The World Health Organisation document “Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP)” (World Health Organization, 2003) raises the following concerns about wild collected botanicals:
“Safety – The plant must be carefully identified to ensure that the correct species is harvested and to ensure that there is no adulteration or mixing of different species within harvest batches. Post harvest handling activities should ensure that contamination by microbial or chemical agents does not occur. Harvest site assessment must be carried out to ensure that there is no site contamination with toxic substances.
Quality The botanicals must be harvested at the correct time of year to maximise therapeutic levels of active constituents. The botanicals must be processed, handled and dried correctly to ensure that breakdown of active constituents does not occur.
Efficacy – The botanicals must be correctly identified, the correct part of the plant harvested at the right time of year, and the processing and handling must be done correctly for the final product to be therapeutically effective.”
So I would like to share some information with you all with regards to harvesting herbs from the wild. There is a lot to know and understand before you choose to harvest wild plants.
First you need to be able to correctly identify plants, there are some great ‘keys’ out there that aid identification. This is a must as there are numerous plants which look very similar and in certain circumstances one can be poisonous whist the other one edible. It is imperative that you can correctly identify plants – if in doubt leave it out. Also you need to research the plant and see how long it takes to regrow or re-establish itself. Some plants are slow-growing and can take up to 10 years to get back to pre-harvested levels, others are fast growers and you wouldn’t be able to tell that you had harvested there in a few months or a season. Learn all of the poisonous plants in your region so that you can be 100% certain with plant identification.
Secondly, you may have invested time and even money in purchasing a plant identification guide but before you can harvest anything you need to understand the habitat that you are planning to harvest from. For example, in your area it may seem that a certain plant or herb is abundant but it may be that it is the only patch growing in the region. There are certain agencies that you can speak to in order to get an understanding of your local area. One way it to explore it 🙂 As I live in Grimsby, I contacted the Lincolnshire Naturalist Union and I am a member of the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust. Both charities can give you the information you require. Please do not rely on books. For example, the amazing pasque flower is deemed abundant in books and online – and in places such as Canada it probably is, but in the UK it only grows in 18 sites across the whole country making it REALLY SCARCE!!
The Pasque flower – Pulsatilla vulgaris
A safe way to determine whether you can harvest a herb it to focus on what most people call weeds. These are plants which have a great ability to adapt and grow in abundance – the likes of dandelions, plantain, chickweed, cleavers, brambles and nettles are all seen as being weeds but in fact have numerous health benefits and many can be eaten as food as well as used as medicine!!
Nettles make a great herbal tea and soup and has medicinal benefits too
There are several laws governing the harvesting of plants from the wild. In the UK it is illegal to cut or chop trees without the landowners permission. I was walking though a local woodland which is also a nature reserve and saw a guy with a chainsaw sawing up an old oak tree so he could have a garden ornament. Luckily there were also wardens in the area and he got caught. He was breaking the law despite the fact that the woodland belonged to the people – it was still maintained by the local council and therefore their permission would be required. The guy has been charged and is awaiting trial.
It is also illegal to dig up roots without the landowners permission. So please check who owns the land and contact them prior to digging roots up. They may be happy to let you dig up brambles for them (the roots of which are astringent and tonic helping to reduce mouth inflammations (as a mouth wash) and reduce diarrhoea.(as a decoction). Please, please do your research, into ID, the status of the plant and who owns the land.
Another UK law states that a profit cannot be made from what is harvested from the land so if after all of the hard work and research you chose that you would like to harvest wild plants for food or medicine then please only do so for yourself and your family. Never take more than you need.
And unfortunately the research doesn’t stop there either. You may have correctly identified a useful plant, it is locally and nationally abundant and you have the landowners permission to harvest it. What do you know of the land? Is it near a busy road? Are pesticides used nearby? Are you near an industrial estate? You have to assess the area and determine if the plants that you would like to collect are safe from pollution or contamination. Unfortunately chemicals do not wash off as easily as a bit of dirt. It is also appropriate to harvest away from regular dog walking runs and avoid the spray line of a large dog. With all plants harvested it is essential to wash them. Sometimes with flowers this is detrimental so researching the area is essential.
“It is said that herbs effectively gathered from their natural habitats may be more potent than those that are cultivated. Wild crafting was a common and original worldwide process for collecting herbs; it was only superseded by commercial growing once demand and supply could not be met. It still is a frequently used method of collection and generally only reputable wild herb crafters who know how to correctly identify herb species and who pick from areas unpolluted by roads, industry or conventional farming, pursue this caring profession. Gathering takes place at the peak of each herb’s growing cycle. All harvesting is done taking in mind the non-depletion of natural plant populations or damage to their habitats.”
You have chosen to harvest a common plant, from an area which is free of pollution and with the land owners permission…. When you harvest please only take 10% of the plant. If you are harvesting flowers or leaves only take the top few stems. When harvesting a whole plant only take 10% of the total plant population in the area you are harvesting from. If you are digging up roots, only take 10% and replant the plant to give it the opportunity to reestablish itself. The key it to be respectful of nature and to only take what you need. Do not decimate an area. It isn’t just us who require the plant. A lot of native species are home to a vast array of different species who are also dependant on it for food, shelter and/or protection etc. Out of respect, please leave some of the healthiest and lushest plants in the area where you are wild crafting.
On that not, if you are harvesting in an area and there is some litter…. pick it up while you are there and dispose of it correctly!! We are all in our environment and whether we like it or not we are all dependant on it for our survival. It isn’t something which is away from us. Our whole economy is dependant on it. The oil, wood, food, shelter, clothing – even the man-made objects have all been created from the resources in our environment. Please do your bit. Picking up a bit of litter when you are already out harvesting does make a difference, as does recycling or upcycling. Not wasting food, lowering your energy consumption and choosing where you want to spend your money!!!
Sorry for digressing there… back to the subject in hand….
Walking in Bradley and Dixon Woods in the Summer with the light speckling through the canopy
Always leave the area as beautiful as it was before you harvested from it. Never harvest from nature reserves. Never harvest herbs or plants which are rare or endangered. Why not cultivate them instead? Especially native ones. I have recently purchased milk thistle and pasque flower seeds. I am looking forward to cultivating them. Not only are they rare native flowers in my region but they are medicinal and will benefit the local wildlife as well as myself. Who knows with the permission of landowners I may be able to plant some into the wild and hopefully re-establish the plant population.
There are some great things that you can do though. When autumn comes and the flowers have set seed, collect the seeds. You can cultivate some yourself but please spread them in the area away from the mother plant. Do you bit to help nature along, she will thank you for it. Also if you are aware that an area is going to be developed or destroyed then please rescue the plants of interest from the area before it is decimated. Where I live I was only 3 blocks from the countryside but unfortunately they are building out. There was some beautiful bittersweet (a poisonous herb which as a qualified practitioner I am licensed to use therapeutically). It is a stunning plant, with bright purple and yellow flowers similar in style to the potato (they are from the same plant family). It only grew in that area and it was losing it habitat. I was lucky enough to harvest some of the berries prior to the habitat being destroyed and there are bittersweet plants currently growing in pots in my garden. I will hopefully keep one but will return them back to a similar habitat locally for them to re-establish.