Wildcrafting is a great way to benefit from herbal medicine without breaking the bank. There’s a wide variety of healing medicinal herbs in Nova Scotia, and every season offers something different to harvest.
Wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting plants from their natural habitat for food or medicinal purposes. (The word “foraging” is often used for food and “wildcrafting” for herbal medicines, but they are interchangeable). Wildcrafted herbs can be used in a variety of medicines like tinctures, herbal salves, and infusions, and when done mindfully, you can reap the benefits of wild herbal medicines without disturbing the ecosystem.
Benefits of Wildcrafting
Wild plants are more potent and nutrient-dense than their monoculture counterparts because they come from richer terrain, often in relatively undisturbed meadows and forests. Commercial farms often have depleted soil, or only feed the plants with isolated nutrients.
It’s also a great way to enjoy the outdoors. You can bring a friend for a relaxing expedition. And when you return home, there are many easy herbal remedies you can make with your harvest of wild plants.
Wildcrafting herbs for food and medicine can support your efforts to:
- eat nutrient-dense foods
- reduce dependence on imported food and medicine
- reduce dependence on Big Agro
- enjoy nature
- keep yourself healthy with natural tonics & remedies
You can also bring along family and friends and build community at the same time.
And just how many useful plants are out there? TONS! In one afternoon in northern New Brunswick, I identified 28 useful plants on one property, and there were definitely more I didn’t identify. Once you learn to identify some useful plants, you will see they are everywhere. Many useful plants are so prolific they are also known as weeds.
What to Bring When You Go Wildcrafting
You don’t need many tools to wildcraft, but there are a few essentials that will help your excursion go smoothly. Primarily, you’ll need something to carry your harvest in, and you might need some tools to detach the plants from the forest.
Baskets are great for short trips, and large paper bags are great for longer ones. Don’t store herbs in plastic because they can decompose quickly in the sun.
Depending on what you plan to harvest, you might need something for cutting, digging and snipping. You’ll want a trowel if you’re digging roots, and bring a good knife if you have to cut bark, or roots, and some kitchen shears or scissors for snipping greenery or flowers.
I love this hori hori digging knife for all sorts of wildcrafting and gardening tasks.It has one straight blade and one serrated blade and it is curved so it functions as a knife and a trowel. Another handy tool is a vegetable brush to clean roots with, to minimize the dirt you take with you. If you’re harvesting mushrooms, bring a paintbrush instead of a vegetable brush to avoid damaging them.
If you’re exploring a new area, a great field guide will help you identify useful plants. In my area (Halifax, Nova Scotia) Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs is the standard for medicinal plants, and here is the version for edible plants. Another good, comprehensive one for this region that includes lots of pictures is Lone Pine’s Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada. The other nice thing about the Lone Pine guide is that it has both edible and medicinal plants in one volume.
- baskets, paper bags, cloth bags
- pruning shears or scissors
- knife or trowel or both
- a veggie brush for roots, or paintbrush for mushrooms
- a field guide
- flower press
- snacks and water
- a notebook and/or sketchbook
What to Wear When You Go Wildcrafting
The type of habitat and the weather will impact your clothing choice. Something to think about will be the density of vegetation, and the possibility of muddy ground. It’s a good idea to wear long pants if you’re going into the forest or tall grasses,
Wildcrafting Best Practices
Get to Know Your Plant
Make sure you’re positive of the plant’s identity. When in doubt, leave it. For an introduction to some useful plants, it’s a great idea, and a lot of fun to take a class with a local expert. Bloom Institute’s Holistic Herbal Wellness Program is a year-long program that will immerse you in nature in Atlantic Canada and give you firsthand experience in identifying and using local medicinal plants.
When you’re encountering a new plant, it can tell you a lot about itself if you take the time to get to know it. The smell, texture and colour can sometimes give you clues as to what the plant’s uses are, and often a contemplative taste will also let you intuit what the plant does medicinally. One example is the soothing smell of linden that you might correctly guess is soothing and good for your heart.
Harvest Plant Parts in the Proper Season
As the plants experience the cycle of seasons, different parts of them hold the most nutrients and medicine, and different parts will be available at different times. By harvesting each part in the best season, you’ll get the best yield and most potent medicine for your efforts.
LEAVES: In spring, before the flowers have blossomed, the leaves are at their most tender, clean and relatively untouched by bugs. After flowers appear, the leaves can become tough and tasteless or bitter. Harvest leaves before they fade in colour, wither, or get eaten by insects.
