Ethical Foraging and Harvesting

Herbs Drying on AGA
First of the crops drying around the AGA

Only three weeks until Midsummer! I can feel the earth and all the natural world heavy with lush growth and blossoms – a beautiful young maiden in all her fecund glory!

This is one of those times of year when it is good to harvest herbs – culinary or medicinal – when all the goodness has risen from the soil into the plants and they are at their peak potency as they come into flower. During this time I can sometimes hardly see our AGA. There are huge bunches of greenery hanging from the washing rack above it and all around the sides and top are baskets of leaves and blossoms in varying stages of drying. The air is filled with the pungent scents of Comfrey and May (hawthorn) Blossom. And if drying isn’t occurring, then the big pans are set upon the hot plates to heat water for wine making… Dandelion, Gorse, young Oak leaf and May Blossom soon to be followed by Elder Blossom. These are our seasonal favourites, although sadly no gorse for us this year. The icy storms of early March (when a lot of gorse is already in flower) ravaged the blossom and bushes and seared them to a brown crisp. Only now is some of the gorse beginning to recover and put out tiny tentative green shoots but much of it, I fear, will not recover.

A lot of the herbs we gather are grown in the wild. Unfortunately, the days of hay fields and spring grazing pasture more closely resembling Mother Nature’s herbaceous borders are long gone! Many of the wild flowers which grew naturally there could be harvested and was beneficial to humans and animals alike – a positive larder and medicine chest for all. (It is only recently that we have had to call on veterinary surgeons at every turn to tend our susceptible animals!) Now due to monoculture, we have green fields… green, green and only green. You only have to look at all the grass verges, motorway roundabouts and even some municipal gardens which councils have recently been too poor to keep cut to see the wealth of wild plants and flowers which will flourish, if only given the chance.

It is also good that people are becoming more aware  of the necessity of caring for our wild – and sometimes endangered – allies. Humanity has been too ignorantly and wilfully blind and self centred over the last few hundred years and has romped, raped and stripped the land bare. Living cheek by jowl and in harmony with the Earth has been forgotten and people have tended to simply grab what they pleased without a thought for tomorrow or the more distant future.

In our seasonal round of collection and processing, some people have accused me of being just as selfish, thoughtless and destructive. Horrified individuals have castigated me as a wild life vandal. This tends to be the ignorant reaction of a ‘townie’ who has been born and brought without any real working contact with the natural world and is now unwisely demonstrating their smidgen of recently acquired knowledge. No wild forager would ever dream of behaving like this. Not only do wild foragers have a care, love and respect for the natural world but they well understand that if one treats living things roughly or over-crops them, then there will be no more the following year – or perhaps ever. At the very least it would be counter-productive in the extreme. Only people who have no understanding of how the natural cycles of life, growth, fruition and die-back synergistically work would even suggest it.

To set everyone’s mind at rest, and to impart how we can all benefit while remaining environmentally responsible, here are a few truths of the nature forager who lives by the seasons and their wild and bountiful harvests. (But in actual fact, these guidelines apply to any crop, whether it is in your garden, along the hedgerow or in a field.)

Firstly, never over-pick; ruthless and irresponsible strip harvesting is only a very modern practice. Only take if there is plenty – if there is a dearth that season then do without – you will appreciate it all the more the following year. Only take a little from each plant, tree, patch or area – never entirely denude anything.

Simultaneously you must also take two other main courses of action into consideration. The first is that throughout the year you must do all you can to promote the growth and well being of the wild plants – this generally means leaving them well alone, just keeping an eye on them – but it may also entail the very gentle clearing of other invasive herbage to give plants space and air to expand or lifting fallen wood from crushing smaller plants (unless it is actually sheltering them from being trodden upon by two- or four- footed beings).

Before you do anything, you really should simply observe your chosen plants for a year or two, or several if possible. Under what weather conditions do they prosper best? Some plants like full sun but wet feet, or full sun with little water, others prefer shady conditions – an awful lot, like us,  prefer a bit of both. Some wild plants really prosper at the edges of paths, like plantain which, in some areas is known as ‘Adam’s Foot’ for that very reason. No wild plant likes to be transplanted! They will live where they choose. Put yourself in the place of the plants you are concerned about. If in the teeniest bit of doubt, LEAVE WELL ALONE!

Secondly, the best way to promote wild growth is to gather and scatter seed. Give Nature a helping hand. An effective and simple way of obtaining your own seed is to wait until you are sure that it has fully developed on the plant, (no point in taking it if it is immature – once harvested it will cease to develop but won’t be fit to grow either), take your time. Either gently cut the seed heads and pop them into a bag to take home and carefully dry or, if you are afraid that the seeds will disperse and fall to the ground while you are attempting to collect them, gently place a paper bag over the seed heads, bend them over a little and cut cleanly with a small sharp knife – preferably a pruning knife – so that any damage to the remaining plant is minimalized. And of course, gathering seed is like harvesting anything else – DO NOT TAKE TOO MUCH! A good maxim is to only take approx. 10% of anything. Leave the rest to do what it does naturally. Also remember that other wildlife – birds, small mammals and insects – will also be relying on these plants from spring through to the winter.

Once you have gathered your seeds dry them gently but thoroughly in an open basket or container at room temperature. Too hot and they won’t be viable for growing the next spring. Not dried thoroughly and you will come to them at the end of winter to find a mouldy mass only fit for the compost heap! When you are sure, place them in an airtight container and keep somewhere cool and dark until spring. When choosing where you are going to scatter them bear in mind that you are colonising ground that is already hosting other living things – the whole cycle of plants, fungi, insects and animals – and that you will possibly be interfering with their well-being. So have a care

ALL this is a part of wild foraging. If you aren’t doing this then you aren’t doing it properly.

It is in this way that we can become more integrated with the natural world; how we can show our love, care and appreciation for it; how it can benefit us in return; how we can all live side by side in mutual respect and prosper harmoniously.

In this way we may become true guardians of the wild, learning to walk more lightly upon the Earth.


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