A Few Thoughts on Wildcrafting in the Pacific Northwest and my personal wildcrafting journey.
Michael Pilarski, Friends of the Trees Botanicals
Everywhere on earth can grow or wildcraft most of their medicines. That is the way it used to be. It can be that way again. This can preserve plant biodiversity and cultural diversity. There are medicinal plants in every plant community: from the equatorial tropics to the tundra, from the seashore to above timberline, and from the wettest to the most arid.
Wildcrafting includes gathering wild food, medicines, basketry materials, fibers, dyes, small-wood, crafts, ornament, ceremonial objects, fodder, fertilizer, resins, essential oils, etc. Foraging is a similar term but more often applied to wild food gathering. Wild plants can be a source of household economy, income, barter goods and gifts. I wildcraft medicinal herbs primarily and this article is mainly on the medicinal herb situation.
Wildcrafters range from:
- Professional wildcrafters who sell into commerce.
- Cottage industry owners who make products for local markets.
- Subsistence wildcrafting for family use.
- Occasional, recreational foraging.
Virtually all sites have wild plants in them, though in many cases they are what we call “weeds”. Knowing the uses of the weeds and wild plants around you should be everyone’s goal. Which ones are edible, medicinal or have other economic uses. Oftentimes, the edible weeds in a garden are nutritionally superior to the crop plants. Knowing the uses of the wild plants and utilizing them reduces our need for outside inputs.
I promote medicinal sovereignty as well as food sovereignty. Local production of medicines and food. Replacing pharmaceuticals with herbs is an ongoing process in western countries. In the Global South, pharmaceuticals are gaining market share over herbal and traditional medicines. If globalization broke down, many places would be cut off from pharmaceuticals and would be forced to switch to local medicinal plants. The idea of medicinal forests, and using medicinal plants in ecosystem restoration are ideas whose time has come. I envision a world full of medicinal plants everywhere.
All traditional agriculturists wildcrafted from their surroundings. Studies in Nepal show that for every acre of farmland, the farmers need 2.5 acres of wild land where they gather food, medicines, livestock fodder, building materials, craft materials, nutrient inputs for their farms in the forms of leaves, etc, etc. When there is less wild area per acre of farmland (due to population pressure and land conversion) then the quality of the farmland and the lifestyle of the farming families deteriorates. Traditional Nepalese farmers had virtually no outside inputs.
Wildcrafting should be done on a sustainable basis. You don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. There needs to be lots more research and writing about how to sustainably wildcraft the many different species. Over 10,000 medicinal plants are still in use worldwide. Passing this precious information on from generation to generation is so important. We should all be involved in the inter-generational passing on of knowledge.
Many humans are abandoning nature at this time, or greatly reducing their time spent in nature. Screens, stores, gadgets, cars, human friends, indoors. Life cut off from nature more and more. Obviously this isn’t good for the individuals involved nor for society. Civilization is large and complex but it is frail and subject to interconnected disruption as one disaster can spread to the whole. Knowing the wild foods, medicines and natural resources makes you more resilient during emergencies.
Perhaps more important, is the joy and peace that comes from connecting to nature. This is a joy that accrues from day to day. Hear the wind and the birds, feel the rain, smell the fragrances, observe the plants and life. It is hard not to feel the presence of the Creator Source while observing nature. This offers treasures greater than money or fame. Of course it is possible to be in nature and not have any connection, but a wildcrafter has to be very observant.
Biodiverse, wild ecosystems are very important for world ecological stability. We need more of them, not less. Replacing wildcrafted products with farm products is desireable for species that are currently being overharvested in the wild. In the long run, though we should aim to replace farmed crops with wildcrafted products by increasing the wildcrafting resource. Indigenous cultures who did ethno-ecological gardening of their landscapes are called “Horticultural” societies as opposed to agricultural societies. We can learn a lot from them
To be a wildcrafter is a boon to yourself and to those whose lives your gathering enhances. A large part of the world’s population still wildcrafts. Wildcrafting is available to all, rich and poor. Wherever you live, you are surrounded by food and medicine.
