First things first
Some herbs can only be found where the wild things grow. How did they get there? Some are native to specific habitats and areas. Others have ’emigrated’ in and naturalized.
Before heading out to Mother Nature’s U Pick, there are some basics to bone up on first.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it is no substitute for actually having seen the herb before with an experienced wild crafter. I can’t speak for all provinces, but I do know that there are several herb walks and workshops held every summer around NS.
If you plan on spending any amount of time in the woods, even if you do not hunt you would be well served by taking the Hunter Education course offered in your province. Why? To teach you sensible ways to stay safe in the woods.
Wildcrafting is always better .. and safer … with a friend. And a cell phone. Don’t forget to tell a responsible person where you are going.
If you happen to wander into a lovely unattended grow up, please do not think that you have hit paydirt. Stop, back out slowly the way you came in and be on your way … lickedty split! Why? Legalities aside, grow ops are not charity operations. Best case scenario there may be web cams monitoring the crop … worst case scenario you could encounter a booby trap.
Be careful wildcrafting along power lines. To the best of my knowledge, at least in Nova Scotia, it is still legal for contractors to use herbicides to keep the growth down underneath main power lines. Unfortunately, the only way to find out is to ask … see note below about permissions 🙂
Who owns that land?
Here in Canada, there is no such thing as unowned land. If it is not owned privately or by a corporation, then it is either owned by the government or a conservation trust.
Before you start, find out who owns the land and ask permission. Why? If the landowner finds you trespassing without permission, you could be subject to trespass charges 🙁
Leave a light footprint
Perennial herbs will keep coming back year after year, right? Not necessarily. For instance, if you pick ALL of the Saint Johnswort in a field, very little if any will come back the next year. In like fashion, European Arnica is now a protected plant in Germany because of over picking.
Be responsible so that the wildcrafting harvest can continue for years
Here in Nova Scotia
There is a regular potpourri of naturalized herbs that ’emigrated’ in with European immigrants and / or Empire Loyalist refugees. Here in the Valley, many homesteads were initially established up on the North and South Mountain. Why? It is believed that this was done to avoid the necessity of building bridges over the rivers threading through the Valley floor. Unfortunately, settlers soon discovered that the most fertile farmland was down on the Valley floor. Some of the old abandoned settlements still have beautiful perennials and trees. In many instances, wherever Europeans settled in, their herbs … like Tansy … grew legs and galloped all around the province.
When to harvest any herb depends upon what part of the plant you are using:
should only be dug up after the plant has matured in the fall. When the foliage has begun to die back the roots can be dug up at anytime of day. It is possible to dig up roots in the spring after the plants have seeded, but as there is no guarantee that the seeds will take, fall is the more desirable time. Important Note: Never take ALL the roots, so that the plants will return next season. For best results, roots can be stored in transit by wrapping them in moist paper towels that can be tucked in plastics bags until they can be properly cleaned at home.
Should be gathered on a day that is not raining, after the dew has dried off. Plants should just be starting to flower for best results. Do not bag leaves in plastic, use either cheesecloth or paper bags. Special note, if you have picking privelieges in someone else’s garden, most annual herbs like basil will grow bushier if the stems are pinched off rather than taking the whole plant. Helpful hint – extend the life of annual herbs by pinching off blossoms early in the season.
Should be gathered as soon as they begin to come into bloom, on a dry day after the dew has evaporated. Flowers do not transport easily in the heat, so a small cooler can be very useful. Special note – if flowers are being gathered for potpourri or distilling for scent, pick them just before they come into bloom.
should only be gathered in the spring. Never strip bark from the main trunk of the tree or shrub. Instead, prune several sections of branch. Helpful Hint. – bring along a pair of pruning shears. I have always found it easier to harvest freshly pruned bark on site with a small serated knife.