Mindful Foraging

Using Native Plants for Food, Medicine, and Crafting

Whether we are conscious of it or not, humans are all dependent upon and inextricably linked to the fate of plants on earth. In many ways, plants are our ancestors; they preceded us on this planet and have provided the food, medicine, and fiber needed for our species to flourish. Major changes in human lifestyle, particularly in the past 2,000 years, have pulled us away from our relationships with plants – but it’s never too late to reconnect, quite literally, to our roots.

Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center is a nonprofit organization that inspires people to eat healthy, sustainably grown food and to steward our natural resources for future generations. We believe it is the right of all humans to rekindle their connections to the earth, and we encourage the pursuit of knowledge and resources to strengthen their relationships with plants. However, the extent of intact ecosystems has been dangerously reduced, in many cases threatening the very existence of species and entire ecosystems themselves. As areas of land are degraded and as human populations grow, we have the responsibility to prioritize the protection and enhancement of environments for our plant relatives.

As you explore the fulfilling practices of foraging and wild crafting, we encourage you to seek out knowledge. Study and observe. Know before you take. Your mindfulness around foraging and wild crafting ensures the health of the land and the endurance of important species for generations to come!


When considering small and mindful collecting in wild spaces, keep the following three core ideas in mind:

1. It’s more than a name

Like learning any new craft, skills develop with practice and through consulting and listening to a wide variety of sources and teachers. Take, for example, knitting: most new knitters don’t buy some yarn and needles and successfully make a sweater on the first day. Over time, they might take classes, learn the first basic stitches, read books, watch videos, and ask other knitters questions – and then hone their practice with small, simple items. The sweater is crafted once the foundational skills have been acquired.

Harvesting from the wild requires a similar level of commitment and study. Before taking any native plant from its ecosystem, you should not only know how to positively identify the plant, but also understand:

  • Its role in the ecosystem
  • Its life cycle
  • How scarce it is, overall and locally
  • How long it will take to recover the part that you took from it
  • What other living things use and need the plant

If you don’t know these things, you’re not yet ready to harvest. Also recognize that many native plants are very slow-growing and their numbers are declining in the wild, or they may be important culturally to local indigenous people; many of these should NEVER be collected. Take the time to learn about the plants from local plant experts, tribes, or your state’s natural heritage department.

The idea of taking it slow may be uncomfortable to sit with – most people are well-intentioned and eager to connect with nature by any means possible. But patience is a necessary part of solving the ecological problems we are faced with today. We encourage you to enter into the realm of foraging with enthusiasm and excitement, but also with humility and a willingness to move slowly towards understanding, to watch and listen, and to make sure that you do no harm.

Learning about plants in this context will likely be a combination of many things: researching online, reading books, going to talks and workshops, having conversations with those knowledgeable about plants, and observing plants in the wild over the seasons. The payoff is well worth the wait!

2. Take, but give back

Many people get into foraging with the exciting thought of, “This is great! Free food!” But food taken from ecosystems is never free. If we take from the earth, we must also give back to the earth. No system can continue to function if resources are continually removed without replenishing them.

Giving back can come in many forms. The more you know about a plant, the more you can contribute to its survival on the land. For instance:

  • Collect seed of the plants you are harvesting and scatter the seed back in areas where you collected from
  • Contribute time and resources to a local organization doing habitat restoration: these groups are actively working to create healthier ecosystems that support the plants we are interested in harvesting!
  • Share these ideas with others, and advocate for and vote for policies that protect the lands that support our plant allies

3. Grow and tend to your own plants

We encourage you to grow some of your own plants for food, medicine, dyes, or fiber at home. There are many different native plants that can be produced at different scales at home, wherever it may be – anything from a large farm to a small balcony will do! Growing your own plants reduces the impact on plants and their ecosystems in the wild, and also increases the numbers of these plants in existence. Besides providing you with materials to collect, many of these plants will also support healthy soil development and feed pollinators, birds, and other wildlife.

One of the best benefits of growing your own plants is that it is easier to monitor and understand them when they’re growing right outside your door. Getting to know a plant during all 4 seasons can be especially helpful in understanding how much time a plant might need to produce what you plan to harvest from it, as well as how long it needs to recover before it can be harvested from again. Keep a journal to track your observations!

On a larger scale, we encourage those with natural areas on your property with plants of interest to harvesting, to take care of your land and tend these plants so that they will continue to give. Remove invasive plants to give natives a chance to thrive. Invite others to share if you can.


Recommended References

Plant ID & Field Guides

Print

Harris, J.G. and M.W. Harris. 2001. Plant Identification Terminology: an Illustrated Glossary. Spring Lake, UT: Spring Lake Publishing.

Elpel, T.J. 2013. Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. Pony, MT: HOPS Press.

 Pojar, J. and A. MacKinnon. 2004. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. British Columbia, Canada: Lone Pine Publishing.

Turner, M. and P. Gustafson. 2006. Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Turner, M and E. Kuhlmann. 2014. Trees and Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Jacobson, A.L. 2001. Wild Plants of Greater Seattle. Seattle, WA: Arthur Lee Jacobson.

Electronic

Washington Wildflowers App
Images, range and species information for 870 of WA wildflower, shrub and vine species. Doesn’t need an internet connection and has a handy search feature to help narrow down a plant identification in the field. Created by UW Burke Museum and High Country Apps, this is available for iOS, Android, Kindle Fire.

WA Native Plant Society (WNPS) Plant Lists
This newly updated tool allows you to search plant lists from various hikes, parks and natural areas throughout WA. It is a great tool to narrow down what you might see when botanizing in a certain area, or when trying to find a spot to observe a certain species.

Burke Museum Herbarium (WTU) Image Collection
Huge collection of images, basic species descriptions and distribution information on WA state plants. Search by scientific or common names. Use the Plant Identification Key (down on the left side menu) to narrow down a plant id search using a small number of simple prompts.

Washington Flora Checklist
Great for finding the most up-to-date plant names. You can search by a current or former plant name and will find the plant you are looking for. This resource will match the nomenclature used in our new Flora of the Pacific Northwest, published in summer 2018.


Plant Harvesting

Print

Deur, D. 2014. Pacific Northwest Foraging. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Kloos, S. 2017. Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Electronic

Foraging for Wild Edibles and Herbs by the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine

Wildcrafting for Future Generations

Ethical Foraging 101 by LearningHerbs

 

Compiled by Bridget McNassar
Native Plant Program Manager


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