Wild Foraging for Edibles and Herbs: Sustainable and Safe Practices

gather medicinal herbs

There’s something to be said for going out into the woods and foraging personally for herbs. It’s almost magical in a way, and it’s a practice that reconnects us with our ancestors. In our modern world, the practices of old are often forgotten about. Herbalism is one of the ways that we keep these ancient traditions alive and foraging is a part of that. Studies are starting to show the benefits of “tree therapy” and just how important our connection with nature is. What better way to start getting your own nature therapy than by going out and gathering some local herbs to use in medicine making!

There are a few things that you should know before running off to the woods to gather medicinal herbs, though. Foraging today is not like it was 100 years ago. Not only are there limited places where this is legal, but it can also be dangerous. Here are 3 key things you need to keep in mind:

#1: Accurate Plant Identification

It’s essential for anyone foraging for herbs to know plants and be confident in your identification skills before you go out. This is perhaps the most important tip for anyone hoping to start. You would be surprised by how many poisonous plants are out there, which look identical to several medicinal herbs. For example, Sambucus aka Elderberry is a fantastic medicinal herb. It’s found all over Southern Ontario, where it grows in nitrogen rich soil near farms and forests. Perfect for foraging! That is, until you come across the look-alike Wild Grape!

Wild grape is highly toxic, especially in large doses, and most definitely in the amounts needed for medicine. It looks almost identical to elderberry with only two minor differences. It also tends to grow in the exact same place as elderberries, and will frequently wrap itself around the elderberry bushes. That’s just one example of how toxic plants like to make it a little more difficult to gather medicinal herbs. If you’re going to forage, you absolutely must be 100% certain of the identity of the plant you are gathering. Herbal guide books are great to bring with you, and there are several wonderful videos available on YouTube to help you along your journey.

#2: Know the Area

Many people use pesticides in their gardens, farms and yards. The wind and animals can track these pesticides through areas they weren’t intended for.  In Ontario, you also have to be aware that the salt used on the roads in the winter can alter the plants as it is absorbed by the ground in the spring. Be mindful of this and avoid high traffic areas and anywhere you know pesticides are used. In addition, you need to be aware of the laws regarding foraging in the area you’re going to. Provincial parks often forbid the removal of anything from the area, for example. Research the area first and make sure foraging there isn’t going to get you in trouble.

#3: How Much is Too Much?

The last important thing to keep in mind is how much you’re gathering. It’s really easy to accidentally take too much, especially those harder-to-find herbs. Many animals and birds rely on the fruits and plants, and denuding their environment can have significant knock-on effects.

A good rule of thumb is for every herb or berry you take, leave three behind. Harvesting bark and tree branches is a little different from herbs and you need to take extra care when doing this. Never peel or cut the bark from a tree. This exposes the tree to diseases and insects, which can kill the entire tree. If you need to harvest from a tree, do extensive research on the best practices. Most often, you will want to harvest twigs that are still flexible and alive. Try to avoid twigs that have a lot of leaf buds so as to take as little leaves from the tree as possible.

Foraging for edible and medicinal plants can be an incredible experience that will reconnect you with your heritage. It is our duty though to do it in a safe and sustainable manner and keeping these things in mind will make it easier and more enjoyable for you. Happy gathering!

For more information on how to gather medicinal herbs, contact us for a consultation.

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