Tips for Wild Harvesting Medicinal + Edible Herbs (How to Forage Wild Plants Successfully and Safely)
This article will provide you with basic things you need to know about wild crafting (wild harvesting--i.e. how to find wild medicinal herbs) plants for use as food or medicine---in other words, how to forage medicinal plants safely and successfully.
I was eight years old. I was hot and sweaty and a little tired. But I was excited too. Dad was quizzing me about what this plant was and what that plant was and what were they good for. We were on one of our frequent long hikes in the mountains of Southern Nevada where I grew up and spent my life up til now. These quizzes were challenging and fun! Little did I know my dad was helping me build a foundation for future foraging.
He would point to a shrub or a flower, and ask, "What is that?" I remember doing my best to remember these plants, at that time, to make my dad happy with me. As an adult, I realize now what a gift those days are.
Those hikes with our family are now well-remembered blessings in my life. I am so glad to have learned about the special ecosystem of the Mojave Desert---the Chaparral, the juniper and pinion pine, towering ponderosas, and quaking aspens. The Indian paintbrush, Joshua trees, elder berries, prickly pear cactus, and so many more of these lovely plants were part of my upbringing.
Now, as of April, 2018, I am challenged to learn about a whole new ecosystem of plants here in the Northern Idaho panhandle, since we just moved here literally days ago. I used to wonder how to forage wild medicine in the Mojave Desert, and I learned. Now I'm learning to forage medicinal herbs in the wild here in Idaho!
I'm excited and so very humbled to feel the childlike curiosity of the complete beginning forager once again.
That child-like mind, the mind of the beginner, the curiosity and wonder---that's the mindset of a learner. And I'm so excited to begin this new herbal journey in a brand new place in our world!
In order to learn as quickly and as well as I can, I am taking an online course on botany and wildcrafting that will give me the tools I need to identify plants that are unfamiliar to me in our new area. I'm thrilled!
Even though I've been wild harvesting many of the herbs I use down in Southern Nevada for decades, like juniper berries, chaparral, and more, I am now in a different ecosystem here in Northern Idaho. It's time for me to learn how to identify the plants that grow here so I can make local medicine once again!
As a new forager to this place, I am experiencing that feeling of trepidation and the questions that those new to using and foraging herbs have:
"Is that plant safe to use? Which parts should I harvest? What on earth IS that plant? Is that lichen/moss Old Man's Beard (Usnea)? What does poison ivy look like?" (Don't laugh! I've never seen it!)
It's a little scary--yet exciting at the same time! And being that it's early Spring right now, and foraging season is rapidly starting, it's time to get out there! It's time to go experience the wild food and medicine in this area. It's time to learn!
So---if you want to learn how to wild harvest plants in your area of the world, here are my best tips for safe foraging.
FTC Disclosure: There are affiliate links scattered here and there throughout this article. If you click through and make any kind of purchase, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Here are the Things I've Learned About How to Wildcraft Herbs in the Wild
1) Correctly Identify the Plant Before Harvesting
This is crucial.
Some plants are toxic, and some are outright deadly. It’s vital to know exactly what the species is within the genus you are collecting from. Some families of plants do not have common uses across the various species, and some are downright poisonous.
Examples of the are plants in the carrot family (Apiaceae), buttercup (Ranunculaceae), pea (Fabaceae), the nightshades (Solanaceae), and Lily (Liliaceae). This is not a comprehensive list, and there are toxic plants across many other families.
It just underscores how you must be so very careful.
I have only been a few places in my life. I am certainly not a world traveler by any means. But I do know this: The Mojave Desert ecosystem and plant life is like no other place in the whole world.
When I would hike in the Pacific Northwest when visiting my mom, the green and lushness of that environment (ferns, people!) was incredibly different than what I was used to at home.
Visiting the woods of Alabama one time on a hike with one of my (then) college-aged sons gave me a taste of a deciduous forest---one that I was completely unfamiliar with. Other places have completely different edible and medicinal plants!
And even in the familiar Mojave Desert---there were plants I did not know how to identify or use that I would come across. I was thrilled to find books that helped me identify plants I had no clue about.
Also, here is a national plant database with species maps for you to peruse. Yes, I totally geek out on all this stuff. When I came across this excellent resource, I was thrilled! It helped me narrow down the species in a genus I was trying to identify. The Biota of North America Program’s (BONAP) North American Plant Atlas (NAPA).
The bottom line is that it is important to identify a plant based on its scientific name within a genus.
