This post is part of a sporadic series focused on helping one to Be a Local Witch. With so much emphasis placed upon having all the “right tools” and the “right herbs” in modern witchcraft, it’s easy to forget to actually do the witchcraft. This series aims to show how terribly simple and amazingly rewarding it can be to center your witchcraft practice on the unique location in which you live. By working with what is readily available to you -be it trees, herbs, or spirits- you enable yourself to better connect to the natural energy currents where you live, to better establish yourself as a natural part of that environment, to better employ the aid of the genius loci, to broaden your knowledge of the area where you live as well as the plants and animals that also make it their home, and to align yourself with the spirit of the historical witch who would have used nothing that they did not find or make themselves.
It is with that goal in mind, to strengthen your practice by narrowing focus to the use of local herbs, that this next post is offered.
Later posts in this series will explore the idea of working with plants as magickal allies, a variety of native and naturalized herbs that are likely growing in your own backyard (such as the previous post on the hex breaker Witchgrass,) drying and storing herbs for the highest quality of dried herb matter, as well the subjects of offerings and things to keep in mind to help you to more respectfully interact with the Land and plant spirits when wildcrafting or just enjoying time in wild spaces.
The practice of harvesting herbs from the wild is known as wildcrafting. When one gathers wild herbs with the intent of causing as little environmental impact as possible the process is called ethical wildcrafting. There are basic and straightforward guidelines to ethical wildcrafting that ensure that not only is the natural population of the plants you harvest left healthy and strong, but so, too, are the individual plants that you harvest from (the exception here being when roots are harvested.)
These guidelines are very easy to employ, and the included infographic can be printed off and taken with you on your next wildcrafting trip until these guidelines become second nature.
In recognizing the witch as spirit worker, the importance of treating the land wherein you harvest and the plants from which you take with respect becomes clear: both land and plant are alive, imbued with their own spirit that can help or hinder. Ethical wildcrafting is a more respectful way to interact with the Land (denoting the spirits of place) and the plants you harvest from because it leaves the plant from which you harvest alive and able to thrive and it leaves plenty of that type of plant to feed animals and insects as well as enough to ensure you will be able to harvest again from that spot in the future.
When put into practice, these 5 guidelines will help you to gather the best quality of wild herbs that you can. That quality does make a difference when it comes to end results when using the herbs. It does not matter if you use herbs for medicinally or magickally: strong and healthy herbs that are gathered, dried, and stored by standards designed to maintain their integrity will always yield dried herb matter that is more potent than that of herbs that are gathered from weak plants and improperly dried and stored. Ethical wildcrafting will help you to that end.
Not only must the time of the year be taken into consideration, but the time of time plays a significant factor in the quality of your harvest. As the Sun climbs higher in the sky, volatile oils that lay within the plant will evaporate -this is why on hot days you can smell the grass and other growing plants from quite a distance away.
Harvesting herbs while the Sun is still low in the sky, before the dew has even fully dried, will provide you with a greater quantity of oil within the herbs you’ve gathered -which means more potent oils, incense, and other herbcrafts for you.
The life cycle of the plants you’re gathering from is also important to look at. Generally, blossoms are gathered in Spring, with leaves gathered in the late Summer and throughout Autumn, seeds gathered in Autumn, and roots gathered in late Autumn (leaving Winter as the time to learn new herbcrafts and skills.) However, many plants spend much of the year dormant, sprouting in the Spring and casting off blossom and seed before Summer begins. For these types of plants, it is more important to consider the individual plant’s life cycle.
The amount of certain substances will be higher in leaves depending on whether they are new or older leaves. For example, new Poison Ivy leaves have a higher amount of urushiol -the oil that causes the blistering rash- while older Dandelion leaves have higher nutritional content. This is where doing some preliminary research on the type of plants you’re gathering comes in handy.
Generally, leaves are harvested ideally before buds form but absolutely before the buds open, buds are harvested before they open at all, blossoms are harvested just after they open, and roots are harvested once the plant begins to wither. This timing follows where the plant is focusing its energy and where nutrients and oils are being more strongly concentrated.
Every type of plant has certain conditions it prefers to grow under. Some favor sunny, open spaces with quick draining soil, others prefer shady places with heavier soils. Plants are also very opportunistic and will grow wherever they get the chance to. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that that particular location -regardless of favorable growing conditions- will produce plants that are of very good quality, regardless of how they look.
This is because many wild herbs have long tap roots that work to pull minerals and nutrients from deep within the soil. But those powerful roots also draw in any toxins that are in the soil, which is why some of these types of plants (like Mustard) are used to help clean up soil in areas that were once garbage dumps. These plants may look perfectly healthy, and they may be very happy where they are growing, but their leaves and blossoms are loaded with the toxins they have absorbed through the soil and air. Ingesting these plants or breathing in the smoke of their burned parts means that you are taking in those same toxins yourself.
