I heard a comment on National Radio the other day, where someone was asking what wildcrafting is. The term seems self explanatory to me but maybe it’s not such a common word so it creates some puzzlement? A NZ search of google for ‘wildcraft’ brings up only 40 hits! It is a common word in other parts of the world though, especially the US.

I’ve used it predominantly for the harvesting of medicinal plants from the wild for making herbal medicines but it can be used more broadly than that, eg for harvesting food or materials for crafts from the wild. I guess it’s specific to plants (and fungi). Harvesting animals is called hunting.

Many of us have experiences of wildcrafting even if we don’t call it that. Picking field mushrooms is common to many kiwis. As is blackberry harvesting. Many Maori have unbroken traditions of harvesting food, medicine and other resources from the wild.

Discussions about wildcrafting often go hand in hand with ethics. Unfortunately it’s been common in many places in the world for herbs growing in the wild to be over-harvested once the herb becomes popular and is commercialised as a medicine. Examples of this are golden seal, echinacea and slippery elm in the US. If you are buying herbal medicine that has been imported please check that the plant isn’t endangered and is being harvested ethically. See United Plant Savers as a starting point.

In NZ the situation is interesting because we have two systems (at least) of land-based herbal medicine here. One is native, the rongoa of Maori that is based around native plants that have evolved in these islands in relative isolation for millennia. The ethics are more involved than I want to go into in this post, but suffice to say that we are still losing native species so particular care is needed when approaching native ecosystems for medicine.

Alongside that are the common weeds and garden herbs brought here by Europeans in the past few hundred years but used elsewhere in the world for millennia as healing plants. Many of these introduced plants have naturalised, some locally, some in a very widespread way. Some are considered invasive pests – st john’s wort, perennial nettle – others are largely ignored until they bother someone eg dandelion*.

There are some general guidelines for ethical wildcrafting – take only from established colonies of plants, take amounts that won’t be detrimental to those colonies, don’t harvest rare or endangered plants. Be mindful of those plants needs to reproduce. Be respectful of the plants and the land you are harvesting from. Be respectful to the owners and kaitiaki of the land you are harvesting from.

*there is a native dandelion but I think most dandelions we see in NZ are the introduced species