Meet the Plants
It’s easy to fall in love with store-bought herbs. They’re so easy, and often they are good quality. However, it is important not to forget the many healing herbs that grow wild in our very own backyards. These plants are there for us to appreciate and call on in times of need.
Wild Medicinals of Autumn
Summer is the peak season for many herbs! It's a short, sweet season here in NH while other temperate climates may enjoy a slightly longer season for these herbs. They are quite common throughout the United States. In autumn, we focus primarily roots, barks, and berries.
For information on even more autumn medicines,
Also On This Page
Flowers in Spring ~ Berries in Early Autumn
Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)
Autumn Olive trees dot many open spaces, landscapes, roadsides, and the like throughout NH. This INVASIVE small tree was encouraged a couple decades ago because it’s pretty, fixes nitrogen, grows quickly, and produced edible berries much loved by herbs. Unfortunately, it really took off and is now quite problematic and invasive. I would not recommend planting the tree, but you can find a stand of it pretty easily in the wild or a friend’s yard. ID: In May it produces small, off-white, deliciously scented flowers that resemble the scent of honeysuckle. In autumn, it has red, gold-speckled fruits with a tart, puckery flavor. The leaves are silvery, and the tree has thorny spikes reminiscent of hawthorns. (The above photo doesn’t look as silvery as it is, but you can see another photo on the below link.) Some trees produce better tasting fruit than others, although none of them are extremely sweet. They more closely resemble the flavor of pomegranate or raspberries. Harvesting & Prep: It’s pretty easy to harvest large quantities of these berries by hand since they are so prolific. Taste a few to see if you like their level of ripeness. The color should be a nice red. Some are sweeter than others, and puckery astringency is common. As they ripen further, they get juicier. I run them though a food mill (see picture, right) fresh. The pulp and juice separate more easily later in the season, which you may or may not want. Removing twigs is tedious but results in a smoother finish. You can freeze fresh or processed berries for later use. Use: You can eat these berries - and, if you like, the seeds - fresh, or you can use them in recipes, to make cordials, etc. They appear to have no toxicity (this is still a “new” food to us in the Western part of the world) and are extremely high in antioxidants, including the red pigment lycopene (~15 times more than raw tomatoes and 5 times more than cooked tomatoes!). Lycopene is particularly famous for its ability to protect the prostate from cancer. I suspect that autumn olives are a neglected “superfruit” in our own backyards, unfortunately overshadowed by exotics like acai, gogi and mangosteen. Really, most edible berries are “superfruits” such as blueberries, concord grapes, hawthorn, mulberries, and blackberries. Also check out the Autumn Olive Chapter by Sam Thayer in his book Forager’s Harvest, which he has graciously posted online; it includes harvesting and ID tips as well as how to make juice and leather. (I highly recommend Thayer’s Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden books if you like foraging.) Recent research on the closely related Russian olive berries (with seeds) found that they were profoundly useful for arthritis. Preliminary (mostly lab) studies on both Russian and autumn olive leaves show antibacterial/antimicrobial activity. As taught by Christine Tolf of Lichenwood Herbals, I use autumn olive flower essence to help people adjust to and thrive in new ventures, including a new move, job, relationship status, peri/andropause, etc. Cautions: None known, but it is still “new” to us, so there’s not a lot of information or research out there. Always be 100% sure of your identification before consuming a plant. (Not all berries are edible, some are toxic.) But, autumn olives are quite distinctive and abundant once you get the eye for them. Because they are invasive, DO NOT plant them or encourage their growth, and be sure to dispose of the seeds in the trash, not the compost. Also know that it is technically illegal to harvest invasive plants in New Hampshire because of the concern that you might propagate it. Most people are happy to have you pick it, though Also note that some years are better for harvests than others, and some years the birds get to it all, too.
Wild Black Cherry & Chokecherry
Some pics of Wild Black Cherry...
