Introduction to Ethical Wildcrafting
Ethical wildcrafting requires both knowledge and respect of each plant. At first, learning to identify individual species can be a challenge. But once you can differentiate just a few plants from the multitude, you'll find you can't walk around the block without noticing various kinds and familiarizing yourself with your bioregion. A basic region-specific plant guide can be truly useful tool for the beginning forager, as well as the experienced herbalist.
It can be easy to feel intimidated by the vast amount of medicinal and botanical information out there. But, don't get discouraged, because at the end of the day all you really need to know is just a handful of weeds to feed and heal yourself. When first beginning, try choosing five or six plants to familiarize with, so not to be overwhelmed by your many choices. Take walks and try to visually identify your chosen few at various points in their growth cycle. Pick a leaf or flower to carry with you and remind yourself. If it's a mild medicine or food plant, taste it and smell it often, paying attention to how it makes you feel. This will give you a working and intimate knowledge of the plants in your region.
After you become more acquainted with these plants and are ready to harvest them, learn to first consider a few factors. First, is the bio-availability of that plant in your area? With plants that are rare, endangered or simply not common where you live, it is especially important to make sure that you harvest with caution. A good rule of thumb is to avoid harvesting plants from stands of less than twenty and to harvest no more than ten percent of what you see.
It is also important to make sure you help to propagate the plants you are harvesting either by spreading the seeds in the fall or, if you are harvesting roots, re-planting more root-crowns as you go.
Season is also important to consider when harvesting. For instance, harvesting flowers when they are all withered and soaked in the fall will probably be less beneficial to you medicinally than harvesting them in full bloom. I've found that a nice way to think about it is this: harvest plants in the season where their energy is flowing toward the part of the plant you are using. In the spring, energy is flowing up the plant's stalk out of the root and into newly budding leaves, so this is usually a good season for fresh leafy greens. Summertime takes energy from the leaves up into flower buds, and when they begin to wither and turn to seed in the fall, everything is flowing back down the stalk to be stored in the root for the winter. Different plants mature in different seasons, but this is a good generalization. It's also important to notice the surroundings of an area from which you are harvesting plants used for ingestion. Herbs growing on roadsides, in ditches or waterways downstream from industrial sites, or in areas exposed to pesticides and herbicides often should not be harvested for medicinal purposes.
Above all, the most important thing to remember when wildcrafting is that you are taking something from another living organism, and it should be done with the utmost respect.
Drying & Preserving Herbs
Infusions and decoctions only last a few days, and many fresh herbs are not available all year. The most common way to preserve herbs for long-term use is to dry them. They dry best in open air, and better keep their smell and taste if dried in a warm area. Dry herbs in dark areas to preserve more of their color and taste. You can hang herbs up in bunches to dry, use a drying rack, or spread thinly on a tray or a windowsill.
Infusions are made from the most delicate parts of the plant, including the leaves, flowers and aromatic bits. Because of their fragility, the plant parts must be steeped rather than simmered because they give up their medicinal properties more easily than do the tougher roots and barks.
Infused oils have therapeutic benefits when applied in cooking and for cosmetic uses such as salves, ointments and other preparations. The more herbs you infuse into the oil, the more beneficial properties the oil retains. Organic olive oil is an excellent base for therapeutic infused oils; grape- seed, sweet almond, avocado, jojoba and other oils may be used too.
Elixirs are the sweetened version of those alcohol-expressed medicines (tinctures!). They can almost cross the line into cordials, which while they may have medicinal benefits, are often just for pleasure. To use an elixir, simply pour a bit into a cup of hot tea, or whiskey snifter to sip on. You can start out with your tincture and add simple syrup or honey in small amounts. Be careful, these are meant to be sipped as they are still potent medicine, and this sweetening and tasting process can get you a little loopy.
Tinctures can be one of the most magical herbal medicines, and very easy to make. Tincturing is a method of extracting and preserving the medicinal constituents of herbs in a solution of alcohol and water. Properly made tinctures can last for 5 years or longer. While there are many high quality, commercially prepared tinctures available, you can make them at home, too. For the home medicine maker, vodka is the best solvent for most herbs due to its minimal flavor and high alcohol content used as a good preservative. To reduce the chance of spoilage, use 100 proof vodka.
Soaking your herbs in strong alcohol for just a few weeks brings out their healing properties in full force. Shake your tincture daily to help break down the plant cell walls and draw out these properties. Thus, tinctures are highly concentrated (basically really really strong teas). Rather than drink- ing one daily quart, you can take a dropper full three to six times a throughout the day. Really, whichever increment you choose will depend on taste preference. Ultimately, tinctures are quite potent. Before making or using tinctures, do thorough research on proper dosing, or find a practiced herbalist for guidance. Herbal medicine is a relationship: Treat the herbs well and they will treat you the same back.
