What is Wildcrafting? (Plus, my Medicinal Plant Walkabout at Discovery Park!)

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What is wildcrafting? Understanding how to safely & smartly harvest wild plants for food and medicine.

You might have heard the term foraging before, but have you heard of the term wildcrafting? Wildcrafting is the harvesting of wild plants (uncultivated) for food or medicine. Learning how to do so in a sustainable and ethical way can be a very frugal and natural way to support your health. (Not to mention, it’s entirely enjoyable just to be out in nature, especially here in the Pacific Northwest!)

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Of course, there are some considerations when it comes to wildcrafting that differ from gardening:

1) Proper plant identification. Are you confident you have the right plant? Have you located it in a habitat that it typically grows? Have you observed the plant in multiple seasons?

2) Ethical harvesting. Are you harvesting from a protected area, such as a park or private land? Are you harvesting from a large, healthy stand of plants? Can you harvest just what you need without causing damage or noticeable effect to the plant? Are you harvesting with a purpose in mind?

3) Edibility/medicinal purpose. Are you preparing the part of the plant that’s edible/medicinal? Are you harvesting the plant in the correct season? Are you aware of dosages? Risks?

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While this topic has become more and more interesting to me, I also knew I wanted the sound advice of an expert. So last weekend, my son and I decided to take a Medicinal Plant Walkabout offered through Cedar Mountain Herb School (the same place I took the dandelion intensive on a couple months back). I completely recommend that you learn how to identify and use wild plants from an expert, such as Suzanne from Cedar Mountain Herb School! She has over 25 years of experience as an herbalist and instructor and is well acquainted with many wild plants from our area.

I wanted to share just a few things we learned from our 4-hour  plant walkabout in Discovery Park last weekend.

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This was one of my favorite plants we talked about – Miner’s Lettuce! It often grows along trails and….

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It’s totally edible! It tasted like a light and refreshing lettuce and my son enjoyed it very much. (In fact, he was asking for some again yesterday!)

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Suzanne didn’t race through our walk – instead she spent about 15 or 20 minutes talking about each plant. This is a stinging nettle which is an amazingly iron-rich and nutritious wild green that many of us would consider a bothersome weed due to its “sting”. When cooked, it can be used much like spinach and it can also be dried. When processed, it will loose the sting and is actually quite tasty! Suzanne also explained that once the flowers start forming on this plant, you don’t want to harvest it as it can be hard on your body. (See, this is why learning from an expert is a good thing – not all plants are beneficial or edible at all times of the year!).

By the way, see those plants sticking to her sweater?

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Those are called cleavers! They are edible, but not incredible.

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These is Pacific Bleeding Heart and it’s also a medicinal plant. Perhaps you’ve seen it? Suzanne explained that it is a rather powerful pain reliever and should be used with caution. Just because something is “herbal” or “natural” does not mean it is safe! Some plants may pack a more powerful punch than others and some should only be used sparingly or taken in small doses or for particular ailments. (Another good reason to learn from an expert. Note to self: I probably do not need to be harvesting Pacific Bleeding Heart, so I’ll just take some pretty pictures of it!)

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This plant is Western Hemlock – one of our region’s most poisonous plants! I’ve heard about it before and its ability to kill you. As the name implies, it grows in damp areas. We found this one in a really moist, boggy area growing alongside skunk cabbage. If you don’t know a plant, the best advice is to not touch it. Leave it alone! Some plants may cause skin irritation or you may unintentional ingest it (such as rubbing your nose or mouth after touching the plant).

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Here’s a plant that’s just cool to look at: skunk cabbage! It’s my son’s favorite forest plant and we found a ton of it at Discovery Park! You can find it growing in marshy areas or near streams.

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Did you know we have a native rose? We do and it’s called the Nootka Rose! Turns out you can use it topically for a skin toner. I often think about plants I can eat, but this talk also got me thinking about plants I could use for salves, creams, and natural skin care. (And now I’m thinking I want to plant a Nootka rose in my landscape!)

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Isn’t this a gorgeous plant? It’s a Hawthorne and Suzanne calls it the “everything’s going to be OK” plant because the elixir she makes using the leaves, flowers, and berries helps bring calm and soothe a troubled heart. The hawthorn can also be used topically for skin care and is surprise – in the same family as the rose!

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Since taking this class, my son and I have taken to yelling “Hawthorne!” when we see one in passing. If you are interested to make remedies with Hawthorne, Suzanne will be offering up a one-day intensive Hawthorn class in the fall and you will make your remedies right there alongside her (much like I did in this dandelion intensive class).

The day after taking this class, I was walking through a forested path near my house and was able to identify dock, saxifrage, red alder, cleavers, and miner’s lettuce (my son will be excited). I can also now identify several native berries including salal, salmonberry, thimbleberry and red huckleberry! Right now my goal is to get as familiar and confident as possible in identifying these plants in a number of seasons and locations. One book that’s been very helpful (and that I’ve mentioned a few times now is this Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast book – currently about $15 on Amazon). The pictures and descriptions are very clear!

If you are interested in learning more about wild plants or to go on a similar plant walkabout, make sure to check out the schedule of classes at Cedar Mountain Herb School or locate a foraging or wildcrafting expert in your area.

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Disclosure: the goal of today’s post was to share some of what I’ve learned with you. I am not an herbalist or expert in this topic – merely someone who is hoping to gain knowledge in this area. Please do take care before harvesting or eating any wild plant – make sure you’ve properly identified it and taken the time to educate yourself about ethical foraging. Thanks, friends!