Wildcrafting Herbs: Harvesting Medicinal Plants

If you develop the skills and know your local area well you could make money by harvesting wild medicinal plants such as ginseng, goldenseal, may apple and bloodroot.


| July/August 1974



028-032-02

Although it grows wild, goldenseal can also be raised commercially in lath sheds ... as was the two-year-old specimen shown here.


PHOTO: JAMES E. CHURCHILL

One of the oldest professions in the civilized world is the collection and preparation of wild plants for use as drugs, special foods or home remedies. Ancient as this skill is, however, it's far from outdated. Right this minute, in various parts of the United States and Canada, wildcrafters are going about their business of gathering and drying various botanicals to be shipped to buyers.

The treasure these hunters seek in the woods and fields is a wide range of plants, both rare and common, for which dealers will pay correspondingly varied amounts. Of course, only certain parts of a given species are valuable some are collected as herbs (which, in wildcrafters' terminology, means leaves and stems). In other cases only the bark is taken. This may be the covering of the root, as with blackberry, or — as with slippery elm — the inner skin of the trunks or limbs, after the outer layer has been scraped or "rossed" off.

The most profitable materials, however, tend to be roots. And the most famous root of all from a five leafed, dark green plant known as ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) sells for over $50 pound (sometimes $60 and up). A really lucky hunter may find five or ten pounds in a single patch!

How to Begin Wildcrafting Herbs

If the time honored vocation of herb collecting appeals to you, your first step is to learn to identify the plants you'll hunt. The very best way to obtain this knowledge is by apprenticing yourself to a practicing wildcrafter and following him around all you can. It will probably take some doing to gain his confidence, however, since people of this calling are — by nature and necessity — a secretive, closemouthed lot when it comes to "stands" in their area.

I got pretty friendly with one fellow, many years ago, by helping him split wood and teaching him to eat several plants that were growing in his yard. Then I still had to convince him that I wouldn't be prospecting in his territory before he would show me how he dug and dried his stock in trade.

Even at that, my instructor didn't teach me much about how to work a new area. That's something everyone must learn for himself ... partly by instinct and partly by the common sense practice of hunting in spots with rich soil and deep to medium shade. It's also helpful to look for the more common plants — nettles, catnip, wild ginger, May apple — that grow in conjunction with valuable herbs. (All these indicators, the way, have the added advantage of themselves being salable to drug companies.)





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