Wild black cherry (a small to large tree) has longer, thinner leaves (though this can vary) and blossom clusters. This can be a shrub and grow to become a very large tree. It begins blooming shortly after/during the choke cherry bloom time. In fall, the berries are small, blue-black, with one pit. Leaves can vary to be longer/narrower or somewhat shorter/wider. Look for the fuzzy midrib (see above) - this is distinctive for this species. They also have more than 13-15 pairs of leaf veins and are blunt toothed. Lots of white lenticels gradually turn to a shaggy bark on older trees. Bud scales are pointed. Tent caterpillars and webworms are common.
Some pics of chokecherry...
Chokecherry has a similar appearance but tends to be a shrub or small tree, growing in stands along the wood edges. Flower clusters also shorter and thicker overall, sometimes pointing up, sometimes drooping. The leaves are shorter, more egg-shaped (widest in the middle), less than 13-15 pairs of leaf veins, sharp toothed, no fuzzy midrib. The autumn berries tend to be more reddish than black cherry. Notice how the lenticels (white dots) on the bark become more like dots and longitudinal wavy lines as it gets older. Bud scales are rounded. Black knot fungus is common. This is a shrub or very small tree. Because chokecherry is both prolific and shorter, it's often easier to harvest in quantity than wild black cherry; however, I prefer the flavor of the young wild cherry tree bark when I have the option.
Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) & Chokecherry (P. virginiana)
What these wild cherries lack in perfectly plump fruit they make up for in medicinal amaretto-like bark. Wild (aka black) cherry forms the backbone of many a cough syrup and was probably the origin for cherry-flavored cough drops. Chokecherry offers an abundant substitute for the backyard herbalist. They both enjoy disturbed, open ecosystems and can be found along roadsides, yards, and abandoned lots. The bloom early in spring (following the pin-cherry), first the low-growing, egg-leafed chokecherries and then the taller, narrow-leafed (with fuzzy midveins) black cherries, both with clusters of white flowers hanging down like gooseneck blossoms. They are weak trees that attract a variety of diseases and hosts, particularly tent caterpillars and black knot, which can help you identify a stand. In fall you might also be lucky enough to find drooping clusters of fruit on your wild cherries (darker blue/black for black cherries, reddish for chokecherries). These vary in edibility as they are a bit astringent and tart, but they were an important food crop for Native Americans and are a fall favorite for bears. Of course, opt for healthy-looking branches to harvest, which are generally the younger plants. If you’re harvesting in another season, opt to harvest after the plant has flowered. I recommend the “scratch & sniff” test as part of your identification: the scratched cherry bark smells like tobacco and amaretto. Harvesting & Prep: The inner bark is the part medicinally. This layer is green and aromatic, between the protective dark brown outer bark and structural white-ish inner wood. If you harvest large limbs of trees, you’ll need to remove and discard the outer bark. However, I prefer to harvest twigs and younger branches up to one and a half inches in diameter. The outer bark is young enough that I don’t need to worry about separating and removing it. First, prune the twigs and/or branches from a healthy tree or use branches from fresh trees that have recently fallen from natural causes. (Never harvest bark directly from a living tree; this can damage or kill it.) Then use a knife to peel off the bark (both outer and inner); you can use the inner wood for crafts or toss it into the woods to decompose – this isn’t the part we’re using. For smaller twigs, you don’t need to shave the bark at all. Just chop the twigs up. Cherry is unusual among medicinal barks in that it should be thoroughly dried before it is processed further (see cautions). Use: Cherry bark is famous for coughs. It helps calm an irritated cough reflex and is best for those annoying, incessant, unproductive coughs. (Opt for horehound in wet, productive coughs.) It nicely quells various respiratory spasms and irritations, lending a hand for folks who live with excess wood smoke and hypersensitive lungs. I like to combine wild cherry bark with another cough remedy: honey. I generally make the tincture of freshly dried cherry bark and then bottle it half and half with honey. Reportedly, cherry bark loses potency once cooked. Freshly made cherry bark tincture (from recently dried bark) tastes divine. (I’m less impressed with that made from store-bought cherry bark, which tends to be less flavorful and more astringent, perhaps because it’s older and coming from aged trees.) It blends well with other lung herbs