The Etiquette of Herb-Gathering
As a practicing Witch and small-scale herbalist, I often find that when I’m out and about I’m also absentmindedly on the lookout for any new, interesting or useful herb species that might help me in my practice. I even carry a small clean jam jar and a sharp penknife in my handbag at all times for if I spot a herb I just can’t resist and need to take a cutting of it for my collection back home. However, while I’m avidly seeking out roadside feverfew or happily snipping cuttings of a rare cultivar of lavender or sage, I’m always acutely aware of why I call the etiquette of herb-gathering.
These are a few simple rules by which I suggest all foraging Witches, alchemists and herbalists should abide that dictate the correct course of action for those who seek to collect herbs from places other than their own gardens. They are mostly fairly common-sense, but a few are ones that might be overlooked, but which can actually be of profound importance!
I will list the rules below, but bear in mind that it’s not like this is some onerous obligation that must be fulfilled, and nor is it some sort of “Witchcraft commandment” or infallible and unchanging list of sacred laws. These are a few things that I created for my own usage, and nobody else is under any obligation to use them. If you choose to do so, I’ll be thrilled; if you find a way to improve them, please do reblog this post with your corrections!
The Etiquette of Herb-Gathering
- Remember that all plants are living things, and if you harvest them too severely, they will die. This seems obvious, but you’d be shocked how many people forget! This is especially important when what you’re harvesting is the plant’s leaves - always remember that leaves are how plants make their food, so leave enough of them to enable the plant to keep growing strongly.
- Never forget that you may not be the only one foraging. Make sure that, when you harvest a wild growth of a herb, there may be others in the area who would also like to harvest that plant. Take only a little from a lot of patches, rather than using only two or three patches, but taking almost all of what is available at each one. This will not only ensure that other foragers can use that patch too, but will mean that when the patch regrows, you’ll know where to go back to in order to find it again instead of needing to hunt down a new patch each time.
- When foraging on another’s land, ask their permission first! This seems so straightforward, but sadly people forget that plants growing in other people’s gardens (yes, even their front lawn) are that person’s private property! Taking cuttings or fruits from plants on that property without the owner’s permission is legally theft, and can be punished just like shoplifting or stealing a bike from a railing. It also means that the owner will know that their plant is looking smaller because it’s been harvested, rather than them thinking it’s died or been eaten by some wild herbivore.
- Always cut stems at a diagonal angle. Never snip a stem so that it forms a circular, blunted end, because this can allow rainwater to build up on the surface of the cut. This rainwater can trap fungal spores, and cause the plant to get a serious fungal infection that may damage or even kill that whole patch. Instead, cut the stems at a roughly 45° angle, so that water beads up and rolls off more easily.
- When collecting flowers, remember that other people like to look at wildflowers. Never take ALL the flowers from any wild plant, both because it prevents that plant from reproducing as it naturally wants to do, and because it means others who walk past the plant don’t get to see it’s beautiful blooms! If you own the plant, that’s another matter - you may WANT to snip off all flowers to prevent it from bolting, like with parsley. However, with wildflowers, always leave at least half the flowers on the plant so that it can continue to reproduce as nature intended.
- Never pick a plant you can’t identify with total certainty. Yet another seemingly-obvious one that is nevertheless often ignored. This is often quoted for fungi, because some fungi can be quite poisonous, but if anything it’s even worse for plants. The medicinally fabulous plant known as yarrow, Achillea millefolia, is a very useful plant and a common component of herbal medicines. However, it looks almost identical to spotted water-hemlock, a species of plant so deadly that one bite can kill you in 20 minutes. Make completely certain that all plants you collect are positively identified, and that you flag all plants with commonly-confused poisonous cousins for further identification later if you’re not 100% sure.
- Never harvest flowers from plants around beehives. Bees are one of the most important families in the natural world, being responsible for the pollination of tens of thousands of species of flowering plants all over the world and on every forested continent. Whilst most species of bees are solitary, and don’t form the large hives we assume are common to all bees, those that DO form vast colonies need similarly vast numbers of flowers to support themselves. When you come across a beehive, especially a boxed hive that’s clearly domesticated by humans, try to avoid harvesting any flowers from within 500 metres (about a third of a mile) around the hive(s). The hive needs all the nectar and pollen it can get, and due to the rising threat of colony collapse disorder the life of every single hive is a precious thing that must be preserved at all costs. It might be inconvenient for you, but it’s worth it.
These are just a few of the major rules that I personally suggest all foragers and herb-gatherers take to heart. Remember that you’re not the only Witch who needs their supplies! Thank you for reading :)