Wildcrafting in the Pacific Northwest
I like to look at the global picture, but the Pacific Northwest is what I know from personal experience and most specifically the northern half of Washington state and into North Idaho and Northwest Montana. A region about 500 miles west to east and 150 miles north to south. We have our urban centers, but much of the region has a low population density. For instance, Sanders County where I lived in northwest Montana, has a population density lower than Mongolia (rated as the lowest population density of any country in the world). In other words there is still a lot of wide-open country in the Pacific Northwest. There is a lot of government land, industry timberland, wild lands of various sorts and an ever-shrinking area we might call the Commons. We also have tribal land/reservations out here and no one should harvest on their lands without permission. There is also a lot of private land and an ever-increasing amount of it is fenced and/or has No Trespassing and Keep Out signs. Wildcrafting here is a dance between permits, permissions and the commons.
In the Pacific Northwest the main wildcrafted items are edible mushrooms and huckleberries in the Interior and edible mushrooms and “brush” for the foliage industry in the Maritime (sword fern and leafy tips of salal, Oregon-grape and evergreen huckleberry).
In all my travels and events, I have only met a couple dozen other professional, medicinal wildcrafters in my vast region. I am sure there are others, but I think I can safely say there aren’t that many of us at this point in time. Just a couple generations ago, there were local buyers for medicinals like Oregon-grape and cascara. I don’t know of any aggregating buyers for medicinals in my region at this time. All the wildcrafters I know sell direct to tincture companies, herb stores, cottage industry herbalists or direct to consumers.
I cannot think of a single over-harvested medicinal plant in the Pacific Northwest. Sure, there are rare and endangered plants in the region but not from wildcrafting. A lot of native plants are on a decline due to habitat destruction/degradation through logging, agriculture, development, over-grazing, etc. There are a lot less wild foods, medicines, etc than when the indigenous people were stewarding the landscape. We can take this back uphill and increase wildcrafting resources, instead of depleting them.
What Pacific Northwest botanicals are big on the world stage?
Elderberry/elderflower (Sambucus species). Sambucus was the largest selling botanical in the world in 2021 for the 2nd year in a row) worth $267 million according to the most recent HerbalGram magazine. What is the Pacific Northwest’s market share? Hardly anything, but this could change. There are lots of native blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) in the Interior. There is some competition for the berries (mainly from wildlife). I expect to see more small elderberry orchards going in, primarily the European specie.
Oregon-grape root (Mahonia species). One of the three plants on this list that is supplied solely/primarily from the PNW. Though the genus has species all the way down the North and South American cordilleras. Oregon-grape is listed as a UPS Species to Watch. I watch for it all the time and know what habitats it grow in. Oregon-grape is a ubiquitous plant of the Pacific Northwest landscape. There is a wet-adapted species, Mahonia nervosa and two dry-adapted species, Mahonia aquifolium and M. repens. I doubt there is a county in the Pacific Northwest that doesn’t have Oregon-grape growing there. Prolifically in many places. Thus it can be sustainably wildcrafted. I currently harvest most of my Oregon-grape on my own farm where I put in 900 Mahonia aquifolium seedlings some years back.
Cascara bark (Rhamnus purshiana). They used to export cascara bark out of the PNW by the 100s of tons annually, but I think the market for laxatives has largely turned away from cascara. Likely it is still one of our top medicinal exports.
Arnica flowers, Arnica species, many wild species grow here but the most sold is Arnica cordifolia. The world mainly relies on the European species Arnica montana.
Dandelion: Perhaps the most widely distributed medicinal plant in the world. Grows good in the PNW. Most people try to kill it. I wildcraft it in my garden and in the wild.
Hawthorn berry and flower. There is a significant amount of naturalized English hawthorn in the Puget trough and Willamette valley. Some is wildcrafted. There are also a number of native species which can be locally abundant. Hardly any native hawthorns are harvested, though I rate their fruit as superior to the English.
