People have used plants for healing and medicine for millennia. There is a large amount of knowledge and information that has been lost over the last several decades with the rise of a more commercial pharmaceutical industry. There are safe and practical ways we can start rebuilding our plant-based healing medical knowledge to enable us to forage our own healing and medicinal herbs and plants. It is estimated that over 25% of modern medicine has its basis from plant-based medicinal compounds and many cultures around the world continue to use mainly plant-based medicines.

People who traditionally grew their medicinal plants often brought the plants or seeds with them when the inhabited new areas of the world. This has helped the distribution of many medicinal plants throughout the world, beyond their indigenous range, sometimes even becoming weed problems in other ecosystems. Other times, medicinal herbs that are native to a certain area, and only thrive there, can be at risk because of loss of habitat or overharvesting. As a forager, it is most important to know the difference. This way, when harvesting from the wild, you may help keep a weedy plant species in check. It also helps to ensure you are not being detrimental to plant populations that are at risk or that might be a necessary plant species for other animals or insects that are at risk.

Scientists are continually unravelling many of the mysteries of why these plants are healing and what medicinal compounds they have. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that traditional health and folk medicine systems are proved to be more effective in health problems worldwide[1]. WHO states that 80% of the world’s populations continues to rely on plant-based medicines and that weeds may provide medicines at a lower cost. Often these plants have less adverse side effects, and importantly, harvesting them may not cause further detriment to natural habitats. These are just some of the ideas that may lead us towards building some steps to take and things to consider when we forage for healing and medicinal plants.

1. Know your plant. Identification could be the key.

shepherd's purse flower Herb used for both cooking, alternative medicine and aromatherapy.

When thinking about foraging for a healing plant, we might envision a robust explorer hacking his or her way through a rare, untouched piece of tropical jungle to discover that unknown cure for cancer. This is not the case at all. We are surrounded by many medicinal plants, many of which we consider weeds. Let’s take the lowly dandelion. Here is a plant that has been introduced around the world, brought by people who wanted to ensure they had their pharmaceutical needs met while travelling to parts unknown. The botanical name of dandelion is Taraxacum officinalis. When a plant has “officinalis” as the second part to its name, that means it was “kept in stock by a druggist” or in other words, has been officially noted for its medicinal properties. Dandelions have many medicinal uses, and it is worth getting to know this plant, what parts you can use, and how to use them.

This is just an example of the many plants that we are probably already familiar with. A great place to start may be recognizing a plant that is growing in abundance near you and taking note of the size, shape, leaf, stem, flowering times, and flower. It might be fun to find out what it is and what it does. You may be surprised to find out it is a healing and medicinal plant that you can start your healing foraging hobby with. Proper identification is also incredibly important to ensure the plant you have discovered is not harmful, endangered, or toxic.

2. Safe harvesting tips

Once you know how to identify your new favorite medicinal plant, ensure it is safe to harvest. Ask yourself, is it growing in a polluted, toxic place? Edible and medicinal weeds often colonize in disturbed areas. I could go on here about a theory that they not only heal us, but heal the earth as well, but let’s not confuse the topic too much. When finding plants growing on disturbed sites, roadsides, or edges of trails, think about if the area has been exposed to a lot of toxins that might be absorbed by the plant. This could change the healing components of the plant significantly. Plants growing out in an untreated lawn or field, may be better.

It is best to know the rules of where you are harvesting. If it is public land, there may be rules against harvesting such as in a public, community, or National Park. If it is private land, unless it is your own land, always ask permission to avoid any issues.

Be aware of wild animal interactions. For example, in the springtime, dandelions are at their best and appear plentifully along remote roadsides, where you may find they are also a favorite of black bears just ending their winter hibernation. They can be a little grumpy at this stage and as always, black bears are most dangerous when protecting a food source. It is best to pay attention to signs of wildlife when foraging, especially if you might be competing with other animals for food.

We have gone over at length that harvesting plentiful, weedy species of healing plants may be the most sustainable, but you may have access to a native plant that is renowned in your area for its medicinal properties. Knowing these plants and how to use them may be one of the best ways to protect them. A couple of ways to keep these special plants thriving is ensuring to never overharvest by always leaving twice as much as you take, at the very most, and learning to propagate and grow these plants.

3. Use in moderation

Healing and medicinal plants can have incredibly strong compounds. A person who grew up taking a traditional healing plant may take a much larger quantity when compared to someone who has never tried it before. Also, each of us is different and may have unique reactions to different plants. Always listen to your body and ensure you do not have any discomfort. It is best to start slowly when using any new plant, perhaps smelling it, and touching its leaves, sap, pollen, and roots to your skin to ensure there are no adverse reactions or allergies.

As an example, it might be recommended to make an herbal tea with your foraged plant. As this is seemingly innocent, it might seem reasonable to down a couple of cups right away. Starting with a couple of sips and seeing how you feel in an hour or so could keep you from visiting the bathroom excessively all the following day. Said another way, the common name for dandelion in French is le pissenlit, which directly translates to pee the bed, giving a hint toward the diuretic properties of dandelions as well as the gleeful sense of humor of the French.

Also, some herbs may take a longer time to take effect, so it may be worth using the product over a long period of time, such as over several days or weeks. You may also find it beneficial to gradually increase or decrease your use while monitoring the effects.

Learning how to forage healing and medicinal herbs and plants gives us an opportunity to gain knowledge in this lost art. When done with some consideration, we can keep ourselves healthy by using plants that are around us. Knowing how to identify and use these plants, harvesting them safely, and listening to our bodies when we use them could be the beginning of developing a wonderful foraging hobby.