Each year I spend time in the wilderness learning to honor and support the relationship between plants and humans in wild landscapes. Wildcrafting , foraging , and regenerative wild tending are terms that express ways that humans can kindly and respectfully harvest plants and mushrooms from wild populations.
If you are interested in learning to gather plants from the wild, remember that wildcrafting can be a sustainable, powerful, and regenerative practice when done with care for the resilience of the whole ecosystem. It requires botanical identification skills and ecological awareness, both of which you can easily learn through teachers, through regularly spending time observing changes in your landscape each season, and through self-study.
Gaining the self-awareness to understand how your actions are affecting the plants and animals around you takes patience and time. Humans have been wildcrafting for tens of thousands of years. Ethical wildcrafters today dedicate much of their lives to deeply understanding the subtle dynamics and complex patterns of the ecosystems in their bioregions. They can recognize how plants, animals, natural disturbance patterns, and nutrient cycles affect the diversity and vigor of plant and animal communities. They bridge the gap between humans and nature by using their tools and movements to mimic natural patterns that benefit the ecosystem.
Wildcrafters both intuitively and empirically understand where to find what they are looking for in the wild. For example, where I live in the Puget Sound, I know where and when to find nettles. Nettles like wet, enriched areas. I see a huge abundance of them near rivers and adjacent to old mining lands, downslope of roads or developments, and places where lowland deforestation has left lasting impacts. Nettles help repair the earth’s blanket after large-scale disturbances, forming dense thickets with their horizontally spreading rhizomes. They are often found below maples and alders where they get plenty of light in the early spring before the deciduous trees fully leaf out.
Harvesting nettles requires an understanding of the local area to ensure that you get them from places with clean water and soil. The way you move through a patch of nettles is important: because they are often found on seeping slopes, you must walk carefully to prevent erosion and soil compaction. Also, when you are focused on harvesting a particular species of plant or mushroom it is easy to ignore other plants in the same vicinity. Learning the names of other plants that grow in the same ecosystem will help you recognize their presence and importance. Walk gently and avoid removing or disturbing other plants in your effort to harvest the plant you want.
Harvesting for Resilience
I do not usually harvest more than 10 percent of a population of any wild plant unless it is a fast-spreading species that is negatively impacting the health and diversity of an area. (Japanese knotweed is an example of an invasive plant that should be harvested to help control its spread.) This 10 percent rule is a standard metric to ensure sustained growth and resilience.
Harvesting shoots and leaves from a plant mimics the behavior of plant-eating animals. A small amount of harvesting can stimulate growth in a species like nettles, but too much harvesting reduces the vigor of a plant population and can weaken its immunity. Plus, you never know who else might be harvesting from the same spot after you’ve left. For a species as abundant as nettles, I often harvest far less than 10 percent from popular areas that have a lot of foot traffic. Many wildcrafters go a step further and actively collect and spread plants and seeds into nearby areas that have been recently disturbed and could benefit from a particular plant.
A Long Partnership
We are often bombarded with sad stories of human development destroying ecosystems through slash-and-burn practices, clear-cutting, and the paving over of sacred sites. In response to these devastating techniques, biodiversity quickly disappears. Our instinct is to preserve remaining wildlands by restricting access to them beyond recreational hiking trails. But the truth is that our wildlands could benefit from the kind of human influences that skilled wild tenders and wildcrafters can provide. We need to end the destruction of our wild places and relearn the practice of careful tending.
Nourishing humans and protecting wild spaces do not need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, well-tended forests, meadows, and wetlands are more resilient and provide important foods and medicines for humans. In some ecosystems, such as the sagebrush steppe in Washington and Oregon, we are seeing the disappearance of indigenous food plants because humans are not managing these ecosystems the way they did in the past. Many plant species evolved with human interaction and benefit from that relationship. In the sagebrush steppe, the act of carefully digging up edible roots and spreading them helps loosen hard clay soils and creates beneficial microclimates for seeds to germinate.
In many of the ecosystems where I live, the forest encroaches on historical meadows because human tending and natural disturbance regimes are prevented. Controlled burns are essential to the rejuvenation of many native plants that thrive in meadows, woodlands, savannas, and prairies throughout the world’s temperate climates. Controlled burns were historically practiced in cycles of several years to keep meadows open and promote the growth of myriad food plants for both animals and humans. By not allowing people to practice forest thinning and the ancient ritual of controlled burning, we end up with dense forests and massively destructive large-scale forest fires.
I am totally enamored with wild food and medicine plants from Washington and Oregon. I am especially in love with edible roots and seeds from wet and dry prairies. I have spent the last five years learning to identify and tend edible and medicinal lomatium, lilies, oaks, yampas, fritillaries, and camas, to name a few. I have spent many months with friends traveling around, cataloging and mapping out areas where remnants of vast wild edible gardens once existed. I experiment with techniques to replant areas with these native food plants and try to learn from others how to revitalize landscapes using native edibles.
People can learn how to care for wild spaces in ways that actually increase diversity, abundance, and resilience. And we are in dire need of a new generation of farmers, gardeners, and ecologists who will develop large-scale land-management plans that work with the natural disturbance cycles of our forests, meadows, prairies, and wetlands to increase their native biodiversity, productivity, and resilience. If we work in partnership with nature in our own backyards and in the wild, we can together create abundant healing landscapes.