Mullein: Right after dandelion in the category of most widely distributed weeds. Very little gets harvested here. Mainly leaf. Flower and root to lesser extents.
St. John’s Wort, The centers of production are elsewhere. Lots of this invasive plant around. and probably ten of thousands of pounds are harvested annually in the PNW. 99% goes unpicked.
Nettle. This herb largely supplied by eastern Europe. A huge amount of nettle grows in the Maritime Northwest but cost of labor and lack of drying facilities limits production here. I could sell all I could produce, but we lack dryer capacity to do much. A farmer cooperative is forming with a co-op dryer in mind. I also harvest nettle seed (in the green calyx stage), but this is a specialty market. Ditto for nettle root.
Wormwood. There is no center of production here but it has gone invasive in north-east Washington.
European Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus). Most people are surprized to hear that this species is native to parts of the Cascades and the northern Rockies. I harvest the outer twigs with leaves and ripe berries and sell it fresh to tincture makers. It is one of the smaller Vaccinium bushes, relatively rare in the landscape, and not easy to spot at 55 miles an hour, but I have learned the knack. Has to be handled very delicately to get it to the buyer in good shape.
Lomatium dissectum is not very well known on the world stage. It is listed on the UPS Species at Risk list. I am a great fan of this Lomatium and know what habitats it grows in and at what densities. I know of stands with hundreds of tons up to thousands of tons per stand. I dig representative 10’ by 10’ plots to figure out the weight of roots per acre and than multiply by the number of acres in a stand. Lomatium dissectum has a wide range in the western US from California, Nevada Utah and Colorado in the south and north up into British Columbia and Alberta. Thus one can expect there are currently millions of tons of Lomatium dissectum roots out there. Here is a website that shows the ranges of all the Lomatium species.
Of course, even abundant plants can be over-harvested in small stands at the edges of a specie’s range or ecological limits. For instance, I have heard of overharvesting of Lomatium dissectum stands in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, Oregon (by hispanic crews hired by a local herb company) and I know of an instance on the Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana where a company was paying local tribespeople to harvest Lomatium roots for beer money. The diggers were not doing a good job, not filling in their holes, not following respect and the tribe had the buyer shut down (or at least the Lomatium part of their business). In spite of isolated instances like these, Lomatium dissectum can be harvested sustainably, and should be, since it is one of the most powerful of our anti-viral herbs.
I love wildcrafting weeds. Out of the 63 wildcrafted species in my 2023 Botanicals catalog, 16 are weedy, non-native species which have gone invasive in my collecting area. They are alfalfa, burdock, chickweed, cleavers, dandelion, English hawthorn, mullein, red clover, sheep sorrel, shepherd’s purse, St. Johns’s wort, wild lettuce, wormwood and yellow dock.
My personal story
I have been wildcrafting since I was a toddler and my mom took me on berry picking expeditions. As a rural homesteader in the 1970s onward, I have wildcrafted many things. In 1995 I decided to become a professional wildcrafter of medicinal plants. My Friends of the Trees Botanicals business has been my main income for the last 25 years. It is now a father/son family business with my son, Ashley Kehl, our dedicated colleague Anna Pallotta and various interns and part-time employees. I never had the money to buy land, but wildcrafting has meant that the world has become my garden. I garden and farm as well, but wildcrafting pays better per unit of time then farming.
Like myself, many start their wildcrafting learning as a novice, not having learned it growing up in a tradition. But you have to start somewhere. I am a college drop-out. Hardly anything in my college classes have been useful to my life. After 51 years of plant experience including 25 years of professional wildcrafting I am an expert in multiple plant disciplines. But I didn’t rack up a big educational bill. I learned from hands-on experience and books. There were no wildcrafting elders to learn from. Basically I had to invent everything myself. What tools to use, processing techniques and discover what ecosystems had what plants. So let me encourage those of you with little money to give wildcrafting a go. Do it sustainably. Doesn’t cost much to get started. Living close to the Earth. Providing useful foods and medicines to your fellow humans and stewarding the Earth. The Earth needs us. It won’t be easy. You might have to live below the poverty line. I have for most of my life. It’s not that bad.
