|I’m a lazy guy who enjoys
the outdoors and good people, so the growing of native plants
in their natural habitat provides the perfect setting for me.
The less I do, the better the plants like it, and the people
who share my passion tend to be good people.
Of course, doing less does require knowledge. You must be
well versed in how to harvest sustainably, and you must have
an earnest familiarity with the character and history of the
land you tend. This harvesting of plants from their native
setting is called wildcrafting.
There are those who wildcraft without regard to the ethics
or laws of what they are doing. They are, of course, a threat
to the plants and the ecosystems that provide a suitable environment
for the plants. These are the people who do not own the land,
enter it without permission and virtually strip it of whatever
plant they are seeking or happen to find. This type of wildcrafter
does not consider the welfare of the plant population. Some
plant colonies are very sensitive to soil compaction. Once
the soil that supports one of these colonies is trampled,
the delicate ecological balance is shattered. The plant colony’s
natural potential to adapt and survive climatic change is
damaged, usually for years.
At the other end of the spectrum are the ethical wildcrafters.
They assume responsibility for what they harvest. They make
positive identification of plants before they gather them.
They investigate the health of the ecosystem and the plant
population before they harvest. They do not gather more than
they need. They harvest only in appropriate habitats, never
in vulnerable environments. They wear proper clothing and
use the correct tools when harvesting in order to minimize
any injury to the site. They obtain written permission from
the owner before entering the land, or harvest on their own
The behavior of wildcrafters paints a bell shaped curve with
the smallest number at each end and most falling somewhere
in the middle. However, wildcrafters, even ethical
ones, may pose a threat to the bioregion.
||To be truly responsible,
have intimate knowledge of the land they harvest
The ethical guidelines for harvesting of plants, alone, are
simply insufficient to protect the plants. Wildcrafters by
definition take from the wild, so they do not often have the
ultimate responsibility or authority for the overall care
of the land. It is difficult to gain the in-depth knowledge
of the overall population of the plants for a given habitat
without daily, first-hand experience.
Wildcrafters generally are not on site throughout the years
and so do not have the necessary knowledge to take into account
the effect of natural local events such as droughts, floods,
erosion, infestations, blights or forage patterns of animals,
all of which contribute to the effect of a harvest. Land use
practices also need to be taken into account because of their
impact and may not be known to the wildcrafter. Logging, grazing,
mining, weed abatement programs and recreational use all contribute
to the consequences of the harvest.
Actually, I find it disingenuous to claim that an area within
our region is “wild” (uncultivated, uninhabited,
in a natural state). There is a persistent myth that wildcrafted
herbs are unaltered and gathered from pristine habitats. That
claim can only be made by wearing blinders. My region of Ohio
has been under development for more than 200 years. There
are virtually no forests that have not been timbered, no area
that is not reached by air, water or soil contamination or
human encroachment of some level. It becomes critical to have
a familiarity with the land that includes these intertwined
elements and a stewardship that encompasses moral and practical
aspects. The plants that we are discussing are used for medicinal
purposes. To ensure the quality needed for the purpose they
serve, knowledge of the land is critical to the sustainability
of the practice.
Wildcrafters may not know the history of the land and as a
result they may unknowingly gather plants or herbs from undesirable
locations. Wildcrafters will gather herbs from along roadways
drenched with heavy metal pollutants from road traffic. There
may be agricultural chemicals or various kinds of contaminants
in the soil that are unknown to the wildcrafter. Power line
right of way are another favorite gathering spot for wildcrafters
without other land ranges available to them. These right of
way areas are a poor choice because most are treated every
few years with herbicides.
Sick plants or plants grown in contaminated soil may have
altered chemistries. The claim that these plants are wildcrafted
and therefore unaltered is a disservice to the buyer and consumer
of these plants and has the overall effect of undermining
the value of the plants.
Even healthy plants in pristine locales can pose a dilemma.
Pristine locales with healthy colonies of desirable plants
should probably not be harvested. They better serve as a way
to measure the performance of areas that are harvested.
Problems also arise where wildcrafters attract attention to
a healthy area. The trodding of feet from the curious as well
as gatherers may compact the soil and ruin the habitat.
Most wildcrafters are not careless, or unethical. Some are
very ethical and very knowledgeable about the land conditions.
However, even they may inadvertently contribute to the degradation
of the bioregion. Take the scenario where one ethical wildcrafter
is followed, unknowingly, by another wildcrafter, each using
the common rule of thumb: “take three of ten, leaving
seven.” That formula can only work a few times before
the problem of over harvesting has resulted.
||Absolute prohibition on
gathering endangered plants
… or research, development and regulation?
