|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, wildcrafters must
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
Absolute prohibition on gathering endangered
… 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
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
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
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 the ecosystem.
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 cycles.
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, click
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.