When I go outside to gather my own food and medicine I am in my element. I am taking in the gifts of my place. It is also a time to give back by tending the plants that sustain me and many other species. Gathering is a basic human act, one we have engaged in for thousands of years, and one that is largely forgotten in our modern world.
The protocols of how to harvest safety and sustainably that have been passed down from generation to generation are being revitalized. We are learning to balance our modern world with wild spaces, and to enrich our health and our spirits in the process. Here are some of the things I have learned along the way:
Respect the plants. Our first code of conduct is to respect the plants and their place. While some wild foods and medicines are common weeds that grow in your backyard, others, those that grow in forests or prairies, for example, are a part of more fragile ecosystems that are commonly used by many other species. When we gather in these places we become aware of who we share them with. We began to see ourselves as part of a greater ecosystem.
I have learned this first hand – some of the wild places I frequent are cultural landscapes – wild gardens where people care for and cultivate plants. While these places look more “natural” than European style farming and gardening where land is cleared and planted in orderly rows, Salish land management practices do alter the landscape to increase the abundance certain plants. I make sure that I have permission to be where I am foraging and harvest respectfully – being careful to leave enough behind so the plants will continue to thrive. Some gatherers harvest no more than 10-20% of a plant community. There is no rule that works every time. It is enough to be mindful and show good judgment.
Use the best harvest method. I have learned from tribal elders and plant teachers that there are ways to harvest that can actually improve the health of the plants. For instance, wild rose and some huckleberries thrive when they are pruned. Camas bulbs multiply and grow larger when they are dug carefully with a digging stick. Through interacting in a mindful way – we humans can, and have for centuries, helped to support plants and all the species that they interact with.
Don’t gather too much. It is easy to become engulfed in the excitement and enthusiasm of gathering. I always have a hard time stopping because there is that one perfect rose or juicy berry in the distance beckoning. I remind myself that harvesting is often the easy part – processing is the real work. Make sure you only harvest what you have time to process. There is nothing worse than having to throw away moldy plants because you did not have time to process them.
Harvest with Intention. When I gather plants I hold good thoughts and prayers for the people I am harvesting for. I believe that this intention becomes a part of the food or medicine. Plants have a spirit that nourishes our spirits. When I am harvesting I ask to receive all of the medicine the plant has to offer. The relationship between the forager and the plants becomes strong when we gather in this way.
Leave no trace. Sadly, I have seen places where people harvested and left open craters, mutilated plants or even garbage. I was taught to walk tenderly, creating as little disturbance to the ecosystem as possible. One of my teachers from Oakland, Adam Seller, always cleans up garbage when he harvests plants. This is one of the many ways we can honor plants and places.
Enjoy yourself. Being out with the plants feeds me on every level. Sometimes I feel like I am returning to myself, my own essence, when I am in the forest, the prairie or on the mountain. Just being with the plants and opening all of my senses to listen and be present is amazing medicine.
Is the area I am harvesting from clean? Unfortunately, pesticides and chemical sprays can be found along roadsides, in farm areas and even in clear-cuts. Plants can absorb some of these harmful substances. Try to get some background on the area you are harvesting from to make sure it is not contaminated.
Do I have the right plant? Proper plant identification is essential. If you do not know the plants, it is possible to mistake one that is poisonous with one that is edible. To be safe, have someone who knows how to gather show you. You will become familiar with plants over time as you gather and process them. There are even ways to awaken and refine your senses so you can more easily identify a plant – notice the smell, texture, shape, colors and location. What other plants does it grow with? Does it like filtered light or the open sun? Does it grow in swampy areas, wet places or stony hillsides? All of these details will solidify your knowledge.
How do I prepare this plant? How you prepare food and medicines can make a difference in how safe they are. A good example of this is skunk cabbage. The roots and leaves are edible, but only when they are boiled with the water changed several times. Two friends of mine learned this first hand at a Center For World Indigenous Studies native foods class. They were cooking in the kitchen and decided to try the leaf while they were waiting for their teacher, Rudy Ryser. At first it tasted ok, then they both got a prickly burning sensation in their throats. When they asked Rudy what would happen if someone ate the plant fresh he said, “Oh no. Go and rinse your mouths out!” knowing they had tried it. Luckily they did not have severe swelling, nausea or vomiting. Some people have been hospitalized from eating fresh skunk cabbage. Boiling or drying the plant removes tiny calcium oxalate crystals that are irritating to the mouth, throat and stomach. So make sure you learn what plant to harvest, when to harvest it, and how to prepare it. Each plant has its own unique teachings and proper uses.