There is a market effect that must be considered as well.
Wildcrafters who go out and gather huge quantities of plant
material without an order for the plant drive down the value
of the plant. Usually such a wildcrafter must quickly sell
the product to maintain its value, and can do so without having
to add in the costs of landownership, taxes, or maintaining
the plant population. This artificially low price makes it
more difficult for the ethical harvester to compete.
It is important to also consider the overall heath of the
biocommunity before a harvest. If a plant is an endangered
species --or even at risk if gathered on a commercial basis
--then any wildcrafting may present a threat to the species.
Yet it may be as necessary to the plant population's
heath to be gathered as it is to try and protect it by not
gathering it. Please let me explain.
In one sense, it would make absolute sense to not gather
any plant that was endangered. But to do so, I think, fails
on a very practical level. Plants are generally held to have
their greatest value if they are used. I believe that the
greater the plant’s value, the greater chance it has
of surviving long-range—with organizational help. Research
and development to manage and propagate a species that has
commercial value may do more to protect it than prohibiting
its harvest “under any circumstances”. Many organizations
are geared toward preservation and, although I applaud their
efforts, it may often be counterproductive.
Plants grow old and die. Would it not be better to harvest
the mature plants for use, allowing space for the younger
plants to grow, rather than to simply let it grow old and
die without its commercial value being appreciated?
The preservation concept of absolute prohibition championed
by some wildlife organizations may make theoretical sense,
but for the most part it simply generates a relatively small
and ineffectual following whose contribution to the cause
does not offset the commercial demand for the plants. Certain
plants that are deemed by the preservation groups to be endangered
or at risk command prices reaching 375 dollars or more a pound.
Under these circumstances, advocating absolute prohibition
applies a lock that keeps honest people honest but does nothing
to protect against the determined thief.
Prohibiting the harvest of a plant rarely turns back the
blade of the bulldozer. Plants must be used in order to demonstrate
their value. If plants can be shown to have a demonstrable
commercial and health value, then the market demand may have
a positive effect on the plants survival because it will result
in a substantial effort to produce commercial quantities.
A more effective approach, in my opinion, would be to teach
how to guard against improper harvests, propagate these important
plants and develop an ethical market for their trade. This
in turn would stimulate a market demand for sources that cultivate
and preserve and sustain.
This is an important issue to me. The land in our region
is being developed and used for many different reasons. Unless
we can demonstrate that the value of the plants in their undisturbed
habitat exceeds some of the other land uses, the plants will
continue to lose ground.
||Land use patterns are
a greater threat to native plants
than even the most unethical harvester
Farmers commonly look at woodlands as unproductive land.
They measure land value in tillable acres. Thus the woods,
once timbered, are of greater value to them as field land
… and more habitats are lost. Landowners look at the
woods for the timber value and take out of it what they can
because they don't realize the value of the plants …
and so habitat is lost. Farmers and other landowners who view
these habitats as unproductive sell the land off for development
or other uses that are destructive to native habitats.
I believe that land use presents a far greater danger to
the plants we are trying to protect than harvesters. Some
of the plants that are in great demand like American Ginseng
and Goldenseal require eighty percent shade, they prefer mature
woods and a northern face with good drainage and significant
organic matter. Current timbering methods generally do not
leave this type of habitat and it often takes decades to restore
When important wild plants can be shown to contribute to the
bottom line of the farm, there is a greater chance that the
necessary habitats will. This requires, however, that the
farmer turned wildcrafter become serious about understanding
and maintaining these plants in their perennial, multi-year
There is much that we can do to preserve and protect and enhance
the viability of these plants, which will in turn make a direct
contribution to the bottom line of any farming operation.
It takes work, patience and education, as does all farming,
but at a time when we are all challenged to make our farms
more productive and efficient, herbal farming is one viable
method to add to our farms’ production. To make it sustainable,
we must learn and accept the limits nature has set. Mother
Nature is the best teacher for the cultivation of these crops.
I recommend that if you are interested in learning more about
this fascinating and profitable aspect of farming there are
a number of good books available. The best way to learn is
by spending time in the field with a good field guide like
Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants published
by Houghton Mifflin and written by Foster and Duke. To order
or learn more about this and other books on medicinal plants,
There are several good organizations that I am aware of that
have a great deal of useful information to pass along. Join
worth-while organizations like United
Plant Savers and Abundant
Life Seed Foundation.
Be aware, protect, preserve and cultivate; and above all
learn how to sustain.