For example, Sambucus (Elderberries). There are several different species, and they are not all created equal. In fact, the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is highly toxic and should not be used for any reason, while the blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) and the black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) can be used interchangeably.
Some species CAN be used fairly interchangeably, and these you’ll. learn over time. But for a start, species of rose (Rosa spp.), blackberry & raspberry (Rubus, spp. various), hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), pine (Pinus spp.), willow (Salix spp.), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), and others I’ve not included here can be used for the same medicinal and/or edible purposes.
There are great plant identification books for every ecosystem.
Find at least three books specific to your area so you can do some cross-referencing and make positive identifications for the plants you use. You don't want to rely on just one source because it's very easy to make a mistake--and that can be dangerous.
And one final note: It’s a very good idea to know which plants in your region are poisonous and know how to identify them. There are a lot of “look-alikes” out there, and you should know about the ones native to your area.
2) Be prepared by having the things you'll need to forage.
I like to carry small pruning shears or scissors, a canvas bag I can carry on my shoulder, a notebook, a camera, and a pen or pencil handy. Bring a small plant identification book along too!
If you don't know what a plant is, take a small sample, draw a picture of it, and take a picture of the leaves/flowers/stem for later identification.
I've been on hikes without my "tools" before, and it's so frustrating to come across a new plant and wonder what it is and if it is useful as an edible or medicinal or not---and not have any way to collect a sample to learn more later.
Also, you might just come across a little treasure of a group of familiar plants and need those shears and bag to take a collection for later use!
3) Be on the lookout.
Keep your head on a swivel! Yep--keep looking up, down and all around. What are the plants you see? Do you know what they are? Is there one you think might be something, but you're not sure?
You'd be surprised at what you might find as you walk along, as long as you keep your eyes peeled!
One time, while out riding horses in the desert of S. Nevada, I came across these small plants with rounded leaves growing close to the ground. I was not familiar with them. I gathered a few, and later found they were a species of Mallow, related to Marshmallow---and quite useful!
I wouldn't have noticed them at all if I hadn't been looking around!
4) Be curious.
Having a sense of wonder about a plant you see is vital if you want to learn more about it. Curiosity about new things is how a learner keeps on learning, right?
Ask questions. Look closely. Be observant---By being curious about the world around you, learning about those plants, asking questions, and experimenting--you will become a great forager of herbs in your area.
It all starts with being curious in the first place.
Here's an example. Mr. V. and I were driving along the Clearwater River on our way to the next town of Lewiston about 40 miles away, and there were all these flowering trees on the hillsides! As we were speeding by, I kept wondering, "What on earth are those trees covered with white blossoms?"
Then I saw a sign in the own about a "Dogwood Festival," that was coming up. I looked up "dogwood images" on google---and there they were!
Then I noticed them starting to bloom on the hills up the road to our new home! Dogwood trees! Now I know a new plant in my area. I just have to learn about it now!
5) Take pictures of unfamiliar herbs to learn more about later.
These new-fangled phones we have available to us nowadays are real treasures when it comes to foraging.
When you come across an unfamiliar plant, take some pictures! The whole plant, the leaves, the stems, and flowers. Then you can search it out in a book or online later on.
There are even plant identification apps you can download on your phone these days. Also, there are some really great Facebook groups who are wonderful educational sources for learning about herbs, foraging, identification, growing, and more. You might like my private Facebook group, Practical Herbs with Heidi!
6) Walk slowly.
I used to be a power hiker. I just wanted to get to the end of the trail. Yes, it gave me a sense of accomplishment to reach a peak as quickly as possible. However, fast hiking meant I missed a LOT of the growth around me.
If you're out foraging for herbs to use as medicine or wild food, it's a much better idea to walk slowly so you don't miss anything. If you are speeding by, you might just miss that edible mushroom! Or that tiny Mallow on the ground, like I almost did that one day!
The thing is, some pretty powerful wild plants are quite small. It's worth walking slowly so you don't miss the tiny chickweed or an edible mushroom hiding under some brush.
7) Know about the area you are harvesting, and be sure it’s clean.
Who owns the land?
Unfortunately, you can't just go foraging anywhere you like. It's a good idea to know the rules.
Is the area protected by a government entity, for example? Since 95% of Nevada is owned by federal or state government, I had to be careful where I decided to forage. Many of the laws say you can't remove any type of rock or plant, and that includes parts.
And then there is private property---Does the owner allow people to trespass? Can you take plant parts on land owned by a private person?
