Seeing as the growing year is upon us, it's the ideal time to share this guide for those of you considering gathering your own wildfoods and/or native medicinals this year!
As a medical herbalist and year round sustainable forager, I probably have a rather unique take on the commonest of herbs. Most people call them weeds, but I consider them ‘unloved plants’. Instead of dismissing them as mundane or maddening, those of us who work with wild native medicinal herbs and seasonal wildfoods should embrace them with enchantment and deep appreciation for what they are, green blessings. These medicinal and edible ‘weeds’ - vile and vulgar villains to most - are the herbalists and wild food chefs best friends, they certainly are mine. They're more than friends, they are esteemed colleagues and dear family. This alchemical perspective, transforming the unplanned and uninvited into a veritable treasure, is a wise approach to have in life and needn’t be limited to 'weeds'.
Edible and Medicinal Weeds: Rising Stars of the Local Foods Movement
Edible and medicinal weeds can play an important role in the local foods movement, permaculture and in sustainability. These useful herbs can be incorporated into herbal and vegetable CSA shares, alongside their cultivated kin. In fact, I noticed stinging nettles and dandelion greens being sold in several ‘trendy’ food stores in both London and New York, and showing up on menus at high end restaurants, so yay to that! Rightly so too, as feral greens deserve their rightful spot on the menus of farm-to-table restaurants, right next to wild mushrooms and sea vegetables. Many adventurous chefs are hungry for new foods, especially if they’re familiar with their local history and importance. Tapping into the vast resource of local wild weeds also reduces the environmental impact of packaging and transportation and ensures you are eating the most nutritionally dense, fresh, seasonal greens.
Mistaking Foraging for Plundering
This brings us to an important topic that is especially dear to my heart. I’ve seen more than one herbalist make blanket statements about moratoriums on wildcrafting, which stem, in part, from concern about wild plant populations. Overharvesting plants is a serious issue of our times, along with habitat loss and the pressures plants face with climate change. I have the deepest regard for the future of native plants, including medicinals, but I think it’s a mistake to lump rare natives together with opportunistic plants that have an invasive worldwide distribution.
What if a well-meaning herbal novice reads a “NO WILDCRAFTING” meme on social media and starts to think she/he shouldn’t be harvesting any wild plants (including seriously invasive weeds) because it’s bad for the earth or hurting the plants? Perhaps they’ll decide that instead of harvesting the non-native, invasive roses growing as a brambly mess in her backyard, it is ethical to purchase imported dried rosebuds in the herbal bulk bins from her local food co-op. The co-op procures its dried roses from a large, (perhaps) reputable herbal distributor, which happens to purchase its (maybe) organic roses from a far away land. Those rosebuds came across the sea in barrels on a gigantic ship and then were shipped by road or rail across the country. Maybe even back again for delivery (redistribution)! Meanwhile, those roses aren’t getting any fresher, and the carbon footprint isn't getting any smaller.
This isn’t to say that the co-op or the herb distributor wouldn’t carry local dried roses if they were available. The problem is, they aren’t available because there aren’t enough domestic growers and many people don’t want to pay the higher price for domestically grown herbs. In the United States for instance, domestic herb production doesn’t even come close to filling the demand for herbs. In fact, in the USA, most of the herbs consumed are grown abroad and may have been sprayed, adulterated, contaminated, or grown and harvested by someone who wasn’t fairly compensated. It’s a funny ole conundrum really isn’t it, which begs the question in this case, how badly do you need to work with a certain herb, and what are the wild/native alternatives?
This is what led me to my approach for sustainable herbalism and the recipes, formulas, etc that I offer. For me, working with wild natives removes the unsustainable agriculture practices, carbon footprint and environmental damage, the unnecessary packaging and repackaging, the chemicals, the risk of fillers, bulkers, and puffers, it pretty much eliminates cross contamination, child labor/underpaid workers, the lack of fair trade, and more. Moreover, you can take complete responsibility and and accountability for what you ingest and apply topically, as you have gathered every single ingredient yourself and know exactly what you are eating, drinking, putting on your skin! There is alot to be said for that, and it's incredibly empowering.