My far-flung wildcrafting means I am highly dependent on the automobile. In case they go bye-bye, I am also farming herbs to hedge my bets. I could adapt to wildcrafting locally but this would greatly reduce the species I could supply. My market is national and dependent on Fedex, UPS and the Postal service. If this transportation system broke down, or became prohibitively expensive, I would have to adapt to a local market. Local demand would increase if imports were cut off.
Wildcrafting Hoop: One person’s journey
“The Hoop” is one of the terms used to describe a traditional people’s yearly round of harvesting activities. Every traditional people had, or still has, a yearly round of harvesting activities that follow one another in a specific order. Here are the main medicinal herbs I harvested in 2017 in the order that I harvested them. There are year-to-year weather variations which have to be taken into account and elevation and aspect means that different stands in the same area will vary by several weeks. The window of opportunity for the most optimum harvest period for desired constituents varies from species to species. Heart-leaved arnica flowering stands are only perfect for about 3 days. In contrast, Elder spreads it’s flowering over a month in the same stand. Nettle leafy tops and nettle seed both have relatively short windows of about 2 weeks for each site. Dormant roots in the ground have a long window. So many variables!
Every medicinal plant has a specific point in time when it is highest in the desired constituents. Wildcrafters have to know what the plant is, where it can be found, when to harvest it, tools to use, how to transport, process and ship fresh material, drying and storage. Wildcrafting for some botanicals is relatively easy while others require difficult, hard work.
The harvest dates given here will be applicable in general for the side of Washington State indicated here.
W = Western Washington.
E = Eastern Washington.
W - Nettle root - November to mid-February
W - Cottonwood buds - December thru February
W – Lobaria lichen – January/ February
W - Usnea lichen - January/March
W - Devils club - November to April
W - Dandelion root – All winter into Spring
W - Nettle tops - late March thru April
E – Lithospermum ruderale - March/April,
E - Lomatium dissectum root - March/April,
W - Dandelion leaf - Mid-April into May
W - Cleavers - May 1 into early June
W – Hawthorn flowers - May
E - Arnica cordifolia flowers - early May to mid May
W - Rose petals - Early June
E – Elder flowers - All June
E - Yarrow flowers – mid June to mid July. Each patch has about a 2-week window.
E - St John’s Wort - Early to mid-July
W - Coastal Gumweed buds/flowers - Late July
E – Interior Gumweed buds/flowers - August
E - Nettle seed Columbia Basin - End of August and early September
E - Pipsissewa - August, September
E – Elderberry – Late August thru September
E – Yew tips - All summer
W - Hawthorn berry - mid to end September. Worms are an issue in some stands, if so pick early.
E – Kinnikinnik, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi - September/October
E - Oregon grape root - October into November.
E – Sarsparilla, Aralia nudicaulis – October.
E – Lithospermum ruderale – October into November.
E - Lomatium dissectum root – October into November.
E - Yellow dock, - September/October
W - Tall Oregon-grape, - all winter on the West Side.
W - Low Oregon-grape - all winter on the West Side.
Michael Pilarski has been farming and gardening organically since 1972 with medicinal herbs being his main crops for the last 25 years. He has professionally wildcrafted medicinal plants for 25 years. His herb business is Friends of the Trees Botanicals. He has worked with over 1,000 species of plants. He has taught extensively in the fields of regenerative farming, permaculture, medicinal herbs, native plants, plant propagation, ethnobotany, forestry, agroforestry and ecosystem restoration. He is the founder of the Northwest Herbal Fair, the Montana Herb Gathering, the Herb Growing & Marketing Conference and the Northwest Wildcrafters’ Rendezvous. His publications include:
* Growing and Wildcrafting Medicinal Plants in the Pacific Northwest,
* Subtropical and Tropical Medicinal Plants Checklist. 2001.
