Waiting for the first herbs


When the fragile light first glides,

whispering across the land,

the cold sunlight of March,

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam


as sleet still stings like sand,

I walk in the bare woods,

before the first buds awake.

Tiny rosettes of nettle nestle

amid the leaves I rake.

In the garden little pokes

above the still cold dirt

but tiny chickweed leaves

to heal some small hurt.

Still the tops of most herbs

stand dry and winter browned,

waiting past the last April snow

safe beneath the ground.

Then coltsfoot and lungwort,

brave and hearty those two,

raise their faces to the sun

pale yellow and purple blue

Rosemary and lavender,

as your leaves slowly green,

beware the last blast of winter

that we have not yet seen.

I’m waiting for the leaves

to wave green flags of spring

I’m waiting for the flowers

and breath to rise and sing.

The world needs more poetry these days. I may not be able to do all the things I have wished to. But I heard that we now have a local chapter of Extinction Rebellion. My post is short because I’m off to check out their website and sign up to do my bit on the home front.

The way of the gatherer

Wildcrafting is the ancient craft of gathering wild medicinal and edible herbs. It is a craft with skills and standards--not a momentary impulse to tear up an interesting plant. The rules needed to ensure both personal safety and a good supply of wild herbs in future have been known for thousands of years. Wildcrafting is more a long-term study of plants and a careful use of them than it is a single harvest. 

I have written a lot about how to grow medicinal herbs and make your own medicine from them. This is my primary focus, because our wild environment is already under enough strain and many herbs which you can grow in your garden are endangered in the wild. 

Creative Commons image by  Elizabeth Ashley Jerman

Creative Commons image by  Elizabeth Ashley Jerman

However, many people do not have the luxury of space to grow a garden. Yes, anyone can grow a few herbs in pots, but that won’t truly supply you with all the fresh herbs you need. And in this age of toxic food, there is also the need for chemical-free food. Beyond that, there are some herbs that are very difficult to cultivate and other herbs that are simply so prolific in the wild as to make cultivation a ridiculous idea. As a result many people still turn to gathering medicinal and edible herbs in wild places.

The ethical practice of gathering herbs and edible plants and mushrooms is called “wildcrafting.” Much the way I have called garden herbalism “homecrafting,” the term wildcrafting implies not only the act of grabbing some leaves off of a bush while you’re out on a walk. It is a craft, a practice, and as such it has both skills to be mastered and standards to be met. It can be great fun and connect you to the land in a wonderful way, but it is also a serious responsibility. 

Although some people will go out an pick wild huckleberries once a year, this isn’t true wildcrafting. Neither is picking a plant just because you think you saw it on a blog post about herbs. Wildcrafting is a craft that you have to practice diligently or it can become quite dangerous. 

My husband was a paragliding hobbiest for ten years. He abandoned this hobby when he found that he didn’t have time to do it more than a few times a year. He observed that those paragliders who were injured and (in the case of one of his friends) killed in a fall were those who did not practice regularly and thus became rusty. Wildcrafting is similar. There are poisonous plants that can and will harm the fair-weather scavenger. I personally knew someone who died from eating poisonous mushrooms. And if you are lucky enough to avoid that, poorly practiced herb gathering will ensure that the herbs will not be there when you return.

I can’t cover all the plants you can gather and exactly how to identify them or what to be wary of in a blog post. For that, you need a good plant guide book and you need to study botanical identification criteria. Plant identification is a whole science in itself and before you embark on wildcrafting, it’s advisable to learn at least a bit about it and then to be aware of the limits of your own knowledge.. You don't have to be a plant expert to wildcraft, but if you're not an expert it's a good idea to use guide books and be meticulous about identification. 

Beyond identification, there are some general tips for beginning and experienced wildcrafters that can make your experience safer and ensure that you and others can continue to harvest the wild bounty of the earth. 

Creative Commons Image by Sterling College

Creative Commons Image by Sterling College

Practical tips of the wildcrafter:

