Wildcrafting: The Art & The Science

Wildcrafting: The Art & The Science


At WishGarden all of our herbs are either organic or wildcrafted. Today, most people are familiar with organic and how this is different from conventionally grown. But what is wildcrafting and why is it important?

Wildcrafting: An Age-Old Tradition
Wildcrafting is a traditional term for harvesting plants in the wild. But as the name implies, there is more to it than simply pulling plants out of the ground to be used. The “craft” part of “wildcrafting” is the key. As Ed Fletcher, 50-year veteran of wildcrafting and the herbal industry, says – wildcrafting is all about the knowledge.

To be a true wildcrafter it takes years of honing your craft. It is this valuable knowledge that ensures that companies like WishGarden, and you, receive accurate herbs of high quality, harvested at the correct time of year, from a clean location, and done in a sustainable way. This knowledge is often passed down from one generation to the next.

Traditionally, wildcrafting was done to support the health and food needs of a family, a community, or a small region. It is done all over the world; wherever there are plants that humans use, wildcrafting is done. But over time wildcrafting has shifted from supporting mostly local needs to being an important part of a global industry. According to the most recent report issued by TRAFFIC, around 3000 plant species are harvested from the wild and traded internationally. This includes many plants used as spices, aromatics, cosmetics and, of course, herbs for dietary supplements.

As the herbal industry has grown and more herbs are globally traded and imported, sustainability is of increasing concern. Because of this, the knowledge and sustainability practices encompassed in traditional wildcrafting techniques are now more important than ever.

Is Wildcrafting Sustainable?
One of the greatest concerns regarding wildcrafting is sustainability. Is it really possible to harvest plants from the wild in a sustainable way? In short, yes. But the more important question is how many of the wild plants in your herbal supplements (or other products) are being harvested in this sustainable fashion? The answer to that is more nuanced.

First let’s talk about wildcrafting in general, particularly for personal use. I have seen lots of blogs and articles out there discussing how irresponsible it is for people to forage mushrooms and/or harvest their own herbs. While well intentioned, I disagree wholeheartedly. First of all, it is absolutely essential to make sure you know how to properly harvest any herb or mushroom. It is not something to randomly try. There are a lot of poisonous look-alikes, so make sure you feel very comfortable so that you can properly identify before harvesting. Secondly, it is essential to learn how to harvest the plant (and the plant part you are going to use) properly to assure you are not hurting the population. For some plants, like dandelion, this is not an issue. You could harvest non-stop and you are not going to hurt the population of dandelions. But for other non-weedy/abundant herbs, please make sure you know when and how to properly harvest.

If you are knowledgeable of how to wildcraft, it definitely can be done in a sustainable manner. In fact, many plants that have a long history of human use, have even evolved to depend on this harvesting to maintain healthy populations.** And as every ethnobotanist will tell you, knowledge comes from use. If we stop using our natural resources all together, we will also lose the important knowledge that goes along with it. Essentially, the craft will disappear from wildcrafting. But the key is moderation, proper technique, and population management methods.

The herbal and natural industries have grown rapidly over the past 20-30 years and are now multi-billion dollar industries. With the majority of the herbs used in these industries still coming from the wild, there is valid concern about the sustainability of these resources and if wild populations can handle this ever-increasing demand. Again, the answer to this is far more nuanced.

There are many plants that are harvested from the wild, like many of our weedy herbs, that can absolutely handle increased demand. It also depends on the region the plants are coming from and the plant part that is used (roots vs. part of the plant that regenerates easily). For most plants, it appears they can handle the demand when harvested properly using sustainable techniques. For others, especially those that take longer to grow and only grow in specific regions, sustainability is uncertain. For these, more research is needed to truly understand the sustainability of such intense harvesting. In the meantime, until we have positive answers it is up to companies to make sure they are purchasing from wildcrafters who follow good harvesting and management practices that support the long-term sustainability of these plants. Luckily, the herbal industry is full of great companies that take this responsibility seriously. But as the natural industry continues to grow and herbs are now used in functional foods and beverages, not all companies are even aware of the issues to look out for in their supply chain.

Wildcrafted Herbs At WishGarden
Because of ever increasing demand and valid concerns, at WishGarden we work hard to ensure all of our wildcrafted herbs are sustainable. When WishGarden first began more than 40 years ago, our formulas were created using mostly local, wildcrafted herbs and our market was small. As we’ve grown over the years, it is one of the challenges we’ve faced – how to grow responsibly and still use many of our loved local and wild herbs. We don’t have all the answers but we are constantly evaluating and working hard to be flexible and shift as the plants and industry demand to make sure we use only sustainable herbs.

This flexibility has meant making difficult decisions when it’s called for. If certain herbs are under serious threat, we work hard to move away from using them. For example, osha (Ligusticum porteri) is a Rocky Mountain native plant that has always played an important role in our formulas. But as we have grown and the industry’s knowledge of the health benefits of osha has grown, there has been concern about its overuse since it is currently only harvested from the wild in the Rocky Mountains. We reformulated our best-selling Kick-Ass Immune and other formulas to use far less osha in order to take pressure off this important plant. (Keep an eye out for an exciting announcement regarding osha next month!)

In addition, we work directly or as directly as possible with those wildcrafting our herbs. This allows us to verify that our wildcrafters have the appropriate knowledge to harvest sustainably. For example, we work with a wildcrafter for our yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica) who has more than 25 years of experience harvesting it. Like many wildcrafters who have a long career, managing the population of the herbs they harvest is an essential part of their practice. This is good for sustainability but it’s also good business – ensuring there is enough product for him to harvest for many years to come. As you can see from the picture below, there is a healthy population in the background of those beautiful healthy roots that go into our products. We also now work with a native-owned farm to cultivate yerba mansa for us.

As WishGarden continues to grow, we will continue to keep an eye on the herbs in our formulas and how they are faring in the wild. But we are just one company and as the herbal and natural industries continue to grow so will the demand on wild populations of herbs. The answer to whether populations can withstand this demand is very plant and region specific, adding even more complexity to the conversation. This is why WishGarden and many others in the industry are actively involved in tackling these questions and challenges to ensure a sustainable future for the herbs we depend on.

How You Can Help Ensure Sustainability Of Wild Herbs
Want to help protect our wild herbs? One of the best ways to help is to ask questions. We love it when people ask about our sources and how we verify sustainability. Don’t hesitate to ask other companies as well. This lets them know that it matters to you.

Here are some other great ways to help:

Support United Plant Savers: this organization promotes the sustainability of wild medicinal plants in North America. We are proud to support their important work and invite you to help, too.

Sustainable Herbs Program: this excellent program of the American Botanical Council has a wealth of information regarding sustainability in the herbal industry. I’m an Advisory Board Member and WishGarden is proud to support their work.

Look for the FairWild logo: This certification is based out of Europe and is relatively new, especially to the North American market. FairWild certification promotes the sustainability of wild harvested herbs while also guaranteeing fair wages for collectors. At WishGarden, we are actively in process to use FairWild herbs in our products. So keep an eye out! Consumer interest and demand helps spread the word and makes it more viable for companies to take part. www.fairwild.org.

Sources:
https://www.traffic.org/site/assets/files/12955/covid-wild-at-home-final.pdf

**There is a lot of research on this phenomenon in the world of ethnobotany but is more than can be covered in this blog. If you are interested in this area, I recommend beginning with Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and from there you can dive into the more academic works on the topic.

Erin Smith has been working with plants for over 30 years and is medical herbalist and ethnobotanist. Erin is Director of Science, Sustainability  & Education for WishGarden Herbs

For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, or to sell any product.



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