I have grown to appreciate working with wild natives so much over the years. Yes it is hugely time intensive, but I could never imagine doing it any other way. It's a labour of love, not 'work', and it is my chosen way of life and living. I feel it is the ultimate expression in authentic self care to nourish responsibly, and gathering the ingredients is such a peaceful wholesome experience that it is wonderful for mental health too. Even when I lived in the city I would get on the bus to the mountains and gather, so this is accessible and possible for everyone, irrelevant of where you live. Working with natives is also very empowering as you can do so ceremoniously and ritually (if you so choose), biodynamically (gathering the plant at its most potent), and as far as purity is concerned, you know exactly what it is that you are working with, no surprises! Learning how to use abundant 'weeds' as medicine can lessen the demand for herbs grown overseas, which means less waste, lower fossil fuel use, and higher herbal quality too.
Foragers as Stewards
Learning how to forage is a major game changer for any human. These skills are our birthright, but sadly most of us didn’t grow up learning them. Gathering medicine and food from non cultivated areas connects us to the natural world, our ancestral heritage, and our wild animal selves. When we are more personally involved with our foods and medicines (by growing and/or gathering), we can be assured that they are fresh, of high quality, and harvested in a sustainable fashion. We also weave ourselves indelibly into the great food chain of life, which instinctively encourages us to steward and tend our sources of sustenance.
In my mind, the most sustainable way to gather food and medicine from wild places is to hone in on a particular array of plentiful, generous, and nourishing plants. These herbs are the wild weeds, the common flora, the invasives - the prolific volunteers that are often tossed into the compost pile. These are also some of our most superb medicinal allies and nutrient-rich wild foods! I’m talking about plants like chickweed (Stellaria media), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), wild rose (Rosa canina), burdock (Arctium minus, A. lappa), cleavers (Galium aparine), violet (Viola spp.), blackberry (Rubusspp.), and stinging nettles (Urtica dioica). Believe me, getting to know these plants is a bit like working a magic spell - the ordinary suddenly becomes extraordinary, astounding, beloved. You will see the land through new eyes, believe me.
The New (Old-School) Superfoods
Wild weeds, in general, are significantly more concentrated in nutrients, minerals, and antioxidants than their cultivated cousins. This means that everyone, especially folks who don’t typically have access to high-quality produce, can revitalize their diets (for free). Tending these weedy plants is even in our blood: most of our indigenous ancestors sustainably managed wild ecosystems to provide nutritious, abundant sources of food throughout the year.
So how do we echo their practices in the modern world?
SUSTAINABLE FORAGING GUIDELINES
1. Only forage abundant plants with a large, widespread population
In my practice, I favor plant species with a sizable population - preferably widespread over a large geographical area - and avoid using rare or less populous species. I won’t harvest rare plants from the wild at all, and I teach my students, workshop, and retreat participants the same. If you’re unsure whether a food or medicine is abundant in your area, you can consult local and/or regional resources such as the United Plant Savers and state and federal listings of endangered and at-risk species.
Never harvest a plant without first assessing its population and the pressures it might face from habitat loss or commercial demand. For example, a plant may be locally abundant, but if there’s a widespread demand, it can quickly disappear, its population decimated from overharvesting. As a little side note to this, my personal practice each year is to collect a little seed from the rare and at risk species, grow them to seedlings, and reintroduce them back to the wild again as young plants, ensuring their continuance in the area.
2. Favour harvesting plants that are non-native
One of the first things I consider when choosing which plants to forage is whether a plant is native and tied into local food webs or is an escapee from other lands. Non-natives displace native species by competing with them for natural resources. These opportunistic plants haven’t evolved locally with the same checks and balances that native plants have experienced, and so they often flourish. This makes them prime forage for us humans, especially because they stick close to places we inhabit, thriving in cities, gardens, fields, and the like. Those of us living in Europe will be familiar with Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia Japonica), the bane of every farmer, gardener and park ranger. However young Japanese Knotweed shoots are edible, and are in fact delicious (taste like rhubarb), so eating this in quantity while it is in season would also assist its management as an invasive species in its environment! In the United States, most common wild weedy medicinals are non natives, including multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), burdock (Arctium minus), and many species of blackberry and raspberry (Rubus spp.).