like mullein leaf, elecampane root, and yerba santa leaf. Although I haven’t used it in its way, cherry bark was used by the Eclectics as a mild cardiovascular sedative for palpitations and the like. Different cherry species yield different flower essences, but a common theme is illumination, clarity, and calm. Learn more about wild cherry in this great monograph by jim mcdonald on the HerbRally site here. Caution: Cherry trees (especially pits and bark) contain small amounts of cyanide-related compounds. These are most problematic in bark/twigs consumed in their wilted state (ie: by livestock) and potentially problematic in extracts made from the pits. It’s a rare but potential risk for people; however, I was taught to harvest bark after the trees flower and to thoroughly dry the bark before further processing it as medicine to eliminate any concerns. Note: Black and chokecherries are the primary medicinal wild cherries. Pin cherries grow around here, too, and are not the primary medicinal species used, though some Native Americans have used it. Pin cherries are obviously different when in flower or fruit – they don’t hang in a long cluster. No flowers or fruits to look at? Check out the leaves (narrow without a hairy midrib underneath) and distal branches (usually covered in spurs/small twigs, with clusters of buds at the ends – which the more medicinal cherries don’t have).
RECIPE - Cherry-Honey Syrup
This gives you the syrup benefit and flavor without cooking the cherry bark and potentially reducing its potency. Loosely fill a jar with freshly dried cherry bark. Cover halfway with alcohol (100- or 80-proof vodka), then fill to the top with honey. Shake regularly and strain after about one month. A typical dose would be 1-4 squirts/dropperfuls (equal to 1-4 ml or up to 1 teaspoon) as needed.
Black Elder Flower & Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis, syn S. nigra)
Note: Elder has generally gone by in the United States by this time in autumn, but I'm leaving this post up since it's such a common fall/winter medicine.
Elder is in bloom in July here in New Hampshire, with black/purple/blue berries forming around September. ID: Black elder flowers look like saucers of white flowers growing from robust shrubs along waterways and in drainage ditches. They're very easy to ID = A robust shrub with divided (compound, pinnate) leaves arranged opposite (not alternate) on the stem, white flowers in flat-topped clusters, blue-black berries in fall, often growing in damp spots. In fall, the stems often turn purple and droop with the weight of small blackish-purple-blue berries. Beginners could mix it up with other plants if you're not paying attention. Please do not confuse black elder with red elder (which is poisonous, flowers in a spike-shape earlier in the year and has bright red berries that form in mid/late summer), water hemlock (DEADLY poisonous, a less robust plant that also has divided leaves and white flowers. The leaves are more frequently divided than elder and arranged alternately on the stem rather than opposite, and the flowers come out from the center in a starburst/firework/umbel shape. No berries in fall.) Less poisonous white-flowering shrubs with opposite leaves (and sometimes fall berries) that might be confused are those in the Viburnum or Cornus genuses, but those shrubs have entire rather than divided leaves. Then there is the Bristly Sarsaparilla, which has divided but alternate leaves, white but “starburst/firework” shaped flowers, and blue/purple but larger berries that almost look like blueberries in shape. Bristly Saprparilla is usually a smaller plant found in dry, recently logged land and is most easily identified by the bristly throrns (most prevalent on the bottom of the plant) that elder doesn’t have.) Harvest & Prep: Flowers can be harvested in summer when they look most vital and used dried or perhaps fresh. Berries are harvested when they hang heavy and are deeply dark colored and safe when cooked or dried. The stems and leaves are poisonous and intensely nauseating. You can harvest the cluster, then pull the flowers or berries off with a fork one dried or before cooking. The leaves (in spite of internal toxicity) can be used topically for bruises and pain; they would be harvested whenever the leaves look vital. (Note: Stephen Buhner states that the leaves and stems are simply nauseating and safe once dried, but I would err on the side of caution.) Use: Elderberry syrup is by far a tastier remedy than echinacea; however, its uses are different. We use elderberry for the first achy, feverish signs of the flu. It can also be used for a cold. In order for a virus to truly wreck havoc on your body, it needs to get into your cells to replicate. Elderberry makes the outside of your cells more resistant to viral replication. Elder flowers can also send a flu virus packing by spiking the