Herbal Tincture How-To
Herbs fresh or dried.
Alcohol. You want a 100 proof brandy or vodka.
A wide-mouthed glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. A small bottle with a dropper or teaspoon.
1. Put the herbs in the jar. They do not need to fill it my any means.
2. Pour in alcohol, stop when it is about an inch or two above the herbs. Stir gently to release any air bubbles.
3. Put the lid on, leave in a cool dark spot out of di- rect sunlight for 3-4 weeks.
4. Shake vigorously twice a week. Dance with it. Think good thoughts. The energy you put into it now will be returned to your body when with its use.
5. When the time is up, strain with several layers of cheesecloth or coffee filter and bottle with a clear label of the date and name. Take with love.
Honey lends itself well to a variety of infusions, as it has many antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, useful for fighting off bad bacteria and boosting our immune system. Combine those healing properties with a range of medicinal herbs and you've got yourself one naturally delicious and easy DIY universal remedy.
Historically, honey has been used medicinally to harmonize the liver, remedy allergies, neutralize toxins, regulate blood sugar, and relieve pain. The health benefits of a particular honey depend on its processing as well as the quality of the flowers the bees utilize when collecting the pollen. Raw honey is honey that has not been pasteurized, clarified, or filtered, and this form typically retains more of the healthful phytochemicals lost to the standard processing of honey.
Raw honey can be infused in two different ways, yet, should never be done by a quick stove top infusion, as any heat (even low heat) begins to destroy the nutritional value and properties of raw honey. Heating up to 98.6 °F causes loss of nearly 200 components, some of which are antibacterial. Heating up to 104 °F destroys invertase, an important en- zyme that helps us digest and metabolize sugars. The alter- native method is to let your herbs steep without heat. The flavor takes a little longer to permeate the honey, so we recommend a minimum of a month to soak your herbs. For strongly flavored herbs, two weeks may be enough.
Honey Infusion How-To
Herbs/Spices/Flowers of your choice
Raw, local, and unprocessed local honey
Jars any shape or size
Trick: Add one part brandy or vodka to one part honey and you've got yourself an herbal honey elixir!
1. Chop the herbs up into small pieces.
2. Stuff them into the jar, leaving an inch of space at the top.
3. When you can’t fit any more herbs in, start pour- ing in the honey. Once the herbs are covered with honey, put the lid on it, label it, and leave it some- where cool and sunny for 4 weeks. The longer the honey sits the more fragrant and flavorful it be- comes.
4. When it’s done, hang a cheesecloth over another clean jar, and pour the honey to strain all the herbs out. Seal tightly and use within 18 months.
Vinegar is a good preservative that can be used internally and externally. Vinegar is acidic, antiseptic, cooling and slightly diuretic in its own right. It promoted digestion, assimilation and excretion. You want to use a good quality vinegar, either white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or apple cider vinegar. Save the distilled vinegar for washing windows. Be sure vinegar is at least 5% acidity.
Favorite vinegar combinations:
- Rosemary in everything
- Parsley, Sage, Rosemary Thyme
- Tarragon and Garlic
- Dill or Basil, Garlic and dried red peppers
- Pineapple Sage foliage and blossoms (turns white wine vinegar pinkish)
- Pineapple Sage, Ginger, Cranberries, Garlic
- Pineapple Sage, Spearmint and Lemon Thyme
- Lemon Thyme and Sage
Never use any metal utensils of any kind to prepare or store vinegar. This includes stoppers. Never use ground herbs or spices as this will make the vinegar cloudy. Store in a dark place; a sunny window will also make your vinegar cloudy.
Tips n’ Tricks on Vinegar Ingredients:
Herbs and Spices:
Fresh herbs should be gently washed and patted dry with a paper towel. Treat and fruits the same. One teaspoon of dried herbs can be substituted for one tablespoon of fresh herbs for flavor. Spices should be used whole, never ground or powdered. Test any mustard seed you use, some will make the vinegar cloudy. Favorite spices: Juniper berries, bay leaves allspice, cloves, coriander seeds, cumin seed, fennel seed, peppercorns.
Should have the top and seeds removed, washed, patted dry and cut into strips that will fit through the bottle top. Don’t forget to wear rubber gloves when working with hot peppers!
Should be peeled, rinsed and dried.
Should be washed, patted dry and the stems cut. Leaving the root is optional. Red or white onions can be peeled, sliced in rings and added in small amounts in most combinations.