  1. First, determine if you need to wildcraft. Echinacea is going extinct in the wild in North America due to wildcrafting and yet it isn’t that hard to grow and it's fully potent when grown in your garden or an empty lot. Whenever you can, grow your herbs yourself. This is better for the environment and safer. You are much more likely to be sure of your plant identification if you have once seen the plant grow from a seed, tended it, smelled it and tasted it fresh. However, there are some plants that grow very successfully in the wild but are difficult to cultivate. St. John’s Wort and plantain come to mind for me. I’ve tried to grow both with no success. So, I wildcraft them—St. John’s Wort in the empty lot next door and plantain in my own yard. It’s wildcrafting, even if it’s in your yard, if you didn’t plant it. 
  2. Observe whether or not the plant you want is prolific in your area. If, like my St. John’s Wart and plantain, it is then you can safely gather it in moderation. Even if it is prolific, it is important to only gather at most one third of any given stand of the herb. This is the only way to ensure that you won’t have to go further and further afield each year as you force your herb to retreat far from human populations.
  3. If the herb you want is not prolific, you may still be able to gather it, but you need to be very careful in doing so. Make sure it is not a legally endangered species, where gathering it may incur stiff penalties and make it even less likely that the herb will recover in your area and become available to you. If you can legally gather it, be certain that you don’t destroy the only plant in the immediate area. If the herb is scarce, you should avoid taking the entire plant at all costs. Even though the roots may be the most potent part, it is best to take the flowers or leaves and not all of those. You can return again for more of them. If there are seeds, scatter them before taking the flowers. Rather than limiting yourself to one third a stand, it is best to count at least ten plants before taking a scarce herb. 
  4. Find the best place to gather: 
    • Never gather near a road. Gather at least 20 feet from small roads and 100 feet from larger roads. 
    • Do not gather within sight or smell of chemical or plastics factories.
    • Do not gather the first plants you see of a particular herb. Ensure that there are enough plants before beginning to gather them. 
    • Try not to gather in areas where you know other wildcrafters go. You can easily “overgraze” an area even if each individual wildcrafter is responsible. 
    • Be aware of the fragility of certain environments. Don’t gather on steep slopes where plants have a tenuous hold. 
  5. When possible it is best to focus on herbs that are prolific in your area. Many herbs have similar properties and if one herb is scarce, you can choose to use another one with the same uses which is more prolific in your climate. While arnica is great for bruises, it is scarce in many areas and comfrey will work just as well.
  6. When you really need a specific herb, you have to know the plant and its preferences. Read about the specific plant and put yourself in the plant's roots in your thoughts. Be aware of what type of environment the plant likes--whether damp and shady or dry and rocky. Does the plant like disturbed areas or the true wilderness? Does it grow well near evergreens or not? Does it tend to get choked out by grass? The more aware you are of the type of environment where the plants you want do well, the easier your search will be.
  7. Gather only as much as you need. It can be difficult to estimate how much of an herb you will need. In the beginning, it is best to gather only small amounts. Test to make sure you are not allergic to them and then determine how much of an herb you will actually use. When you see that you have a lot of a particular herb left over, gather less of it the following year.
Creative Commons image by  Karen Roe 

Creative Commons image by  Karen Roe 

Setting out on a wildcrafting expedition:

  1. Make sure you wear long pants and bring some gloves. Nettles, thistles and thorns always tend to be worse than you expect. 
  2. Bring some sort of bug repellent. I prefer natural substances. A dab of geranium essential oil on your hair and lower back will (and any four-legged companions) will keep ticks away. Vinegar smeared on your skin will cut down on the mosquitoes.. 
  3. Wear a hat and a shirt with shoulder coverings. Bring sunscreen. We have simply damaged the ozone layer too much to be entirely free in nature. 
  4. Bring water. Even in areas that are not arid, you can become dehydrated quickly and there is virtually no more surface water that is safe to drink on the planet. 
  5. Bring a small first-aid kit. Even though you are going out where the medicine is, it is good to have a role of bandages and some disinfectant (St. John’s Wort or Yarrow tincture work well) on hand. My family has been injured more than once using sheers while wildcrafting.
  6. Speaking of sheers, bring sheers and clippers. This is not cruel to the plants. On the contrary! Tearing plants with your hands is the worst thing you can do. A plant can recover much more easily from a clean cut with sheers or clippers than it can from being pulled and torn.
  7. Carry a reputable plant and mushroom guide with you. Do not gather mushrooms if you are not absolutely certain of their identity. I personally would never gather mushrooms based only on a book. I would need to have experience gathering them with someone who had experience with that particular type of mushroom. But depending on your level of skill, you may be able to gather using a book. With herbs, it is still important to be certain of the plant identification. Use only a small amount of any herb you have identified through a book to be certain it is not a poisonous look-alike and that you don't have allergies.
  8. Use all of your senses. As you go on more and more wildcrafting expeditions, you will become proficient and find that plant identification is best done with taste, smella nd touch as well as by sight. While the taste, smell and feel of the plant cannot be conveyed well in a printed guidebook, your experience with these other senses will make subsequent identification much easier and safer. 
Creative Commons image by Sarah Zucca