fever response. Fevers fight viruses because as your body warms, iron becomes less available in the bloodstream. Viruses need iron, so this lack of iron helps kill the virus. In my opinion, elderberry is most effective as a syrup. (The recipe I love and make is from Darcey Blue and can be found here.) It can also be taken in a liquid extract, liquid capsule, capsule, tea, lozenge, dried berry, or jam. Take as directed on the label. Elder flowers are often combined with other herbs like yarrow and peppermint to make you sweat (diaphoretic) and spike a fever. Use caution in any fever over 102 degrees. Gypsy Cold Care tea by Traditional Medicinals is an excellent diaphoretic tea for those who don’t want to do their own blending. Cautions: All parts of the elder plant have mild cyanide-like compounds and can also be quite nauseating. Cooking (berries) or drying (berries or flowers) will avoid mild poisoning or stomachache, as will straining seeds from a remedy (as you would in tea, syrup, or tincture. If you properly prepare the berries and flowers, they are extremely safe.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp)
Late summer is the time of goldenrod. Along with the aster, it is the predominant group of wildflowers in bloom from August into September. ID: There are many species of goldenrod, and often a handful will grow right in the same area. You’ll find it growing in sunny places and the edges of woodlands pretty much anywhere, but it particularly likes meadows. I have at least four or five species within a walk around the garden. The one that popped up in the garden by my back door (pictured on right) is the classic species used medicinally, Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), which has a smooth stem and slender, slightly toothed leaves, blooming relatively early. But most species of goldenrod can be used. I generally opt for those with an arching yellow flower and typical goldenrod presence as shown above. I have also used rough-stemmed goldenrod (S. rugosa), which has hairy stems and larger, toothed, deeply veined leaves with good results. Harvesting & Prep: Harvest goldenrod just as it is coming into flower with the blossoms just beginning to open. (The picture on the left is a little too late, the one on the right is a little too early, but both would suffice if needed.) If you can, avoid harvesting flowers that have begun to brown and look tired. I harvest the top 1/3 to 1/2 of the plant - flowers and leaves. Most people either dry it for tea or tincture it fresh. I tend to tincture it (whole thing, chopped up, including stems, though you could remove the stems if you wanted). I shove as much as humanly possible into a jar and cover it to the tippy top with organic ethanol (ie: whole grain alcohol), but lesser plant material and lower proof vodka (ie: 100 or 80 proof) surely works, too. If you’re drying it, don’t be alarmed when some of the flowers turn into white puff seedheads. That’s fine, you can still use them. Use: I see goldenrod primarily as a fluid-mover and a toning antihistamine to the tissues. I use the tincture with good results for allergies, sinus congestion, and the like, I often combine it with horehound if there’s a lot of mucus and post-nasal drip, or with yerba santa if there’s lung congestion or other lung issues, or yerba mansa or bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) if there’s a sinus infection. It’s really been remarkable! When I had a “cold from hell” that lasted a month, unresponsive to my usual herbs and even last ditch OTC-support, which had moved into my sinuses, the only thing that finally broke it was tincture of goldenrod and bee balm internally, along with neti pots externally. Goldenrod is also famous as a diuretic (makes you pee, eliminates water) and kidney tonic, a useful herb for edema, and one of our local naturopaths (who specializes in fertility) uses it in formulas for overly viscous semen. As a diuretic, you want to be careful taking it before bed, or you might wake up to an unexpected and embarrassing surprise! Remember, this is a fluid mover! Other herbalists have extolled its virtues as a plant high in antioxidants and a toning plant for the vascular system (ie: varicose veins). My primary use is for the antihistamine/sinus drainage purpose, but there is certainly a lot more to this plant, and you may want to read this great monograph on goldenrod by Rosalee de la Foret here, as she goes in depth into the *many* wonderful uses for goldenrod. Cautions: Goldenrod is pretty safe and well tolerated, but the diuretic action may not always be appropriate. Goldenrod is often wrongly blamed for seasonal allergies (ragweed blooms at the same time, in the same places, and is barely noticeable); however, allergies are always possible with any plant, especially when we harvest flowers. So try a little at first to gauge your response.