3. Tend the spaces “in between” and try to honor what you harvest in a way that there is as little waste as possible
For those of you who grow a garden, wild weeds will naturally come and make themselves at home—and can peacefully cohabitate with planted veggies and herbs. You can employ plenty of tricks to help them play nice, and, as a reward for acting as a botanical referee, you’ll harvest even more food and medicine from your garden! This is the bounty that grows in between: the medicine and food that you didn’t plant yet still get to reap - I call it the 'in between eating'.
Let’s take lamb’s quarters as an example of this useful-weed-and-planted-crop-polyculture method. Lamb’s quarters - also called wild spinach - has more fiber, beta-carotene, vitamin C, zinc, and calcium than cultivated spinach. Why would you weed out such a nutritious plant that doesn’t need special care or insect control to make room for less nutritious vegetables that are harder to grow?
In my garden, I leave the wild spinach that comes up in the veggie patch. After harvesting the wild spinach for a few weeks or a month, the veggies fill out, and then I remove the lamb’s quarters, remove the seeds and greens for culinary purposes, and usually make paper from the stalks. Wild spinach requires no cultivation after it finds its way into the garden and is relatively disease and insect free.
Another example is Ribwort, otherwise known as broadleaf plantain. The leaves on this incredible herb are a great respiratory tonic for chesty or itchy coughs. I make a syrup with this every year and hand it out to everyone I know with children. I can never make enough of it and the kids love it. The seeds of this plant are a wonderful substitute for chia and actually what our ancestors used to thicken soups, stews and one pot wonders back in the day. The leaves are wonderful field bandages and my go to for stings, and from a medicinal and energetic perspective, Ribwort is a herb I work with alot throughout the year, What’s more, they're stunning plants! Once they have finished going to seed in early winter, I gather the stalks for weaving and cordage making too.
This brings me to honoring the plant fully, and nettles. There are three very beloved nettle patches in our little garden. Throughout the growing season, the tips are eaten in meals, teas, condiments, made into cordials or beer, dried for teas, tinctured, used in medicinal blends in the herbal dispensary, and more. The fibers in the stalks are used to make nettle cordage, I love to use to bind herbal funigation wands and other ceremonial tools with botanical fibers, and nettle is one of the most durable. I've even crocheted a facecloth for myself from nettle fibers, which is wonderful to use in the spring and summer to exfoliate dead skin cells! Some of the root is harvested in the autumn for tincturing, and throughout the season, any off color leaves, shoots or extra stalks are made into a liquid fertilizer, together with comfrey and tomato leave thinnings, which is the most incredible liquid feed imaginable. Over the years I have also made botanical inks, pigments and paints from this plant, dyed clothes and natural fibers in my trusty colour cauldron, woven various baskets, bowls and vessels from both fresh and naturally retted fibers and stalks, and even ecoprinted on both paper and cloth. This one humble herb is honored in every way possible, at every stage of its growth, and it certainly has one of the busiest jobs in the garden, where it absolutely thrives!
4. Be a steward
Even when you gather plentiful (possibly pesky) plants, attune to a code of ethics. You’re interacting with living, breathing beings, after all. Take only what you need, leave beauty in your wake (leave no trace), and bring a natural biodegradable/compostable offering to make before you go - a song, some water, your hair, a handful of grain.
An offering invites a feeling of gratitude, reciprocity, and reverence. If you’re more science-minded, perhaps you’ll take a moment to breathe intentionally, meditating on the reciprocity of plant-human gas exchange, cellular respiration and photosynthesis. You might feel silly at first, but allow yourself the opportunity to be surprised. This is how we participate in the ancient plant-human dance of mutual connection, communication, and care.