Creative Commons image by Sarah Zucca

Ethics and Common Sense

  1. 1Many wildcrafters have a practical, earthy spirituality. Whether it is religious or scientific, we know that we are dependent on the earth and that the plants we gather are not unlimited. The ecosystems we walk in are fragile. That is why true wildcrafters always give thanks in some way or another. This can be simply sitting quietly for a moment to absorb the environment of the herb you need or it can be a specific religious practice, often a prayer or an environmentally friendly gift. Either way, giving thanks is not simply good moral hygiene, it will also make identifying herbs much easier for you in practical terms because the mindful practice of it will clue your brain on how to find and identify the herb more easily in the future. 
  2. Leave each gathering place in better shape than you found it. Collect some litter, cut back dead stalks to allow new ones to grow, clear out non-native species from around a delicate native plant, plant a native-species start you’ve grown or use rocks to slow erosion in a hard-worn gully. This is partly another form of giving thanks and partly it is a practical step to ensure that your local environment will produce more useful herbs. 
  3. A note on commercial use: With very few exceptions, I don’t believe that wildcrafting should be used to make medicines or food for sale. I don’t buy products labeled as wildcrafted. It may sound romantic, but the impact of such commercial gathering is extremely harmful. Some exceptions may be found among native peoples who are  skilled in protecting their source of livelihood over many generations and thus do not harm the environment in the way that industrial production does. Another rare exception may be found with herbs that are invasive and very prolific. I urge you to use wildcrafting only when you have no other safe source of an herb and to use it for your own close circle to mitigate the impact.

Good luck and may your adventures in wildcrafting be pleasant, useful and safe. 


Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Amid the glory of early summer, have a care for the winter cold: Home Medicine Cycle 11

The Home Medicine Cycle isn't just a collection of herbal remedies. And it certainly isn't a shopping list. I started with and continually find myself returning to the key element in this practice of "taking back your health." That is growing or gathering and making your own herbal medicines. 

Why grow or gather your own?

  1. The fresher the herbs the more medicinally potent they are.
  2. You know where you got them and have at least a chance to ensure they aren't full of pesticides or heavy metals pollution. 
  3. You can keep processing to a minimum to preserve the medicinal potency.
  4. You know every ingredient and screen out allergens. 
  5. The process of growing and making your own medicinals is a powerful way to connect you to natural rhythms and the earth.
  6. Some herbal medicinals are specifically more effective if they are locally grown.
  7. You can be a part of local, sustainable habitat and community development.
Elderflower - Creative commons image by J. M. Garg

Elderflower - Creative commons image by J. M. Garg

This week I have an herbal tip that is often easy to gather and you may not need to grow it. It is also a perfect example of an herb that will root you in natural rhythms and cycles of the earth and sun. That's elder flowers.

I know you can make elderberry wine and syrup later in the season and these have their own medicinal qualities and significant vitamin content. But I want to spotlight elder flowers because they bloom for only two or three short weeks each year in May or June, depending on where you live. And they are so essential to the home medicine cabinet.

The primary way we use elder flowers is in tinctures and teas to treat colds, sniffles and sinus problems. Elder flower is the single most effective herbal cold medicine I know of and it often works almost uncannily well, drying up serious congestion in a couple of hours with the rapidity usually reserved for unhealthy pharmaceuticals that block the body's production of mucus. Elder flower has a much gentler mechanism with better long-term effects. Sometimes it isn't as dramatic but it should be helpful with colds and sinus problems unless you are actually allergic to elder flower pollen.

Elder flower - Creative commons image by Kurt Stuber

Elder flower - Creative commons image by Kurt Stuber

Some people are allergic, so I recommend caution if you suffer from pollen allergies. I do know people who actually treat pollen allergies with elder flower tincture effectively, but due to their allergies they have to have a friend or family member process the elder flower for them and make it into a tincture with all the pollen and petals filtered out. This is likely to be one case in which the local origin of the herb will be an aid in allergy mitigation. 

Here is a link to the instructions on tincture making. You can use that recipe to make elder flower tincture and bottle a little bit of the June sunshine for next fall and winter when the inevitable sniffles will come around. 

I also recommend drying some elder flower blossoms for tea. The flower can be very effective for children too, but it can be difficult to give children tincture without exposing them to alcohol. 

Elder flower - Creative commons image by Hardyplants at Wikipedia

Elder flower - Creative commons image by Hardyplants at Wikipedia

It may be difficult to get motivated to go out and search for elder flower to treat colds that are unlikely to strike for another six months. This is why it's such a good herb to connect us with natural rhythms and remind us that we are in the cycle of the earth's seasons. Now is the time for gathering and producing food and herbs. The time of need will come soon enough.

Wild elder trees often  grow in empty lots and on the edges of towns in thick bushy clumps, Look for elder flowers in areas that aren't sprayed with pesticides on vacant land or along the edges of forests.

However, if you need a little added motivation, there are ways to make elder flower into a delicious and healthy summer drink, in fact an excellent replacement for pop and other over-sweetened drinks. I posted this recipe last year. Look here for the post on how to make a delicious drink concentrate with elder flowers.