Plantain (Plantago spp)
Plantain leaf is known as “White Man’s Footprint” because it came to the US via the white men and also grows where people often step: walkways, paths, driveways. The leaves will be bigger in better soil (ie: near the compost pile). ID: This weedy herb has ovate leaves, usually growing in fours in a basal rosette. The leaf veins are stringy like celery if you pull them apart. A small, seedy spike will grow later in the summer. Harvesting & Prep: Pick the leaves from any clean source. You can chew them fresh and apply as needed to insect and spider bites, splinters, etc. Or you may infuse the leaves in oil or vinegar for topical use. You can also dry plantain leaves for tea. Use: This plant is related to psyllium (Metamucil), and you *can* harvest the seeds as a source of fiber. However, we most often use the leaves as a soothing, drawing, wound-healer. A fresh poultice of chewed or mashed leaves are a cure-all for many summer skin woes: bug bites, spider bites, bee stings, rashes, nettle stings, poison ivy… You can also make herb-infused oils, teas, and even tinctures with plantain. Some people eat the leaves, though they are not the tastiest IMHO. It’s soothing properties make it a nice addition to lung or digestive teas where the tissues are irritated or inflamed.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion leaves are perfect for harvesting in spring! (You can harvest the roots, too, but they are best in the fall.) ID: Everyone recognizes dandelion, but it’s worth noting that not all weeds with the composite fluffy yellow flowers are dandelion. Dandelion only has one flower on a stem, and no branching leaves. The stem is hollow and has a milky latex when cut. The leaves are serrated like the teeth of the lion (dent de lion). If your plant doesn’t fit this bill, it’s not a dandelion. (Hawkweeds are a common “look similar.”) Harvesting & Prep: If you can get to your dandelions before they flower, the leaves will taste a little bitter (less bitter); however, it’s also fine to harvest them while they’re flowering. In fact, they’re easier to identify while in flower. Tear off the leaves as you like them - there’s no concern here about over-harvesting the herb! If it’s easier, feel free to use clean scissors to cut the leaves from the plant. For the root, dig it up with a garden fork, digging stick, whatever works best for you. Wash the dirt off under cold water with a potato scrubber. Use: Dandelion greens are bitter, but this makes them a gourmet green. If you’re new to bitter flavors, combine dandelion with milder greens like lettuce and spinach. Enjoy dandelion fresh in salads, or toss them into stir fries, pastas, etc. at the tail end of cooking. They pair well with bold flavors like lemon, garlic, vinegar, honey, and parmesan. I love, love love, love this dandelion pumpkin seed pesto recipe, especially with tortilla chips. Nutritionally, dandelion leaves are a powerhouse of minerals including potassium. Medicinally, they act as a volume diuretic (make you pee) and nudge your digestive and detoxification (liver/bile) systems back into gear. Dandelion roots are chopped into small pieces and dried for tea (or dried and roasted for tea). You can also make an alcohol extract or powder it up in capsules. Dandelion root is more of a sodium-leaching diuretic and has a stronger detoxifying action on the liver than the leaves. The fresh or tinctured fresh root also seems to help decrease inflammatory allergy-related compounds in the body. Also check out this blog for lots of great dandelion pictures and cool recipes! Cautions: Generally pretty safe, but it does make you pee a lot, shouldn’t be used if you have a bowel or gallbladder obstruction (if you have an obstruction, you’re probably not out in the field harvesting dandelion, though), and should be used with caution in pregnancy.
