The Herbal Consumer

What in the World Is Wildcrafting?


As a consumer dabbling aroWildcraftund in the herbal marketplace, you’ll come across new terms in learning about different products. Wildcrafting is one of the less common terms, but it’s still important to know. The simple definition is the harvesting of plants that have grown in the wild without any cultivation. The definition sounds simple, but there’s a lot of information that goes along with this term that can open your eyes to the broader herbal world.

Digging Into the Definition

Depending on who’s giving the definition of “wild,” it can mean national or regional forest or park land, other public land, private land that hasn’t been cultivated, or even your backyard. Wildcraft plants are not cultivated, which basically means that the soil wasn’t prepared for planting, any seeds sown in the area came from surrounding plants, and the plant hasn’t otherwise been tended to by a human.

Let’s say one day you discover a bunch of black raspberry canes bearing fruit in the back corner of your yard and you know they weren’t there two years ago. You decide to pick the fruit for tomorrow’s morning cereal. This is a simple example of wildcrafting. Fruit, leaves, bark, roots, seeds, etc. can all be wildcrafted. It can apply to many different plants, not just herbs, and the parts can be used for food, medicine, and other resources. Many herbalists choose to wildcraft herbs for the medicines they make. In many countries, including the U.S., people use wildcrafting as a way to provide resources for their families and to earn income by selling the plants to herb wholesale buyers.

There is a difference between wildcrafted and organic plants. Organic plants are typically cultivated under specific conditions to, according to the USDA organic definition, “foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Wildcrafted plants are not cultivated, although it is possible for them to be considered organic under a regulatory or private sector definition.

Wildcraft Labeling

I have come across an industry logo and a governmental regulation for wildcrafting. The industry logo is provided by FairWild Foundation, a non-profit foundation located in Switzerland. In order for a product to be able to use the logo, the company selling the product must adhere to the FairWild Foundation’s requirements for “ecological sustainability and aspects of fair trade and social sustainability.” If you are familiar with Fair Trade certification, FairWild certification is meant to cover plants that are wildcrafted and the people who harvest them.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) covers wildcrafting in their National Organic Program (NOP). This regulation applies to wild crops that will be labeled “organic.” There doesn’t seem to be a regulation for wildcrafted non-organic crops. The regulation for wild-crop harvesting practice standard states:

(a) A wild crop that is intended to be sold, labeled, or represented as organic must be harvested from a designated area that has had no prohibited substance, as set forth in §205.105, applied to it for a period of 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the wild crop.

(b) A wild crop must be harvested in a manner that ensures that such harvesting or gathering will not be destructive to the environment and will sustain the growth and production of the wild crop.

For the USDA NOP regulation for wildcrafting, there isn’t a logo separate from the USDA organic logo. The best bet for a consumer is that something would be mentioned on the product label about adhering to the USDA NOP wild-crop harvesting practice standard.

Responsible Wildcrafting

As stated in the USDA NOP regulation, the purpose of responsible wildcrafting is to sustain the growth and production of the plants. It is also about protecting the environment where the plant grows. Many different kinds of wildlife and other organisms depend on these plants for food, shelter, breeding grounds, etc. Responsible harvesting helps to maintain the environmental balance.

A responsible wildcrafter will:

  • secure permission from the landowner or permits (usually for public land) if required before harvesting. They will pay attention to any limits on harvesting.
  • never collect plants that are endangered or at-risk for an area.
  • never take more plants than they will use and/or be able to process within a reasonable time.
  • harvest only a fraction of what they find (the recommended amounts vary from 15% to 25%) and limit the impact of their harvesting by moving around as they work.
  • Limit their impact on the area by taking care not to destroy other plants as they harvest. They will fill any holes and take any trash with them.

Unfortunately, some people who wildcraft pay more attention to the possible money to be made than to making sure the plants are harvested in a sustainable way. Overharvesting can have a severe impact on a plant population and potentially eliminate it from an area. One example in the U.S. is wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). There is a large demand for this herb, mostly from China, and a harvester can make up to several hundred dollars a pound depending on who the buyer is. There is regulated harvesting, but there are poachers as well. The United Plant Savers has American ginseng on its “species at-risk” list.

There is a lot that goes into wildcrafting beyond being responsible. A successful wildcrafter knows how to positively identify the plants they want, the best times of the season to harvest the different plant parts, best times of day to harvest, and best ways to harvest. They know what the poisonous plants in the area look like. They also know not to collect plants that are located near roadways, highways, train tracks, industrial areas, farms, and any other areas that may be exposed to pollutants or runoff from areas that have chemical or biological pollutants. Wildcrafters are usually mum about their specific locations for plants to protect them from being overharvested.

Are Wildcrafted Herbs Better?

With the work that goes into wildcrafted herbs, are they better than cultivated herbs? One thing that some people find attractive about wildcrafted herbs is their energetic essence or spirit. It is believed that these plants have more vital energy than cultivated plants and are therefore more desirable. Is there a chemical difference in wildcrafted herbs from cultivated herbs? A plant’s active components (secondary metabolites) depend a great deal on the quality of the growing season regardless of whether they are grown in the wild or not. It also depends on soil conditions and the time of day the plants are harvested. There are a lot of different factors that influence the quality of the secondary metabolites of a plant.

It comes down to what you value as a consumer. If the energetic essence of the herb is important to you, then a wildcrafted herb has more value. If you value saving money and you can collect an herb through wildcrafting instead of paying for it, then a wildcrafted herb is better. If you want an herbal product that is ready made and easily available, then whether that product has a wildcrafted herb may not matter to you.

So What’s a Consumer to Do?

Wildcrafting may not be a term that you will run across often as a consumer, but understanding what it means can broaden your understanding of the herbal marketplace and how parts of it function. Wildcrafted herbs are used in lots of herbal products whether it is mentioned on the product label or not. That means people around the world are receiving at least some of their income from wildcrafting. As development and industrialization increases in parts of the world, it can have an impact on the habitat of wildcrafted herbs, as can climate change. Herbs begin to be more than just capsules in a bottle.

If you choose to try your hand at wildcrafting, do your research first. That includes (but is not limited to) how to identify plants, how to identify the plants you want and the ones you don’t want, tools you’ll need and finding an area that is suitable both environmentally and legally. If that sounds like too much, one easy place to try is to get to know the weeds in your garden or yard. Many of them have medicinal applications.

Next article will be posted February 2, 2016

Note to readers: Beginning this month, blog posts will come to you once a month on the first Tuesday of the month. The Herbal Consumer website will also be undergoing changes to make it more consumer-resource friendly.

Links to Learn More

Columbines School of Botanical Studies website – Wildcrafting for Beginners

Wildcrafting in the Adirondacks video – quick example of what wildcrafting can look like

Numen blog – Business of Herbs video – great overview including wildcrafting

Northeast School of Botanical Medicine –  Wildcrafting for the Practicing Herbalist

Methow Valley Herbs website – Wildcrafting with Rosalee de la Foret: Parts 1 – 6  (includes Introduction to wildcrafting and the ethics involved, Why wildcraft?, Tools of the Trade, Before the harvest: Important considerations, Harvesting specifics with worksheets and record keeping files. Further resources)

USDA website – Wild Crop Harvesting

FairWild Foundation website

United Plant Savers website – American Ginseng

Nutra Ingredients-USA website – Planning needed to ensure health of US wild ginseng stock in face of huge Chinese demand, experts say – Sept. 11, 2013

The Spiritual Dimension of Wildcrafting by Matthew Wood (on jim mcdonald’s website)