Wildcrafting: Collecting Wild Food & Medicine with the Future in Mind

Have you ever gone out wild mushroom or berry picking? If so, then you have wildcrafted. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary doesn’t even have wildcrafting listed. Google’s definition? To gather herbs, plants, and fungi from the wild. That about sums it up. However, it is important that we know how to do so properly. In a way that takes the big picture and long-term into consideration. Ethical Wildcrafting. Let’s talk about it!

Besides the fact that it gets you outside and active in nature, filling your lungs with fresh, wild air, wildcrafting can be a fun and productive hobby.

What better feeling than to bring home a basket of wild edibles to cook up a nutritious meal for your family to enjoy? Chanterelle gravy over venison (and garden-grown mashed potatoes) with a side salad of edible weeds topped with salalberry vinaigrette. Yes, please. Ok, I’m hungry. Maybe I will have to post these recipes sometime, they are some of our favorites.

We have been heading into these woods since we were kids. Generations, working together, foraging for wild food and livelihoods. Our forests and natural areas, public and private, are treasures to be enjoyed and stewarded, wisely and with gratitude. Take good care of the land, and the land will take good care of you.

Olympic Mountain Range is full of wild foods and medicines

It is the responsibility of each one of us to always make sure that we are safe and responsible in our wildcrafting practices. Here are a few tips to help do that. 

Wildcrafting Tips – Where / When / How to Harvest Wild Food & Medicine with Respect and Sustainability

Make sure you have permission

Always get permission before going onto private property. Whether your neighbor’s undeveloped lot, or a nearby organic farm that could use some ‘weed’ control, talk to the owner before taking a harvest. If you are headed to public lands such as BLM or USFS, check with the appropriate agencies to find out about necessary permits. We are blessed to have a portion of our property that is just left wild. Wherever you plan to harvest, please do so respectfully with the future in mind.

Leave an area better than you found it

Whether private property, public land, or your own ‘back forty’, always leave an area that you take from better than you found it. Sustainable wildcrafting is always harvesting from the plant, or a stand of plants, in a way that the plant’s future and therefore, your patch’s health is perpetuated. Leaving an area better than you found it may also mean picking up other people’s (irresponsibly and asininely) left behind trash. Or putting out an illegal and unattended fire during a burn ban. Seriously, some people I just don’t get.

Collect away from roads and trails

We all want to enjoy the beauty of nature when we are out in it. Get off the road and away from trails to harvest and leave the plants right up close for people to enjoy. Plants off the beaten path will also be cleaner, not dusty or contaminated from road traffic.

Be sure of what you are harvesting

Know how to positively identify the plant you wish to harvest. Are there any dangerous lookalikes to be aware of? Do your research. Have a really good field guide on hand. And if you are not absolutely sure, leave it. Do more research.

If you come across something you don’t know but are curious about and if there are plenty of plants in the patch, harvest a sample (or just take photographs) that you can later use to get help with identification either through further personal research or by contacting someone with more experience and resources. Take a sample to your local extension office and the Master Gardeners will be able to help identify the specimen or point you in the right direction.

Do not harvest protected or sensitive plants

How do you know if a plant is protected or sensitive? That is part of doing your research. If you live in Washington State, here is a link to rare plants information available from the Washington Natural Heritage Program. If you live in another state, just Google ‘protected plants in [your state]’.

Harvest at the right time of year

Again, know the plant you are going for. Besides just how to identify it, when is the best season for harvest? Different plants, and different plant parts, are best harvested at varying times of the year. With some plants, it doesn’t really matter. Lichens can be collected at any time. With other plants, the constituents are dramatically different depending on the season. Harvesting at the right time of year ensures you get the plant material at its most potent.

Wildcrafting PNW Wild Medicines

Gather plants where there are abundance and vitality

Look for the happy, healthy plants. The ones growing vigorously and that just look good. Develop an herbalist’s gut. Observe the plants. Learn to recognize when they are ready to be harvested. This comes with research and experience. Avoid plants that look diseased or stressed. And before you pick, make sure there is plenty. Is this the only patch or specimen around?

Stop and look around before you harvest

How can you leave these plants better off than you found them? In other words, harvest with the plant’s needs in mind so that it can continue to thrive and produce for years to come.

Don’t be the ass that wipes a patch out.

Think about how this plant reproduces. How can you harvest in a way that does not interrupt that cycle, or even better, facilitates it? Use some ‘plant’ common sense.  Roots are often best harvested after a plant has completed its cycle and gone to seed. You can replant some of the crowns or divisions from plants that reproduce in such ways. You can help dried seed to scatter. You can leave the biggest healthiest specimens so they may continue to contribute to the gene pool of that stand. If you are taking branches, make good pruning cuts. And so on.

What would you do to sustainably harvest a plant or an herb in your own garden? Think of your wildcrafting turf as an extension of your garden. Tend it and care for it. Be good to it. That also means not trampling all the ground and plants that you leave behind. Tread lightly.

