Ethical Wildcrafting Principles
Ethical wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting plants and trees conscientiously, to avoid damaging the health of the population or the overall ecological system. It’s especially important for trees because if you don’t harvest bark properly, you’ll kill the tree, which is like killing a chicken for the eggs (also true for most perennial plants). The basic principles are simple:
don’t kill something when taking part of it will do; don’t take more than you need; and don’t take more than the population can stand.
This issue is close to my heart, as I’ve watched plant populations decline as people violate the sanctity of the natural world in the name of greed. Ignoring the longevity of other creatures is buying into the mythos of man as supreme ruler over the birds and fishes—which solidly places us on the path toward unwitting acceptance of large-scale corporate rape and pillage of the natural world, violating the basic principles of land stewardship and of simply being a decent person. Harvest intentionally and teach the people around you, so our natural world stays awesome.
Don’t Kill It This is an issue with any wildcrafting or wild foods harvest, but it’s blatantly obvious when you harvest trees. Trees are keystone species, meaning they form the center of the complex ecological web that surrounds them, from plants that only grow in soil with the pH maintained by that tree’s leaves, to the lichen on its branches, to the birds that eat the bugs that eat the wood, to the foxes that eat the birds…you get the idea. Trees are important fellows among their woodland brethren, so it’s easy to imagine the impact of removing one for a stupid reason, like by accident. The most common way this happens in wildcrafting is by girdling, or removing a section of bark around the trunk of the tree. Girdling kills the tree because the leaves and roots can’t trade water and sugar, leaving the tree to starve to death. Girdling is one thing if you’re carving a homestead out of the wilderness—it’s a time-honored way of clearing forest—but it’s something entirely different if you’re just doing it because you don’t know any better.
Girdling is specific to trees, but the overall principle applies to any plant: don’t kill it if you can avoid it. Instead of taking the whole root of a perennial, cut off most of the root, then replant the root bud where the stem comes out so the plant will grow back. If you’re harvesting leaves, cut the stem above a leaf node so it will easily regrow, instead of cutting it off at the ground. This is an easy habit to get in to.
Take What You Need… There’s no reason for wildcrafted herbs to end up in your compost. It’s better to go back for more than it is to take too much the first time.
…But Not Too Much When harvesting wild plants, take about 1/5 of the population, max. I’ve heard this explained as “1 each for the animals, birds, fish, plants, and people,” and “1 left for each of the four directions,” but those are maybe a little out-there for me. I just don’t take more than 1/5. It’s easy—if you’re really not sure, count to 5 and take the 5th plant. It’s especially important not to take too much when you’re harvesting from a small population, a rare or threatened plant, or at a place that’s really popular for wildcrafting— in these situations, you might decide to harvest far less to avoid having a negative impact.
The United Plant Savers website has great resources to tell you if a plant is threatened or at-risk.