This doesn't mean you can't go out and forage, but just be aware of where you are, who owns the land, and what the general rules are for the place. Get permission if you need to.
Is the area clean?
Know if the area is sprayed with pesticides or other chemicals,
This isn't necessarily a "rule," but you don't want to be harvesting in an area in or near where chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used. Really. You don't.
In large agricultural areas, pesticides and fertilizers often “drift” with wind currents and may end up on wild plants you think are just fine. Do a little research, and no what is going on around the area you plan to forage.
Roadways are other places to avoid.
The plants by the side of the road may look great, but sadly they are most likely covered with dust and all kinds of pollutants. Go hike a bit and find some healthy plants. My rule of thumb is to get at least 1,000 feet or so off a heavily traveled road, or about half that from a lesser traveled road. And I never forage off a highway.
This rule of thumb was always a little depressing for me down in the Mojave Desert because of the chaparral. Chaparral grow beautifully by the sides of the highways because of the natural dip by the roads that collect a little extra water.
But still. I always, always made sure to walk quite a ways away from the road way into the desert for my foraging. Sometimes the choices in plant material weren’t as good, but I was ok with that exchange in quality for being sure the plant was wild and clean as possible.
8) Don't ignore common plants.
You know what? Chaparral is "boring" where I live. But it sure is useful.
I've learned over time to really appreciate the plants that are common, easily found, and extremely useful. So while you are on the lookout for "new" specimens, keep your appreciation for the "common" plants.
Another reason to be aware of the common plants in your area, is they are often signs that other kinds of plants may be growing there too.
Here's an example. In the Mojave Desert, where the Joshua trees are found, you can be sure to find some chaparral too. In areas where juniper grows abundantly, so does pinion pine. This is referred to as a “pinion-juniper belt.”
Think about your area. Are there plants that grow commonly together? This will give you a clue as to what you’ll be able to find in a location.
Plants grow in certain environments and elevations, so if you know about plants in an area---perhaps you'll be on the look out for others that may just grow in that same place.
9) Harvest responsibly.
Please don't strip a wild plant.
The general rule of thumb is to take only what you need, and never more than a third of a plant. Personally, I have never, ever even taken close to that much from a wild plant. You definitely want to make sure the plant can thrive once you are gone. Think of what you take as a "little prune," and no more.
And then there are endangered plants.
Know which ones these are. The United Plant Savers is a great organization that will help you know which plants to harvest very sparingly, if at all. The USDA has a website that can help you with plants in your area in this link.
Choose non-native species over native species.
This rule has to do with invasive plants that enter an ecosystem. Often these plants affect the growth of the native species, which we want to (generally) protect. For example, here in Idaho, there is a thistle that was introduced, and honestly, it is a terribly invasive plant that affects the prairie ecosystem.
We don’t harvest this thistle for food or medicine, but we do encourage our goats to eat it up in order to help the native plant species thrive more easily.
Why is this important?
Well, insect populations and local diseases have co-evolved with native species. This creates a good balance in an environment, a give and take of resources, so to speak.
When non-native species affect the growth habits of native species, the delicate balance in the ecosystem is terribly affected.
Be sure you know which plants are non-native and invasive in your area. Feel free to forage these at will. Also, know which are native and learn about these plants. Then you’ll make good decisions in your foraging.
10) Find a mentor or go on a few plant walks in your area.
One of the best ways to learn about plants in your area is to search out and find people who have knowledge and are willing to teach you. Often, conservancies have classes or hire teachers. Herbal organizations may also have teachers.
Perhaps you have a friend or know of a person you can ask. Once you get into a "plant" community in your area, you're bound to find people who are in the "know" about foraging plants.
I don't know anyone in our new place. But I've discovered a couple of communities online that are "sort of" nearby. If I can't find any closer, maybe a trip to the Oregon area is in order? Anyway, these plant walks are out there. It's worth the search.
11) Learn to identify poisonous plants.
I know I talked about this one above, but it bears repeating. Over and over. That’s how important this rule is.
Know which plants are poisonous in your area, and know what to do if you are affected.
If you are in doubt, don't eat or use it for medicine. Always be sure about a plant before putting it in or on your body. There are quite a few "plant doubles," where a toxic plant looks similar to an edible wild. Just be careful, and be sure you refer to #1 above!
12) Know which parts of the plants to use.
Here's another important tip: Plant parts can have different chemical constituents, so you might be able to use one part, while another part could be toxic. It's a good idea to read or learn about the plant you plan to use before going ahead and using the whole thing!
