Harvesting from the wild, known as wildcrafting, offers a free source of herbal remedies and provides the satisfaction of gathering your own herbs. The active constituents of wild plants are often more concentrated, because they’re more likely to be growing in their preferred environment. Various plants can even be found growing on waste ground or in “wild zones” in urban areas.
Some common plants, such as plantain or nettle, can also be harvested readily from the wild. However, many rarer species are under great pressure because of over-harvesting and a decline in natural habitats. In many countries it’s illegal to dig up the roots of any wild plant, and certain species may be protected.
In some countries there’s a strong tradition of wildcrafting. The trade in wild plants is monitored by the CITES convention developed by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature); any endangered species are added to their “red list” and aren’t allowed to be gathered.
Never pick rare plants from the wild, even if they’re plentiful locally. Don’t deplete a stock of plants in an area; collect only enough for your use. Don’t harvest bark in the wild—chances are you’ll damage the tree.
Proper identification of wild plants is absolutely vital. Some plants looking similar to useful herbs could be toxic; this is especially true of plants from the Umbelliferae family, which includes angelica and gotu kola and also some poisonous plants such as hemlock. Always use a field guide with clear identification charts, and if you are not completely sure, don’t risk it.
Don’t harvest plants growing along a main road, whether in the countryside or in the city, due to the high amounts of lead and other pollutants they might contain. Similarly, avoid plants growing at the bottom of trees in urban areas if they are obviously favored spots for dogs.
It’s also essential to check that waste ground hasn’t been used as a dump for poisonous waste; ask locally if you are not sure. Don’t gather herb plants close to factories or any other obvious potential source of pollution. Always make sure that there are no signs of recent weed killer use or crop spraying.
Where to forage
In urban areas, numerous herbs known as “pioneer plants” may be found growing readily on waste ground or in wild zones, which are found in most large parks. The edges of allotments or disused railway lines may also be good places to find relatively uncontaminated plants. Don’t harvest near main roads, but if you collect young shoots in the spring and avoid the mature plant and roots, you can minimize the amount of undesired pollutants.
Most of us live in cities, and by harvesting plants near your home, you reduce the carbon footprint associated with their transportation. There is also an argument that plants tough enough to thrive in urban conditions may be particularly appropriate and useful for city dwellers; definitely they’re likely to have very concentrated levels of active constituents.
In rural areas, one of the best locations to forage for herbs is the land and hedges around organic farms, but don’t go on to a farmer’s property without asking for their permission first.
If you’re in doubt about whether a location is suitable for wildcrafting from a sustainability point of view, ask your local Wildlife Trust or similar for advice on the plants you want to gather.
When to harvest
Herbs produce their volatile oils at night, so the best time to harvest most plants is in the early morning as soon as the dew has evaporated. Collecting on a dry day means they’ll keep better and are less likely to grow mold. Collect a plant at the peak of its season and maturity to make sure it will have the highest concentration of active constituents.
In general, gather the leaves as they unfurl throughout the spring or early summer; the flowers as they start to bloom; and fruits and berries just as they become ripe.
Harvest the seeds from plants such as fennel while they’re still on the plant, or cut off stems with whole seedheads to dry. Smaller, dry seeds can be collected by shaking a seedhead into a paper bag.
Most berries are ripe if they come away from the plant easily when gently tugged, or you can snip off complete trusses and separate the berries from the stems at home in your kitchen.