PS If you’re wondering what the purple flower is in the third photo, it’s a common weed called ground ivy (aka creeping charlie, gill over the ground...). The Latin name is Glechoma hederacea, and while it *does* have medicinal and edible uses, it’s not a plant I have used a lot of (yet).
Burdock root (Arctium lappa. A. minor)
Burdock root can be used somewhat similarly to dandelion, tastes somewhat similar, and thus is often used in formula with it. Burdock tastes less bitter, more sweet, and slightly woodsy. ID: Burdock has broad leaves that resemble rhubarb. In the summer, they put up tall flower stalks with thistle-like purple flowers. Flower turn to velcro-like, round, brown burrs. Harvesting & Prep: In spring, you can harvest the second-year plants that are popping up with big rhubarb-like leaves but have not yet put up the flower stalk. Dig and clean like dandelion (above). Be warned, it’s a bugger to dig. Use: It is delicious sliced thinly or into matchsticks and sautéed with sesame seeds, soy sauce, and a little honey. It also makes a pleasant earthy tea (just dry chopped root slices). You can buy the fresh root in natural food stores, or in Asian markets as “gobo.” Like dandelion root, burdock is diuretic and a mild liver and digestive stimulant. It is often used for skin conditions including chronic skin eruptions, acne, psoriasis, eczema, boils, and sties. Many herbalists and systems of traditional medicine consider the liver and the skin to be closely linked; work on the liver, and skin conditions are expected to first break out and then clear up. Burdock root is also used to regulate lymphatic fluid (the “back alley” garbage system for sorting toxins, immune system trash, and fat) and improve excretion of toxins. Cautions: Not recommended during pregnancy. To be safe, it should not be used in gallbladder disease or bile duct obstruction unless under the guidance of a practitioner.
Chicory's cute cornflower blue flowers open in the morning and tend to close by noon.
Without its flowers, chicory is a scraggly looking plant. The young greens look like dandelion, but slightly hairy. Yet, as they grow bigger, chicory has leaves growing along the flowering stem, which is not the case for dandelion.
Chicory Root (Cichorium intybus)
This common, morning-flowering weed has similar properties as dandelion and burdock, but it is not as strongly medicinal. ID: Leaves are dandelion-like at the base but smaller as they grow up the flower stalk. The flowers are light corn-flower blue and surprisingly showy for a scraggly weed. They bloom in the morning and usually close up by noon. Chicory loves crappy soil along the median strips of roads and highways (don’t pick there!) as well as in fields. Harvesting & Prep: See burdock and dandelion, above. Use: The roasted root has a coffee-like flavor that has earned it a primary place in coffee substitute ingredient lists. It can be used as a digestive bitter, mild liver stimulant, and mild sodium-leaching diuretic. Young tender leaves can be eaten—they are also bitter and resemble dandelion greens in flavor and use. In fact, most “dandelion greens” you buy at farms or the grocery store are actually a variety of chicory. The gourmet green endive is really just chicory that has been chopped to the ground, then regrown in the dark. Radicchio is a close, cultivated relative.
Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus)
Yellow dock’s bitter, yellow root is a digestion and bowel stimulant. It has both laxative and binding properties, and is often recommended as a gentler laxative than senna or cascara. Herbalists also use it for the liver, including improved fat absorption, chronic skin conditions like acne, and liver congestion. It has a modest amount of iron and also may improve the release of stored iron from the tissues into the bloodstream. While you could drink it in tea (1 tsp per cup hot water, simmered, or in a blend), it’s rather nasty tasting. Most people prefer liquid extract (tincture) or pill. Some herbalists use Broad Dock (R. obtusifolius) interchangeably. We usually harvest yellow dock roots in fall; however, it can also be harvested in spring before it blooms and used as a spring detox herb. Cautions: High doses can cause rebound constipation due to the herb’s tannin content. It is rich in oxalates; do not use if you have a history of oxalate kidney stones unless under the guidance of a practitioner.
It takes some practice, but harvesting your own herbs for medicine is an enjoyable, rewarding, and often simple experience.