Plant parts include stems, leaves, flowers, bulbs, tubers, roots, fruit, gum, resin, rhizomes, seeds, and woods. And yes---they may all have completely different chemicals!
For example, the leaves of the Arrowleaf Balsam Root plant that bursts forth each spring in our area (I recently discovered with awe), is a very useful plant. The leaves make great poultices and can also be useful in teas. The root, though, is resinous and just happens to contain compounds that help with respiratory disorders. I'll be experimenting with this plant this year!
Another famous example is elderberry. While the flowers and berries of non-toxic species (Sambucus nigra and cerulea most commonly) are edible to an extent, the stems, seeds within the berry, leaves, etc. contain cyans-compounds which are mildly toxic.
You can see how really knowing the plants you forage is vital to a great experience, and is a wonderful skillset to develop.
These are just a couple of examples about how a plant’s parts can have different uses.
13) Watch the plants through each season, for a year.
I loved watching the plants change from season to season in the Mojave. Many people think a Joshua tree looks the same all year round, but if you watch closely, there are plenty of changes! And the plant parts used may also change according to the season of the year.
For example, you can harvest chaparral all year, but the very BEST time is in early spring when the yellow flowers are blooming. Juices are flowing, and the best medicine can be had from that plant at that time.
Keep an eye on the plants in your area, and watch how they behave through all the seasons. It's fun and surprising! And educational.
14) Try growing your own---it's one of the best ways to learn how the plants grow and change over time.
When we moved to the high desert of Cold Creek in the Spring Mountain Range, all of a sudden, we had a real winter, and water was no longer such a big issue as it was in Las Vegas, NV. I could garden and garden well.
I grew St. John's Wort, Valerian, Chamomile, and much more. Now---I can identify those plants in my new area in the wild simply because I've had experience growing them.
If you can, grow your own "wild" herbs in your garden. By cultivating them yourself, you will learn about how they behave in the wild as well. There may be some differences, but you will have a baseline about these plants.
Moving the plants you are interested in to your garden allows you to develop q relationship with them you just can’t have otherwise. Being able to watch them closely through all the seasons and changes gives you a chance to “know” the plant intimately.
15) Be aware of "look-alikes."
This one is related to #11, but it does deserve a re-mention because it's so important.
OK. I know this is the third time I’ve mentioned toxic plants, but I don’t care. I can’t stress enough how important it is to know what you are harvesting.
I remember watching a survival show a few years ago, and this fellow came across these plants he thought were edible. After munching on them for a few weeks, he began to get sick and actually lose weight. Finally, he had to leave the show.
It turns out, he had been eating a plant that was toxic to humans. There are lots of plants that look like perfectly edible plants. Plants with berries are especially suspect, although there are many others.
Be careful. Be aware. Do your research. Here is a great article about common plants that may look like something else: 11 Toxic Wild Plants That Look Like Food, and Stay Away from These Poisonous Plants. There's lots more great information online, especially on survival sites.
And don’t forget about your plant identification books!
Final Thoughts on Foraging for Medicinal & Edible Herbs in the Wild
Oh, my goodness---there is SO much to know about foraging wild plants for food and medicine. Growing up in one area all my life has made me a bit complacent, I'll admit---sheepishly. I'm familiar with those desert plants, and I know what to do with them.
But. I am pretty darn clueless about the plants in this new place in the Mountain Northwest. Exciting! But I have a LOT to learn. Knowing the basics about foraging and wildcrafting is a great foundation, but the learning curve is definitely there.
My best advice if you are interested in wild harvesting plants in your area is to get your learning on! Learn from books, online, and in classes. That's exactly what I'm doing these days!
One of the best places to take an herbal online course, in my opinion, is from the Herbal Academy of New England! They provide herbal classes for all levels and interest categories. Their latest course is on Botany and Wildcrafting---and I'm so excited! It came out just in time for this move Mr. V. and I have made!
I just signed up for the Botany & Wildcrafting course myself, and I hope you will consider it too, if you are interested in learning more about harvesting the plants in your area safely.
You might also be interested in these related articles:
And, my 12 part series on How to Start Using Herbs. Here is a link to part 1: Herbal Foundations.
There are LOTS more over on the blog, so head on over and browse around awhile! Healing Harvest Homestead.
Do you harvest plants from the wild in your neck of the woods? I'd love if you'd share your thoughts, questions, and any comments in the comments section!
Hugs, Health, and Self-Reliance,
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