This morning, as I was cleaning up after a breakfast of stinging nettle and crab apple pancakes topped with sweet cicely-infused honey, I noticed a young buck wandering ankle-deep through the snowy woods around my house. He was eating the tops off of some plants and the dangling clusters of green leaves off of others. He was augmenting his usual fare with stinging nettle leaves and goosefoot tops – just like me.
Only days before, when someone had asked me if I feed the deer, I had replied with my usual, “No, the deer are quite capable of feeding themselves”. As I watched this buck, it occurred to me that, indirectly, I have been feeding the deer. In the five years that I have been mindfully harvesting wild edibles in this area, I have seen a significant increase in the abundance of food in my woods.
It is easy to get excited, and even greedy, when gathering wild edible and medicinal plants. There is a tendency among people to justify or minimalize unsustainable behaviours by thinking, and perhaps believing, that we are the only ones engaging in the activity. Sometimes, the effects of over-harvesting are subtle and continue over a long period, going unnoticed, perhaps, until years later. But sometimes the effects of our actions are immediately, horribly obvious and haunt us long after the deed is done.
The effects of careful and thoughtful harvesting can also be very subtle, so it is sometimes difficult to know where the line is between sustainable and unsustainable practices. By combining the rules of conservation and etiquette for wild harvesting with our intuition, we can become caretakers of the land, rather than scourges on it.
When I harvest plants for food and other uses, I do so in a way that encourages further growth and reproduction. I do not make a habit of harvesting the biggest, healthiest plants, but rather leave these plants to reproduce. Sometimes I will spread seeds, prune branches or remove noxious weeds that threaten to take over an area. I don’t take more than I need from any plant population, and if taking what I need would be unsustainable, I take less than I need and search out alternative patches or species to fill my needs.
What is sustainable may depend on the species, what part I’m gathering, how it reproduces (by roots, seeds or both), the condition of its environment and any stress it might be under, such as disease or a large herbivore population. Depending on who you ask, harvesting anywhere from 10-30% of a plant population is deemed sustainable. When in doubt, I err on the side of caution, and if I find myself trying to justify what doesn’t feel right in my gut, I know I’ve probably taken enough.
For each species that I harvest, there are several locations that I visit. Some are used as “back-up” locations when the main patch fails, but often I harvest from these different locations on a rotational basis so that I am not visiting the same place every year. When I am harvesting, I remain aware that I am not the only one depending on this resource and I strive to ensure there is enough for all who come to this place for similar reasons.
The cool thing about gathering wild plants is that every year is different. Though I always have hopes, I have no expectations of what will be available from one year to the next. Late frosts, fires, floods, droughts and insect infestations are beyond my control, affecting different species in different ways, so I never know what plants will be filling my larder.
After a week of minus 20-35°C temperatures, I feel a sense of satisfaction and connection, knowing that the very plants I ate for breakfast are also providing sustenance for a young buck. It is not often that we see the direct benefit of our actions, and I am grateful for this lesson in mindfulness.
Botanist and founder of Prairie Shore Botanicals, Laura Reeves regularly shares her enthusiasm for wild edibles, wilderness skills, urban survival and disaster preparedness in courses, workshops and private consultations. She also sells sustainably wild harvested herbs and is helping to restore 100 acres of tall grass prairie within the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. For more info, visit her WEBSITE and Prairie Shore Botanicals’ page on Facebook.