* Ethnobotany and Ethnoecology Resource Guide.
* Agroforestry Guide for the Hawaiian Islands.
These publications are only available from the author. [needs url from my ETSY book shop]
Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org
Friends of the Trees Botanicals
Port Hadlock, Washington
Our 2023 catalog offers 133 botanicals, 63 are wildcrafted and 70 are organically grown on our micro-farms. Seed catalog of 80+ medicinal species.
I have started compiling a list of wildcrafters in the USA with a focus on the Pacific Northwest. Not unsurprisingly a lot of wildcrafters keep a low profile and we are an independent bunch not given to handing out trade secrets. So this list will only be of people who are teaching or selling commercially and have an internet presence. Please send me names and contact info for wildcrafters who have websites or are public.
Michael Pilarski’s Youtube channel for wildcrafting (15 videos) and farming (dozens of videos):.
A Northwest Wildcrafters’ Rendezvous will be held May 26-28, 2023 in the Methow Valley of North-central Washington.
For details visit: https://friendsofthetreesbotanicals.com/pages/wildcrafters-rendezvous
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation.
United Plant Savers is a world leader in protecting medicinal plants from overharvesting. promoting conservation, and bringing native medicinal plants into cultivation. UPS membership includes wildcrafters.
Creating New Forests for Medicinal Plants. Michael Pilarski. 2021 United Plant Savers Journal
Tree Medicine: A Guide to Understanding Trees & Forests as Natural Pharmacies. By Paul Evers. 2022. 296 pages Large format. A compilation of 120 medicinal trees & 500 scientifically validated studies. Currently available for US$24. The trees are from temperate to tropical climates with a greater emphasis on tropical. The author also notes the timber and wood qualities of each species. He goes into detail on the health claims for each tree and specifically the uses which have been scientifically verified. I heartily concur with the author that the world should plant medicinal forests in every locality to provide the medicines the populace needs. Excellent research. The author puts most of his emphasis on explaining the medicinal uses of each tree and names which pharmaceutical medicines each can replace. I have not seen this pharmaceutical analog information much before. A good book for herbalists across the planet.
Look Up: The Medicinal Trees of the American South, An Herbalists Guide.
Judson Carroll. 2021, 365 pages. Covers 90 species native or naturalized in the Southern USA. Most of information is about the medicinal uses. A potpourri of claims from many sources, mainly from the 1900s. The information is all over the place and not well organized. Still it does give a wide range of species to consider planting in the right climate zones.
Foraging and Ethnobotany, Links & Books Page
A huge amount of information. A lot of book reviews. I own about 2/3 of the books he reviews. It includes a list of plant species databases. He has done a lot of legwork for us. A lot of his info has hot link urls.
Special Forest Products: Species Information Guide for the Pacific Northwest. Nan C. Vance, Melissa Borsting, David Pilz and Jim Freed. . USDA Forest Service, PNW Research Station. General Technical Report
PNW-GTR-513, September 2001. 169 pages. Covers 60 plants and fungi and their wild harvest methods. Excellent publication. Information for each species includes: Ecology, Range and Distribution, Associations, Habitats, Successional Stage, Ecological Relations, Flowering and Fruiting, Seed, Vegetative reproduction, Cultivation, Transplant viability, Part harvested, Harvest techniques, Harvest season, Regeneration after harvest, Uses and Products, Common uses, Indigenous uses, Common products, Types of markets, and Sustainability Concerns.
From Earth to Herbalist: An Earth-Conscious Guide to Medicinal Plants. Gregory L. Tilford. 1998. Mountain Press Pub. Missoula. 250 pages. One of the few wildcrafting books that focuses on sustainability. Almost all the 52 species covered are in the Northwest. 50 herbs: Description, Parts used, Actions, Habitat & Range, Applications, Alternatives and adjuncts. Propagation & Growth Characteristics, Gathering Season and General Guidelines, Care after gathering., Tincture recipe and comments., Plant/Animal Interdependence, References. Very good info for new wildcrafters,
Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants. Scott Kloos. 2017. Field guide and uses with info on sustainability included. Better phots than Michael Moore and more species.
