If you plan to collect plants from the wild, strong plant identification skills are essential. First, it is a matter of safety: You must be absolutely certain of the identity of the plants you gather, especially if you plan to use them for culinary or medicinal purposes. In the book Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, noted forager “Wildman” Steve Brill cautions that if you are not 100 percent certain of the identity of a plant, do not eat it: “Look up all of a plant’s identifying characteristics, and make sure they match all your observations.” He also recommends looking up any descriptions of poisonous look-alikes and cross-checking multiple sources to be absolutely certain of the identification, palatability, and properties of a plant.
In the wild, plant identification can be a matter of life and death. Purple-stem angelica (Angelica atropurpurea; below left), which has been used for healing, could be confused with highly toxic water hemlock (Cicuta maculata; below right). Both have white flower umbels and hollow purple-tinged stems, and both grow in moist woodlands.
When gathering plants from the wild for any reason, be aware of good wild-harvesting practices, and obtain permission in advance if you wish to collect on any land, private or public, that is not your own. Knowing how to harvest plants sustain-ably and in ways that minimize damage to their habitats will ensure the survival of the individual plant community. Here are a few general rules.
• Never harvest rare herbs or plants of any kind. Some species are protected by law, and the penalties for harvesting them can be severe. Even if the plant being collected is not rare, never harvest when there are only a few specimens growing in one place.
• Do not harvest more plant material than needed. When a collector takes the root of a plant, the plant itself is destroyed. Harvesting bark harms trees, and removing a ring of bark from around a trunk can be fatal to a tree.
• Be sensitive to the surrounding vegetation. Don’t trample nearby plants in a burst of enthusiasm to collect a plant.
• Be cautious about potential pollutants that can contaminate the plants being gathered. Those collected near roadsides, for example, could contain unacceptably high levels of toxins, both from automobiles (lead and other heavy metals) and from chemical spraying. Plants gathered from streams could contain the same contaminants and microorganisms as do the waters, including bacteria such as E. coli.
In the end, the best course of action might simply be to grow medicinal plants or purchase herbs from a reputable supplier.
Whether you have taken a botany class at some point in your life or these concepts of plant identification are new to you, getting your arms around them will pave the way for greater enjoyment of the herbs you grow, collect, and purchase. When working in your garden, take the time to observe each plant. How does it differ from the ones alongside it? What are the shapes of its leaves? What type of inflorescence does it have? What does its root system look like?
If you are weeding, think about the difference between a weed and a useful plant. Certainly, plants considered weeds are not only in the “wrong” place, but they’re also aggressive. I can recall spending part of one beautiful spring weekend “weeding” a collection of mints I had purchased and planted the prior year—their stolons had spread throughout the garden like lava from a spewing volcano, and if not removed, they would have crowded out the other useful and ornamental plants struggling to grow there. The morphology and aggressive growth characteristics of certain mints make these species a weed in some cases and in other cases a most valued herb that can be harvested throughout the growing season.
Part of the great joy of spending time in the garden is observing its natural history—the interactions with pollinators, predators, soil, rain, and people—as well as the growth of each individual plant in your collection. Growing and using herbs in your daily life—strengthening that connection with your natural environment—can certainly help address the health condition that Richard Louv refers to as “nature-deficit disorder” in his wonderful book Last Child in the Woods.