Wildcrafting herbs – picking your own medicines

Many medicinal plants are still regularly picked from the wild—a process known as wild-crafting.  Though some of you old schoolers  would simply refer to it as foraging. Even in the developed world, herbs such as elder flowers and berries (Sambucus nigra), found in hedgerows and roadsides throughout the US and Europe, are wild-crafted both on a commercial basis and locally, to make herbal medicines and medicinal wines.

In many parts of the Europe there is a tradition of wild harvesting; wildcrafting, of all food types from mushrooms to autumn fruits, including the glorious saffron. As a child we used to go out picking the autumn fruits as a family, rosehips, blackberries, elderberries and sloes but the number of places that one can safely pick from has reduced due to increased road use and urbanisation. Still do explore your area and note where any interesting herbs are growing so that you know where to go to pick them when the time is right.

If new to an area I make a point of going out in the spring to pick a spring tonic of nettle leaves and to see what other wonderful plants that I can spot. Dog’s Violet and Coltsfoot flowers are both early flowerers and Coltsfoot is an especially good example of early plant spotting as the leaves don’t appear until later. Keep a journal of what plants that have spotted and where so that you know where to get the leaves later in the season so you can make whole herb

Salad made with wild herbs
Salad made with wild herb

remedies. Try making a soup out of young nettle tops or sorrel,nettle,ransom with a few primrose flowers salad!

It is generally excepted that any plant that is found growing wild in a self-sustaining environment will be better for you. The plant has managed to survive and  thrive picking its own environ this means it is in the best place for the most of the active components being at the peak of their active potential. It is establishing conditions that are as near to the wild or natural habitat as possible that gardeners who grow herbs try to create in their gardens.

Most herbalists would only pick a certain amount of herb from any area to hopefully allow any species to flourish in the area. Culpepper tells us to only pick 1 in 7 of the herbs when foraging but as we don’t know if we are the only wildcrafter in the area so please bear this is mind when picking herbs and pick less!

So what are the does and don’ts of wildcrafting?

Wait for a warm dry day when picking herbs as damp conditions can mean that your material may become mouldy whilst you are trying to preserve it and is therefore useless. Some people say that one should wait for 36 hours after rain fall to harvest though that is not always possible in the UK summer.

Make sure that you have identified the correct herb before picking what’s the point of picking a load of mayweed when you want chamomile. Buy a good plant identifying reference or pull us up on your phone!

Only pick herbs when the active components are ready for harvesting see picking guide or individual herb categories for details.

Only pick what you need or that you have time to process. Do not waste the herbs!

Only pick a few herbs from any area to allow them to continue to flourish.

Do not pick endangered plants or plants growing in Nature reserves. See plant information.

Do not pick plants by busy roads or near to obvious pollution sources. I.E. next to chemical processing plants, etc;

Do not pick herbs where there is evidence of dog walking/fouling.

Do not destroy the environment to pick your herbs.

There are many people giving herb walks in different parts of the county which can prove to be not only an enjoyable and educational experience. They can be invaluable in helping you to find out where certain plants are growing in your area not to mention help to make you a few herby mates.

Commercial picking of herbs

In the developing world, herbs are as often wild-crafted as cultivated. In some cases, for example in some African countries, nearly 90 per cent of herbal medicines used are gathered from the wild. Such a dependence on wildcrafting can threaten the survival of important medicinal plant species, especially if roots or bark are the main part of the plant used.

However, the main threat comes from commercial wild-crafting, where plants are gathered as a cash crop for export rather than for use locally as medicines. There are examples of medicinal plants being pushed close to the point of extinction in this way— goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) in North America and arnica (Arnica montana) in Europe are threatened species that are now being extensively cultivated. Until recently, echinacea (Echinacea spp.) was a common wild plant in its native North America; due to excessive wild-crafting, it is now rare to find it in the wild. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) accord helps prevent trade in endangered plant species, and by and large the needs of economics and conservation point the same way; cultivation makes better as German chamomile (Chamomilla recutita) are grown on a large scale in places as far afield as Egypt and Argentina. Demand for ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) has led to large plantations now found in countries such as France and the USA , where the leaves are harvested by agricultural machinery. As demand for herbal medicine grows, large-scale cultivation is more economically viable.

Organically grown medicinal plants are to be preferred over conventionally grown ones. Being produced without chemical interference, they develop naturally and absorb nutrients from the soil. They should also be relatively free from inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, and pollutants. Organic certification provides some evidence that a plant meets certain quality standards and has been cultivated or wild-crafted in an ecologically sensitive manner. Having said that one only really knows if it’s good if you grow it yourself and you know exactly what it has been grown in!