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Sustainable wildcrafting

by Timber Press on April 4, 2017

in Craft, Natural History

A stand of red alder grows along Panther Creek in Washington’s Gifford Pinchot Wilderness. Included photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

To determine whether harvesting is appropriate and to ensure that the places where we harvest medicinal plants remain healthy and viable for many generations to come, I encourage you to gain as much understanding as possible of the intricate web of interrelations that keep ecosystems functioning in a healthy way.

I remember with fondness the first time I found and harvested arnica flowers. My knees were in agony as I came near the end of a 20-mile day of backpacking in the mountains of Washington. I’d been searching for arnica for months, inspecting every medium-sized, yellow-flowered aster family plant I came across. None of the plants I’d encountered was the one. I continued my search while on this trip, and at the end of that long day of hiking, I came across a patch of flowering arnica. Rubbing the crushed flowers, pungent and rich with aromatic oils, onto my knees brought almost instant relief and invigorated my spirit.

Finding this plant that I was so eagerly seeking made every torturous minute of that hike worth it. Harvesting plants in the wild is one of my favorite things to do. From the season’s first harvest of black cottonwood buds in winter to the root harvests of autumn, each moment in the field for me is pure joy. Knowing when the plants are ready for harvesting connects me with the seasonal cycles, and I often lose myself in the work of wildcrafting and forget to eat or even notice that I am hungry or tired.

With the joy comes responsibility. For me, the craft part of wildcrafting is all about employing harvesting practices that maintain the abundance of wild populations of plants and the integrity of the ecosystems in which they live. As the numbers of people relocating to the Pacific Northwest increases and foraging and wildcrafting become more popular in this region, it is becoming even more crucial that we pay close attention to the effect that we humans have on the natural landscape.

With my students harvesting western peony roots in the Ochoco Mountains of Oregon. Photo by Mackenzie Duffy.

Be Cautious of Your Impact on These Plants
These plants live in fragile ecosystems, have limited distribution, and/or they (cascara sagrada) or their relatives in other places (arnica, gentian, western aralia, and western trillium) have been subject to unsustainable harvesting practices that have threatened their existence in the wild.

  • arnica (Arnica species)
  • cascara sagrada (Frangula purshiana)
  • gentian leaf (Gentiana species)
  • goldthread (Coptis species)
  • pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata)
  • western aralia (Aralia californica)
  • western trillium leaf (Trillium ovatum)

Because western trilliums grow so slowly, it is not ethical or sustainable to harvest the roots.

Harvest These Plants with Great Care
The roots of these slow-growing plants take a long time to reach a suitable harvesting size, so the eff ects of their removal from the ecosystem and the amount of time it takes for their stands to regenerate post-harvest should be monitored closely.

  • desert parsley (Lomatium dissectum)
  • Gray’s lovage (Ligusticum grayi)

A year after being sown in the hole where a root was dug, these Gray’s lovage seedlings start their slow growth to maturity.

Never Harvest These Plants from the Wild
Whether due to their slow rate of growth, the loss of their preferred habitat (it is illegal to harvest California pitcherplant for this reason), and/or the pressures of over-harvesting, these once-popular medicinal plants are at risk of extinction. Please enjoy the beauty of these plants if you encounter them, but do not harvest them under any circumstances.

  • California pitcherplant (Darlingtonia californica)
  • coralroot (Corallorhiza species)
  • lady’s slipper (Cypripedium species)
  • Mount Hood bugbane (Actaea laciniata)
  • roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)
  • spleenwort-leaved goldthread (Coptis aspleniifolia)
  • tall bugbane (Actaea elata)

Removing a chunk of devil’s club root from between two well-rooted nodes allows the aboveground portions of the plant to continue to grow.

Determining Whether a Harvest Is Ethical and Sustainable
Imagine you are out in the field sitting in a stand of wild plants. You have positively identified the plant and are sure that it is not endangered or toxic. To determine whether it is sustainable and ethical to harvest this plant, clear your mind and ground yourself. Tune in to your surroundings. Open your heart and use all of your senses. Very carefully observe the area around you with an unattached mind and ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I in the proper emotional state to make a harvest?
  • Am I prepared to be honest with myself in regards to making decisions about my impact on this stand of plants and the ecosystem in which they live?
  • How much of this medicine can or will I realistically process and use?
  • If the plant is rare, can I use a more widely available plant in its place?
  • Is this stand of plants healthy? Are the individual plants healthy?
  • Are there other plants like this in the area, or is this an isolated stand? Is there a larger stand around the bend?
  • How old are the plants?
  • Will my harvest result in the death of the plants? Is there some way to mitigate this?
  • If not, how long will it take for other plants of this species to take their place?
  • If my harvest won’t require taking the plant’s life, how long will it take the harvested part(s) to grow back?
  • Will my impact be noticeable?
  • Is there evidence of others harvesting here?
  • Will my harvest adversely affect the ecological balance of the stand or the intricate web of interrelations that ensure its continued existence?
  • Are there animals or insects that depend on this plant for food or other uses?
  • How will my harvesting impact these relationships?
  • What is the terrain like? Will my harvest, including the path I take to arrive there, adversely impact the integrity of a river bank or cause erosion on a slope?


Scott Kloos is an herbalist, wildcrafter, and medicine maker. He founded and is managing director of the School of Forest Medicine and owns Cascadia Folk Medicine, which supplies high-quality, small-batch herbal extracts from the native plants of the region.

Click image for a look inside this book.


“This authoritative and heartfelt field guide to Pacific Northwest medicinal plants will spend more time in the field or kitchen than on your bookshelf!” —Robin Rose Bennett, herbalist, author of The Gift of Healing Herbs and Healing Magic

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