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Volume 10 Issue 6
March/April 2005

Universal Symbols of Potential and Transformation

Cranberries: Food and Medicine

Harvesting Plants From a Native Wild Environment

Seeds of Zen in the Prairies
Introducing Maurine Stuart

The Healing Power of Zhong Guo Hui Gong Therapy
Chinese Wisdom Qi Gong


Harvesting Plants From a Native Wild Environment

by Kahlee Keane
Kahlee Keane

The spicy odour of poplar buds, thick with warming resin, rides on the gentle breeze as we amble up the coulee looking for our first prairie crocus (Anemone patens) of the year. We are not disappointed. Here on the south facing slope where the sun’s rays have penetrated winter’s blanket we find three furry flower buds hugging the Earth – harbingers of Spring.

Our little group came together at the start of last summer. Then, in each season, we would meet and share knowledge about the character and history of the land and the wild medicinal plants that we harvest just as our ancestors did.

This age-old practice – gathering plant material for food, medicine, or crafts – is known as wildcrafting and is the most direct way of getting in touch with the healing power of nature.

Simply put, wildcrafting is the harvesting of plant material from a native wild environment for personal use. A knowledgeable wildcrafter never damages or depletes this inheritance from nature. The craft denotes a high degree of ecological awareness and a deep respect for the living Earth.

The harvesting of wild plants is more complicated than one might imagine. It includes correct species identification and dictates the avoidance of any environmental impact on the habitat and plant in question, as well as on the other interdependent elements in the ecosystem.

Through immersion in nature, observing and listening to the animals and plants, we come to understand their medicine. Our instincts are honed as we tap our ancestral knowledge that tells us what plant parts to use; what season to harvest them in; and what they are intended for. We become stewards to the Earth—human beings interacting and reciprocating as part of nature.

As an eco-herbalist and ethical wildcrafter I feel compelled to protect the wild medicines and speak for the plants that actively heal us every day. As an activist and conservationist, my goal is to protect bio-diversity, therefore preserving individual species within the ecosystem.

Ecosystems have no dispensable parts—this means maintaining all of nature: there should be no losses of native species. Native plants are not just products or resources for human exploitation or consumption. Native plants, as species entirely in their own right, are true inhabitants and irreplaceable constituents of our forests, plains, grasslands, and wetlands, possessing a natural heritage value equal to all others dwelling there.

As an eco-herbalist and ethical wildcrafter
I feel compelled to protect the wild medicines
and speak for the plants that actively
heal us every day.

When speaking about the gathering of the wild plants it is of prime importance to distinguish between ethical wildcrafting and commercial harvesting.

In the last twenty years, right across Canada, commercial harvesting has accelerated at an alarming rate. Tonnes of plant material are being harvested with no thought to sustainability or the destruction to habitat which leads to over harvesting. Over harvesting is the collection of wild plants to the point where it interrupts the balance of plant community, shrinking habitat and range.

Wildcrafters do not sell to plant brokers who trade by the tonne on the international market—this is the work of commercial harvesters. I have found that many commercial harvesting operations are whitewashing their activities and degrading true ethical wildcrafters by referring to themselves as wildcrafters. This only adds to the horror of their insult and assault to the Earth.

Dramatic declines in wild plant populations, to a great extent, is the result of commercial harvesting, particularly of root harvesting. The harvesting of the entire root means that the whole plant is being destroyed. It is gone forever. Coneflower (Echinacea spp.) is very near to extinction in this province because its root has been over-harvested. Senega snakeroot (Polygala senega) is on Save Our Species “watch list” because many tonnes of the tiny root (averaging 1–2 grams) are being dug by commercial harvesters every year.

Any harvesting from nature should be managed and closely regulated, yet scientific data is totally insufficient on plant populations. We need to know regional abundance in order to form databases showing how many plants may be taken annually so that sustainable yields are reached. Until this is in place a moratorium on commercial harvesting should be implemented. There must not be further damage to wild populations.
If we simply take from greed, without regard for the well-being of the planet of which we are part, we ultimately damage the Earth and ourselves.

Save Our Species offers the following—Wildcrafter’s Ethic:
• Before taking plants from the wild, attempt to cultivate them first. Discover how to grow native and medicinal herbs and share your knowledge, seeds, and cuttings with others. Put to good use previously tilled soil instead of destroying the few remaining wild places.
• When harvesting in the wild, treat the native plant complexes like the fine perennial gardens they are. Propagate while you collect by replanting root crowns, scattering seeds, coppicing or pruning shrubs and trees to enhance growth. Always monitor harvest areas each year to check your successes. In short, keep a caretaker point of view.
• While wildcrafting to supplement your income, consider the needs of the plant community above your own.
• Whenever possible, determine the quantity of individual plants in each colony required for that colony to remain viable before harvesting. Do not let your predetermined needs influence your collecting.
• At most only 25 percent of weedy plants should be gathered in a harvest area; no more than five percent of the native plants.
• Do not harvest endangered, threatened or sensitive plants unless absolutely necessary (such as illness or hunger). Become familiar with the plants by seeking information from the head botanist at your local university.
• When appropriate only harvest a part of each plant by pinching off individual leaves, flower heads, or rhizome segments, leaving the remainder intact to regenerate.
• Remember that in order for devastated areas, such as clear-cuts, to be brought back to health, as much of the original vegetation of the area as possible must be allowed to flourish. For either natural or artificial reforestation to be successful, even the native plant species of the forest floor need to be maintained.
• Species are products of thousands, even millions, of years of evolution. Extinction is the ultimate catastrophe for any species. Once lost, it cannot be regenerated.

Kahlee Keane is an eco-herbalist, educator, and ethical wildcrafter with a deep interest in the protection of wild plants. She is the founding member of Save Our Species (SOS). Visit her Web site at www.connect.to/rootwoman


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