Growing & Wildcrafting Medicinal Plants in the Pacific Northwest. Michael Pilarski. $33. Available only from the author.
Wild Harvest. Leonard Wiley. 1965. Published by the author. 219 pages. A delightful peek at Northwest wildcrafting in the mid-1900s. Wiley covers 17 kinds of products. Mostly the “brush” business for ornamental foliage, but some medicinals such as cascara, Oregon grape and foxglove. This was industrial scale production with very low prices paid to collectors. Consider this quote “Average price (for Oregon Grape) root seven to eight cents a pound dry weight, although it has been as low as four cents and as much as thirty.” Today I sell dry Oregon Grape root for $18 a pound.
Keeping It Living. Nancy J. Turner. One of the most important books published on how indigenous tribal peoples managed their environments sustainably. Focused on the Pacific Northwest. Every region in the world needs an ethnoecology book like this.
Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources. Kat Anderson. University of California Press, 2005. Wow! The ethnobotany of California and how the tribes managed the ecosystems for their delectable qualities.
An Okanagan Worldview of Society
Jeannette Armstrong, Okanagan Nation, located in British Columbia, Canada.
This article gives insights into indigenous ways of thinking and relationships to wildcrafting. Armstrong says that her people lived in socio-ecosystems, where humans are integral parts of the ecosystem. A keystone species.
Wildcrafting Basics. Scott Kloos
Wildcrafting Medicinal Plants by Ryan Drum.
Wildcrafting for Beginners
by Howie Brounstein
The Harvester, by Gene Stratton Porter. 1911.
Book review by Michael Pilarski.
I read and re-read this book as a youngster. Gene Stratton Porter was a keen naturalist in her time and she writes knowledgeably and poetically about the landscapes and ecosystems of the Midwest where she lived.
The Harvester is a story of a boy who grows up wildcrafting medicinal plants with his mother at the turn of the century. Eventually the mother passes on and leaves the son with a parcel of rural land. He sees that the natural areas they harvest in are becoming increasingly wiped out from logging, draining, conversion to farmland and development. So he sets out to transplant the medicinal plants to his land and establish them in the correct habitat; forest, meadow, marsh, etc. So he ends up creating a paradise of medicinal wildcrafting on his property and that is how he makes his living. One evening, while observing the mists come off the lake on his property, a vision of a beautiful young woman appears to him. Eventually, he meets her in person, woos her, and they become engaged. She becomes deathly ill and he cures her using potent medicinal herbs from his plantings. This book is a romantic novel, but it also conveys a lot of botanical knowledge and love of nature. I loved this book as a boy and perhaps it influenced my life to also become a harvester/wildcrafter and to plant medicinal forests.
A few quotes wherein the Harvester is telling his love what he has planted in her hedge. “The Harvester went out and collected a bunch of twigs. He handed her a big, evenly proportioned leaf of ovate shape and explained “This is burning bush, so called because it has pink berries that hang from long, graceful stems all winter and when fully open they expose a flame-red seed pod. It was for this colour on gray and white days that I planted it. In the woods I grow it in thickets. The root bark brings twenty cents a pound, at the very least. It is a good fever medicine. I put in witch hazel for variety, and I like its appearance, it’s mighty good medicine, too; so is spice brush, and it has leaves that colour brightly, and red berries. These selections were all made for a purpose. Now here is wafer ash; it is for music as well as medicine. I have invoked all good fairies to come and dwell in this hedge, and so I had to provide an orchestra for their dances. This tree grows a hundred tiny castanets in a bunch, and when they ripen and become dry, the wind shakes fine music from them. Yes, they are medicine; that is, the bark of the roots. Almost without exception everything here has medicinal properties.”
I give this book review to illustrate that the idea of planting medicinal forests is not new. Here is a well thought out example from 1911. Republished as paperbacks in 2008 and 2019, The Harvester is easily available today at low prices (under $10).