If the plant you’re harvesting is native - and you’ve already assessed that it’s abundant enough to harvest - be extra conscientious about not overharvesting. If you’re harvesting an herbaceous plant with multiple stems, take only a stem or two from each plant. My personal preference is not to harvest more than 15-20% of any one plant. Spread your harvest out over a larger area and be sure to leave plenty of flowers and fruit for the plants to reproduce. If you’re harvesting roots, replant the root crown or take only a portion of each plant’s root system. When digging up roots, be sure to cut back the aboveground parts so the plant doesn’t become stressed for water with a root system that no longer matches its aboveground growth. These regenerative practices don’t necessarily need to be followed for invasive weeds with global distribution, but life is life and it's good to be nice.
5. Harvest in areas where you know nobody has sprayed herbicide etc
It’s important to avoid gathering plants near roads, railroads, and power lines, as the surrounding soil is typically contaminated with lead, herbicides, and other toxins. If no other options are available and you live in a densely populated area, always harvest at least 10 meters/30 feet from the road and make sure you are not harvesting in an area with environmental toxicity (such as the flood banks of a polluted river). Even hay fields that appear to be untended might be sprayed with herbicides.
The foundations of older homes are also problematic, as they are typically sprayed for insect control or weeds. If you live in the city, consider visiting a local organic urban farm or community garden, where you’re likely to find an abundance of yummy weeds, along with gardeners who are happy to share the bounty.
I would recommend staying away from areas that are common dog walking trails, for obvious reasons.
6. It’s essential to properly identify any plant before you harvest it for food or medicine
A good starting point would be to suss out any local or regional foraging walks, clubs or associations for medicinal herbs or wild food, even local walking groups that do treks identifying local flora and fauna. Failing that, a good ID book on wild plants in your area or region is also a good starting point.
If in doubt, do NOT harvest, and please for the love of god, don't cut or uproot a plant only to take it home, photograph it, and ask people on social media to ID it! Consult your local extension agent, master gardener, wildfood guide, or trusted herbalist if you need help with identification. If someone else shows you a plant, do your own homework and make sure that they are right before you harvest! Spend time with plants over the seasons - double-checking both photographs and written descriptions - before you make your move. Learn the poisonous species in your region (US friends will want to know about poison ivy etc). Identifying plants requires that you look at a combination of specific traits (rather than one or two traits alone), essentially differentiating your plant from the herd.
I’ve come to learn through teaching my herbal apprenticeship and wild foods classes over the years that the beginners are often the ones who are appropriately cautious, whereas the folks who know a little more can get bold, lose their cautiousness, and make the wrong move. One wrong move can end up being your last move! There are over a thousand species of poisonous plants and fungi in the world, some of which are so poisonous that one tiny piece can kill an adult.
Please ensure you are informed on local poisonous plants to learn before you start foraging. Lists vary depending on your bioregion, so please research your local flora and fauna, consult local field guides, governmental websites, and extension offices, and if at all possible, take a class, workshop, or herb/wildfood walk with someone who is knowledgeable in your area.
7. Legal and neighborly considerations
Always ask for permission from the landowner if harvesting on private land. If you want to harvest on governmental land, you can check with the managing agency for regulations and permits. Be aware of the different classifications of land management. In the United States, national parks are often visited for their natural beauty and are not generally logged or leased for grazing cattle. The U.S. National Forests are often managed for resources and may be clear-cut and grazed by cattle. You can often obtain permits to gather wild plants for personal use from your local U.S. Forest Service. Things are a lot more easy going in Europe! ;-)
Before you grab your foraging basket, keep in mind that there are other things to consider. In addition to an understanding of plant identification and how to safely forage in appropriate places, you’ll also want to know when and how to gather each wild food and herb, what parts are medicinal, edible etc.
Frank Cook used to say, “Eat something wild every day!”. I think it’s a reasonable goal, even if it’s just a little nibble. It brings us outdoors and closer to the heart of our sustenance the elements and the plants that sustain each of us with every breath we take.
Happy Foraging! May your baskets be full and your pantries plump with the bounty and beauty of weeds!