Standard places to always avoid gathering wild herbs are along the sides of roads and in ditches (as these plants are exposed to vehicle exhaust, salt and de-icer -in cooler climates, and often litter), along railroad tracks (railway ties are treated with creosote which is toxic), in vacant lots (where you can’t be certain what may or may not have been dumped onto the ground), or former industrial sites. While organic farming standards in place by the USDA state that crops can only be considered organic if grown in soil that has no toxic substances (herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.) applied to the soil for at least 3 years, many herbs are still able to draw heavy metals from deeper within the soil than crops reach, e. g. Mullein can easily have a tap root that reaches over 10 feet into the ground -this is not unusual in the plant world.
It’s also important to only wildcraft where it is legal for you to harvest. Each state has its own laws regarding what plants may be legally harvested, whether that plant is allowed to be transported across county or state lines, as well as where they can be gathered from. A good starting place is your state’s website for whichever department handles natural resources, fish, game, and wildlife. If you can’t find the information you’re looking for, there will very likely be a phone number you can call. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! My own experience calling multiple departments has shown that there is no question you can think of that these people haven’t already heard, and they’re likely to be very patient in explaining regulations and providing you with more information -after all, they don’t want you to break the law!
Knowing where you can and cannot lawfully wildcraft is also important because many wild places that are available to the public to enjoy have strict no harvest rules in place in order to preserve and maintain that wild space so that everyone can enjoy it. If everyone who visited were to take home a rock or a basket full of herbs, the impact upon that place would be severe and there would soon no longer be a wild space for anyone to enjoy. That the plants you take will be used for magickal, spiritual, or religious reasons doesn’t make unlawful gathering okay -it makes you a selfish ass.
The appearance of a plant is hugely important when it comes wildcrafting. If you have taken all of the above points into consideration, then it will be very easy to tell a sick or weak plant from one that is strong, healthy, and able to withstand a few leaves being harvested and provide you with high quality herb matter.
When you look at a plant, inspect the part of the plant you’ll be taking. Leaves should be free of bug holes, have bright and even coloring (no yellowing,) and be pert (not withered or drooping.) Blossoms and buds should have bright color, be fragrant, and just reaching their peak. Berries should be plump and have good color. Seeds should be strong in color, fully formed, and beginning to be released by the plant. Roots should be firm (no soft or squishy spots) and have good color.
This is where you prove your skills as a witch and spirit worker. Before you pick anything, be sure to ask permission. The spirit of that plant will tell you whether or not you can take any part of it, and it may even tell you what part(s) you may take. When you find yourself surrounded by many of the same plant, asking all of them which would be willing to allow you to harvest some it may bring surprising results. In both instances, you are acknowledging the spirit within the plants and their right to remain unspoiled. Frequently, harvested bits of plants that stated they did not wish to be harvested from will spoil quickly or be ineffectual for magickal workings.
When gathering from an area you’ve never been to before, it is always a good idea to introduce yourself, state your intent, and make some sort of offering before setting foot. Many wild places are fiercely guarded by various spirits and it isn’t uncommon for them to play tricks on those who enter their homes unwanted and disrespectfully. In such places, it is nothing to suddenly find yourself completely lost when you stepped not more than two feet off of the trail, or to happen upon the exact herb you were looking for -only to find your herb basket empty once you reach your vehicle.
In making offerings, it’s important to consider that anything you leave may not only be unlawful to leave in that location but may also be seen as nothing more than litter and garbage by the Land -regardless of your intent and how much you think it would be appreciated. Items such as coins, stones, and crystals should absolutely not be used. Food and drink should be cautiously given as any food items will become food to wildlife -be sure all food items would not be toxic to any animals nor could be viewed as deliberate feeding or baiting of wildlife (which is unlawful in many areas.)
In truly wild places, your best bet with offerings will always be those that have the least amount of impact on the environment. Fresh, clean water may not be glamourous, but it may be very welcome to a plant. Singing and a deliberate energy exchange may also be happily received. When in doubt, even some of your own saliva may be used as an offering as you are giving your own water to that plant and/or place.
Now that we’ve covered when to harvest, where to harvest, what to harvest from, and what to do before you harvest, it’s time to consider how much to harvest. The important factor here is that the amount you take will neither effect that specific plant’s ability to thrive nor effect the that type of plant’s ability to thrive in that location. For this reason, very young plants are not harvested from and no more than 30% of any one plant is taken (the only exception here being when you harvest roots.)
Similarly, no more than 30% of the plants in any one location are harvested from. And to even further ensure that the population of that plant -and the animals and insects that need it for food- is not negatively affected, harvest from a location only once every two years. This gives that plant’s population time to bounce back and flourish.
Throwing the Bones