A concern about the composition of commercially produced food, genetically modified crops and a seemingly endless litany of food recalls has spurred many people to become more knowledgeable about the source of their sustenance. The rise in kitchen gardens, the opening of more farmers markets each year, and the conversion of empty urban lots to community gardens are definitive signs of a surge in the local food movement, allowing us to have a solid grasp on that which nourishes our bodies. Add to this a swelling interest in wild foraging for both food and medicine, and it becomes clear that we are taking self-reliance much more seriously. This can have many excellent benefits for our environment.
But with this rediscovery of “homegrown” comes an important responsibility, particularly in our foraging and wildcrafting. To understand how to be an ethical harvester of wild plants, one must become well-versed about these species beyond just what value they bring to our own personal well being. In addition to the “Six Knows” of harvesting wild plants, we must also consider the following.
- Know the plant’s value to other species: We are not alone on this planet. While humans can grow their own food, wild animals depend upon naturally occurring plants for their sustenance. If a plant you wish to harvest is an important food source for another species (including insects), evaluate its local availability before harvesting. If its occurrence is limited, perhaps you can forsake the harvest in this location, finding a more prolific source, or forgo that plant altogether until it becomes more established.
- Understand the plant’s life cycle (reproductivity): Many plants are like animals in that they take some time to reach sexual maturity. Harvesting a plant before it has begun reproductivity can compromise the future population of that species. Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) is an excellent example. While it is a perennial, it takes up to five years for it to reach flowering age. We want to avoid harvesting the Trout Lily in its first year of flowering, which we can determine by the presence of two leaves, instead of one.
So, please enjoy your foraging but remember to take no more than 1/3 of a complete stand and become acquainted with the aspects of your selection to ensure its future availability for the many species who rely on these wonderful gifts of nature.