FLOWERS: If you’re after flowers, then obviously you also have a specific window for each flower in which to harvest. Pick buds just before they open, or flowers that have just opened and before the start to wilt. Some flowers start appearing in early spring and some species are still blooming in late fall, but most varieties appear in summer.
ROOTS: Roots are best harvested as late as possible, before the first frost. This is when the energy of the plant subsides into the ground, preparing for winter, but after the first frost, they’re sometimes damaged and spongey. It is especially important when gathering roots that you harvest no more than 10% of the population.
SEEDS: Collect seeds when they are ripe. Leave seeds on the plant to sun-ripen as long as possible, but harvest just before the wind distributes them. You can tell when they’re ready by the little stem that attaches the seed parts to the rest of the plant. If the stem is dry, the seeds are ready. Yellowed leaves can also be an indicator of ripe seeds. Collect them by putting a paper bag over the plant and cutting the stem. Always leave the majority of seeds there for the plant to return next year.
BARK: Harvest bark in spring or fall, ideally from recently fallen branches, not from the main trunk. Never harvest more than 10% of the circumference.
Harvest in the Morning
The best time to harvest is on a sunny morning right after the dew has dried. You don’t want to harvest wet plants on damp days, or in hot sun because the plants will wilt too quickly.
Harvesting your own food and medicine is a great time to notice the abundance of nature, the interconnection of all living things, and to appreciate the importance of maintaining the ecosystem that provides this treasure. When you find a patch of herb you want to gather, take a moment to attune to the plant and be thankful for the gift of mother nature.
Be A Steward of the Ecosystem
The most important thing is to gather with mindfulness for the continued abundance of the plant and its ecosystem. Never harvest rare and endangered plants. Always leave enough plants that they will replenish. Leave flowers for the bees, seeds and berries for the other critters, and for the plant to continue to thrive. Don’t harvest more than one root out of ten, and re-cover any remaining roots you have disturbed. Only pick what you can process.
Over-harvesting can decimate a plant population in a given area, and depending on what you’re harvesting, you can also disrupt other critters, so you want to be mindful that you’re leaving enough for the forest, the birds & the bees.
Harvest less than 10% of the population in a given area, especially if you are harvesting roots.
Most importantly, if a plant is rare in your area don’t harvest or disturb it. Many medicinal plants are at risk, so it’s good to check which ones are at risk in your area. There’s a list at United Plant Savers. If you’re in Atlantic Canada, check the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre‘s list.
Keep Good Records
One thing you’ll want to do now that will make your foraging easier in the future is to keep a good record of when you saw which plants, so you’ll be able to predict the perfect time to harvest each plant for next season. Each season when the first of each plant pops up, jot it down and next year you’ll be glad you did.
To help you keep great notes, I created a free printable Wildcrafting Log for you. It’s a printable A5 page with space for you to write down the details of your harvest. Its minimal, bullet journal style is just enough guidance to remind you of some things you should write down, but blank enough to let you add your own sketches and style. Sign up at the bottom of this post to download your copy.
Beginner Plants to Wildcraft in Nova Scotia
The first flower of spring in Nova Scotia, Coltsfoot can be identified by the unusual fact that the flowers grow on a stem straight out of the ground before any leaves appear. Harvest the flowers in early spring, making sure to leave most of them for the bees.
Coltsfoot honey can be made into a honey for coughs.
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Goldenrod is a prolific plant found in open areas, such as meadows, prairies, and my backyard. Just tasting a goldenrod leaf can give you a sensation of cooling and freshness in your respiratory system, making it a popular remedy for colds and flu, taken as a tea.
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Ground Ivy, also knows as Creeping Charlie, is an invasive weed in the mint family. When infused in vinegar, it makes a beautiful pink potion that is a great addition to salad dressings. Research shows it has anti-inflammatory and diuretic activity.
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Please harvest knotweed! Knotweed is an invasive species that grows and spreads very quickly. The young spring shoots can be cooked and eaten like asparagus, or pickled. This is one exception to the 10% rule. Knotweed is extremely invasive and not native to Nova Scotia, and it is damaging our native ecosystems, so in this rare case, it is ok to harvest as much as you want.
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These are just a few to get you started, but there are dozens of local herbs to wildcraft here in Nova Scotia. Just remember to respect the habitat that you’re taking from: be thankful and don’t harvest more than 10% of the population.