Be Careful When Harvesting Wild Ginger in the Pacific Northwest

Harvest no more than 1-5%

That is unless it’s blackberries, dandelions, horsetail herb, or something equally prolific and troublesome to eradicate even when we try. With these medicinal plants and many of our other so-called ‘weeds’, you really have to work at it to keep them from coming back. Most plants, however, require that we be more careful.

Some resources say to harvest up to 10%, but for certain plants that can be too much. Especially if it is a patch that could get hit by more than one person within a couple years.

Less is more. Don’t harvest more than what a patch is going to be able to sustain and recover from. Five percent, or one in twenty plants, is the amount we are allowed to harvest when using our Forest Service personal use permit on USFS lands.

Entire species have been wiped out, or at least pushed to the brink, from irresponsible over harvesting. Here in the Pacific Northwest especially things can seem so abundant and plentiful, let’s keep it that way!

And again, leave the sensitive or endangered plants. But do take pics!

Take only what you need and have time to process

We have all made this mistake at one time or another, and it never feels good to waste. Have a plan in mind for what you are going to do with the plants you harvest. A salad? A salve? Know how much you are going to need and what you are going to use them for. Harvesting is the easy part. Processing and preserving is where the work is at. Don’t take more plant material than you have need of or time to care for properly.

Harvesting is the easy part. Processing and preserving is where the work is at. Don’t take more plant material than you have need of or time to care for properly.

Process what you harvest right away

As soon as you get home with your bounty, or even better while still in the field, process what you harvested. Don’t let it go to waste. Wash things up. Peel bark. Lay plants out on screens or hang bundles to dry. Whatever it is, you will have done your research. Whether you plan to eat your harvest for dinner or turn it into teas, tinctures, salves, or other medicines, have a plan, know what processing is needed, and carry it out while your harvest is fresh.

Be Grateful

It is always good to give thanks. Everybody has their own way. Whatever yours is, it is good to stop for a moment and give thanks for the wild food and medicine you are harvesting. The deep sense of calm and peace which gratitude evokes in me makes me wonder if that isn’t part of the holistic healing process in itself.

There is so much available to us in nature. We just need to educate ourselves, learn how to use it and be good stewards. More and more people are becoming interested in natural living and natural medicine in this modern toxin-filled world we live in. Wildcrafting is on the rise. Let’s all make sure as we head out to harvest from the wild, that we do so with fellow wildcrafters and future generations in mind.

Now get out there and see what you can find!

Processing Wild Medicines in the PNW

Wildcrafting Tips – What to Take with You

Before I go, here is our list of things we like to take for a day of wildcrafting adventure –

  • thermos and a picnic, obviously 😉
  • field guides for confirming identification and to look up new interesting things
  • maps / GPS / good old-school knowledge of the area you are harvesting
  • rubber boots / seasonal attire
  • leather gloves for the prickly stuff like devils club and blackberry leaf
  • rubber bands or twine for bundling
  • hand pruners and/or loppers
  • a hori hori or other narrow digging tool, some people like a screwdriver
  • pocket knife
  • a basket/baskets for carrying your harvest (buckets, bins, and coolers can also work but baskets are usually preferred, especially for mushrooms)
  • paper bags for collecting samples
  • rain gear, it is the PNW

For more about wildcrafting

Check out the links below in the references section, or google it!

You might be able to find a wildcrafting workshop in your area. Herbalists all over the country host these to help people in their bioregion learn how to identify, harvest, process, and use local wild edibles and medicinals.

Are you in our area (Western Washington)? Would you or a group you know be interested in learning about edible and medicinal plants around here? We would love to go for a plant identification walk with your hiking group or homeschool co-op. Get in touch via the contact page or Facebook, and let’s talk!

In the meantime, don’t forget to subscribe to the blog via email and like us on Facebook to stay connected.

Thanks for visiting!


Pojar, Jim, A. MacKinnon, and Paul B. Alaback. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Redmond, WA: Lone Pine Pub., 1994. Print.

Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe: Red Crane, 1993. Print.

7Song. “Wildcrafting for the Practicing Herbalist.” Wildcrafting for the Practicing Herbalist (n.d.): n. pag. Northeast School of Botanical Medicine. 7Song. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Brounstein, Howie. “Wildcrafting for Beginners.” Columbines School of Botanical Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Berry, Rachel. “Safe & Ethical Guidelines for Wildcrafting.” Safe & Ethical Guidelines for Wildcrafting. N.p., 20 Jan. 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

5 thoughts on “Wildcrafting: Collecting Wild Food & Medicine with the Future in Mind

  1. Pingback: PNW Medicinal Tea Garden - 14 medicinal plants for herbal tea that you can grow! - PNW from Scratch

  2. Pingback: Herbal Tea vs Herbal Infusions: How To Make Your Own and What is the Difference? - PNW from Scratch

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