Wildcrafted Plant Stewardship: Cultivating Plant World Relationships

November 6, 2017

I recently finished reading the book Braiding Sweetgrass; Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and highly recommend it to plant people, nature lovers, herbalists, you, your family, your friends, people that breathe air, eat food, and drink water….ya know…so it’s a good read for a few of us out there. Towards the end of the book, she recounts teachings from her father, whose words made me decide that I really ought to put something into motion, rather than just sit idly by. I think about consumption a lot, and consumption in many forms, not just the newest latest greatest clothes, gadgets, cars, etc…but also about what we take from the land, even in small ways. The author’s father passed knowledge about tending the wild in a way that is beneficial for all, rather than just beneficial for one. A particular quote she included struck me:

“A lot of the time you hear people say that the best thing people can do for nature is to stay away from it and let it be. There are places where that’s absolutely true and our people respected that. But we were also given the responsibility to care for the land. What people forget is that that means participating – that the natural world relies on us to do good things. You don’t show your love and care by putting what you love behind a fence. You have to be involved. You have to contribute to the well-being of the world.”

I have been thinking a lot about the herbal practice of wildcrafting lately, and that quote hit me in many different ways. Wildcrafting is a practice of harvesting wild medicine plants to later be used in remedies such as teas, tinctures, soaks, smudging, syrups, etc. It is a nuanced art that requires not only knowledge of what the medicinal qualities of the plants are, but also excellent plant identification skills, knowledge of what part of the plant is most potent during what time of the year, and what plants are most sensitive to overharvesting and endangerment.

I used to wildcraft plants as I saw them. I would head into the mountains, and want something, and take some. Not a ton, but I would take. I always, always wildcrafted according to guidelines laid out for me by teachers before me, who were aware of wild, yet fragile plant populations. Don’t take more than 20%. Replant seeds or root divisions if applicable, don’t harvest something that is rare, and many other rules that were sometimes specific to various species of plants. While I always respected the land these plants lived in and respected the plants themselves, I was definitely removed from feeling like a steward.

In general, I no longer wildcraft in places that I have freshly stepped foot into. I will still harvest in certain conditions such as – I’ve been to these places before and have an idea of the health of the land, and will harvest invasive plants that were introduced into the ecology and have become highly opportunistic at the detriment of the native plant species.

Honestly, the amount of herbalists has increased many fold in the last couple of decades since I first wildcrafted anything. Herbal schools have popped up everywhere, (I have two small ones just in my small neighborhood!) and many of the students are likely finding their own spots to harvest from, which can lead to many different scenarios, most of which lead to less healing plants in our wild places. The scenarios in which it actually leads to more healing plants in our wild places are when those that are wildcrafting actually tend, rather than just take.

This is where my need to put something in motion comes in, and perhaps you, dear reader, feel a pull in this direction as well. I’m looking for some like-minded individuals in the Front Range area, (herbalist or not) who would like to help form a small group to consciously and unofficially adopt a place, or even a few places, (ideally within 45 minutes of Denver) and act as stewards that do our fundamental human task of tending. This would not be a one time, community service hours type of thing. This would be a long term relationship. It takes a lot of training to correctly identify plants. Tending the plants adds another layer of knowledge to the process of deepening your relationship with not only the plants, but their place in their particular ecology. This would require studying the impact we would have on wildlife and insects, not just the plants. This would require time picking up trash. This may require growing plants that are appropriate for the area and planting them, as a way to help mitigate possible threats to various species. I see this as a chance to do one of the things we are truly here to do. If you are interested in putting your head together with mine and a small group of others, I would love to hear from you.

In the meantime, supporting organic growers, as well as growing your own medicines if you have access to space where you can do this, are the best things to do right now, as wild places continually and rapidly disappear to residential and commercial developments. If you are in the Denver area and want your own remedies growing outside your door, but don’t know where to start, consider contacting me. If you do wildcraft or are intrigued by this topic, I recommend listening to this episode of The Herbal Highway radio show for additional considerations on being a steward to the land you harvest from. I also encourage supporting United Plant Savers, as they are actively trying to educate about endangered medicinal plant populations.

If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading. Comment below if you have thoughts on the matter or links to helpful resources!