What to Know BEFORE Harvesting Wild Plants

Using the wonderful wild plants of Earth can result in so many benefits for our physical and spiritual health. However, all due care should be used in this process. And remember to be a responsible forager. When harvesting, ALWAYS LEAVE PLENTY OF SPECIMENS BEHIND! We want our wild herbs to reproduce so be sure to take no more than one-third (1/3) of a stand. In addition, certain plants only should be harvested during certain phases of their life-cycles. For example, Trout Lily should not be harvested if the specimen displays more than one leaf; it takes this plant more than one year to flower so do NOT harvest it if the plant is showing two leaves otherwise it may fail to reproduce. Also, if the plant is endangered (i.e. American Ginseng, certain ferns, etc.), DO NOT HARVEST – it might be illegal and certainly does not help them propagate for future survival. And remember, wildlife depend SOLELY on food available in the wild so be sure you are not taking from our fellow species. We can grow our own food but they cannot.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)

If you are not certain on any of the following, do not harvest but get assistance from a professional botanist, naturalist, or herbalist. We enjoy helping others learn these important skills.

1. Know the Species/Positively Identify: Do not presume what you are looking at is the correct plant. Refer to recommended field guides and use ONLY scientific names for proper identification. Many plants have the same common name but one may be radically different from another (Sumac, for example, can be beneficial or poisonous depending on the species). Always know the plant family because it may also be a potential allergen.

2. Know the Environment: Be certain that the area where the plants are growing is clean and free of potential toxins or wastes. For example, never harvest plants from along side a well used trail – quite often people walk with their dogs and we all know that dogs like to mark trails! Also, be cautious along roadsides – salt, asphalt and oil all have very negative impacts. And be sure you are not in a runoff area for roads, industry, conventional farms or livestock.

3. Know When to Harvest: Timing is everything when it comes to harvesting. The beneficial properties may be best at a certain time of the growing cycle. For example, Dandelion greens are best BEFORE the plant flowers. Sometimes a plant can become toxic after a certain point (Milkweed, May-apples). Some plants should be harvested in a specific year (particularly true for biennials). Be well versed in knowing the proper time to harvest wild plants.

4. Know the Plant’s Purpose: What effects will the plant have on the physical system? Be sure you know all the potential uses of the plant. Some plants are natural stimulants, others depressants, some are diuretic or cathartic, some have multiple uses (often depending on which part is used – see below), etc. Also, make sure you are aware of any potential interactions with medications or other herbal preparations you are using.

5. Know Which Part to Use: Some plants are usable in their entirety while others may have poisonous constituents (think Rhubarb). Do your research and know what part of the plant is helpful and what may not be.

6. Know How to Prepare: Plants can have a wide range of preparatory requirements from none to aged for months. And often the type of preparation is related to the benefit you are looking to gain from the plant. Some plants require preparation before consumption (Nettles) while others lose all benefits from being over-processed.

When you have a good working knowledge of all these KNOWS, you are in a good place to forage in the great outdoors for our botanic friends. If you have any question, hook up with someone who “KNOWS THESE KNOWS”. Happy harvesting!


Stalking the Healthful Herbs by Euell Gibbons

Peterson Field Guides: Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs

Herbs: Partners in Life by Adele Dawson

Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health: 175 Teas, Tonics, Oils, Salves, Tinctures, and Other Natural Remedies for the Entire Family by Rosemary Gladstar

2 thoughts on “What to Know BEFORE Harvesting Wild Plants

  1. Pingback: Foraging Season Begins |

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