an area.
- Take bark from small limbs
- If a tree or shrub needs pruning in the fall or spring, this is a great time to harvest the bark
- Don’t take bark off the trunk unless the tree is destined to be destroyed anyway. If bark is collected from the trunk of a tree, there is a risk damaging the tree irreparably; and if collected from around the tree trunk in a complete ring, the tree will die.
- It is best to harvest bark in the spring and fall when the sap is flowing
- Harvest the inner bark. This is the medicinally active part. Often when collecting the bark, you will get both the outer and inner bark together and if the outer bark is not thick it is OK to use it that way in most instances. When getting bark from small limbs the outer bark is not very thick and really too hard to remove anyway. Sometimes the outer bark is thick and you want to remove it. This is especially true of larger, older limbs. Removal of outer bark is best done when the limb has been freshly removed. Since it is easier to work with fresh bark, remove the outer bark from the desirable inner bark while still fresh and pliable. You will also need to remove the bark from the core or heartwood of the limb. I often use a hammer or rock to remove fresh bark. It will usually fall right off fairly easily. If it dries I usually have to use a knife and it becomes much harder to accomplish.
- Don’t remove more than 10% of the limbs at the very most on any one tree. If you have never pruned trees, get a lesson from someone who has fruit trees on how to prune and it will help you to be a better caretaker of the wild trees you prune.
- Annuals(not generally used)
- Biennials last only two years usually and you can harvest their roots from the fall of the first year until they start to send out spring shoots in the second year. I prefer them in the fall or winter of the first year, but if I have to will get them in the spring. They are not useful after that.
- Perennials live three or more years. You can harvest their roots from the fall through winter, until they start to send out spring shoots.
- Good for us & the plant to harvest in the Winter. Our harvesting the root in the fall-spring gives us better potency in our herb It is additionally healthy for the plant to harvest the roots then as it is able to set seed in the summer and spread that seed prior to our harvesting the roots.
- Thinning is a key idea here with perennials. Thin out thicker areas and leave the plants alone in areas of scarcity. With some plants, you can take part of the lower root and replant the top part of the root. What I notice however, is that plant is never as healthy as the ones that grow without part of their roots removed. The root left grows strangely. So, although some herbalists do this, I do not. I would rather take the whole plant than leave an unhealthy plant behind to propagate itself.
- When digging up a root, remember to fill the hole back up with earth.
- Generally collected whole such as hawthorne, chaste tree, schisandra
- Collect when fully ripe
- Since bugs tend to like fruit, some fruits are better collected after the first frost to kill bug eggs.
If you want specific information on the parts of each plant to collect and when to collect it, that information is in a chart called Harvesting and Liquid Extract Preparation Chart that can be found in my book “Herbal Medicine From the Heart of the Earth.”
Are You Collecting Fresh OR Dry Plants?
Fresh Plants Require
- Immediate processing
- Immediate shipping if you are shipping them to another user
- ice bags are necessary
- layer the plants with paper between them and ice bags in the paper. This keep them cool. Other wise they will compost in the center of the box. It also helps keep them from crushing themselves if you wad up the paper layers.
- holes in box help decrease composting
- next day, second day, ground shipping depends on how delicate they are
Drying Plants Require
- Dry quick, thoroughly – Consider a warm, dry attic with fans. Even a hot southwest bedroom with fans can work. Open the screened windows for air movement or use fans. If you have a dryer that is helpful for small amounts of herbs. Be careful to protect them from light, insects and night moisture if drying the plants outside.
- Storage - Protection from insects, heat, air and sunlight and moisture are necessary.For details on how to dry and store herbs see the article called "Drying and Storing Herbs For Potency & Longevity."
Here are ideas for you to learn more about wildcrafting or growing and collecting garden herbs.
• Sign up for my email list to be notified of classes on harvesting and processing herbs.
• Plant Lover's Guide to Wildcrafting by Krista Thie
• Edible & Medicinal Herbs Volume I (Video) & Edible & Medicianl Herbs Volume II(video) - narrated by myself and free for you to view on my YouTube Channel listed in the social butons at the top of the page.
• The EcoHerbalist fieldbook by Gregory L. Tilford
• Get a field guide specific to your area.
• Take a class in botany.
• Go on walks with local herbalists or take herb classes in your area.
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