Click here for Maria’s basic tips for harvesting and processing roots, barks, leaves, flowers, and berries from wild and cultivated medicinal plants.
Attend a Plant Walk
One of the best ways to learn how to identify and use medicinal plants is to attend plant walks.
Area Plant Walks
Search around, and you’ll find them! Check out...
- My Education page for upcoming herb walks
- NH Herbal Network meetings, workshops, herb days, and events
- Local Audubon centers
- D Acres in Dorchester
- Misty Meadows in Lee
- Lion’s Tooth Herbals in Newmarket
- Historical gardens like Canterbury Shaker Village, Strawbery Banke, Kirkwood Gardens , Tarbin Gardens, The Fells, and Enfield Shaker Museum in New Hampshire
- New England Wildflower Society’s Garden in the Woods, Tower Hill, and the Arnold Arboretum, and Mass Hort in Massachusetts
- Avena Botanicals and Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in midcoast Maine
- Schedule a private consult/walk with Maria - email firstname.lastname@example.org
Keep looking around, you’ll find them!
Note: unless the walk is led by an herbalist, it will probably not cover the medicinal uses of plants, but it should still offer useful information about how to identify the plants.
Safety & Identification
• Always make sure you have correctly identified the plant you are harvesting. Cross reference ID books (see recommendations, below), information from herb walks, etc. You’ll have the best luck identifying a plant with ID/field guides, and then learning how to use it from herbals or foraging books. Don’t try to get *all* your information from just one book. It *will* be lacking.
• I like to watch a plant for at least one full year to make sure I am comfortable with its identification. Look at leaves, flowers, seedpods, fruits, growing patterns. If something you see doesn’t quite match with the identification patterns put forth in a book, don’t pick it. Wait and keep researching.
• Most plants are easiest to identify when they are in flower, even if this isn’t the primary harvesting time. Keep an eye out for flowers to find the plant, get to know it (this may take a year or so – no rush), and then go back when it is time to harvest.
• Try to ensure that you are picking from a clean area. Keep away from roads and nearby highways. Make sure the land does not get sprayed with chemicals. If picking by waterways, ensure that the water is clean. Many plants are known to concentrate chemicals in the ground or water.
• Don't be afraid to "borrow" someone's land (with permission). Most of my wildcrafting is done on the land of organic or semi-organic farms. If you know a family that has lived on the same untouched land for 50 years, then ask them if you can walk around to identify and pick weeds or pay/trade for cultivated plants.
• Avoid sickly plants that seem to have diseases or bug infestations. If it doesn't look "happy," don't harvest it.
• Never harvest a plant unless it is abundant in that area. • Never harvest more than 1-10% of the plants.
• Be a good land steward. Return to a stand frequently, at the very least annually, to ensure that your harvesting is not harming the plant population.
• When possible, harvest in a manner that promotes the growth of a plant. For instance, pinching off mint-like plants, carefully pruning small branches of trees for bark. Make sure to leave some flowers to go to seed, fruits for wildlife, etc.
• Consider an act of gratitude and repayment for your harvest: help the plant sew more seeds, pick up trash, neaten the trails. On a grander scale, work to conserve land in your community and the world.
• Leave the land looking untouched. If you dig a root, mulch the above ground parts and fill in the hole. No matter what you pick, it should be unnoticeable (or barely noticeable) that you were there.
• Harvest only what you need. • Harvest small or sensitive plants sparingly, or not at all. (Ex: lobelia, bugleweed, partridgeberry, goldthread) Be particularly cautious with wild, native, perennial roots. (Ex: Trillium, goldenseal, ginseng.)
• Opt to harvest weedy and invasive plants rather than native and sensitive ones. You can generally harvest as much dandelion, burdock, autumn olive, plantain, Japanese knotweed, etc. as you like!
• Refer to lists made by United Plant Savers and other groups to ensure that you are not picking a plant that is at risk of being endangered. www.unitedplantsavers.org
• Step lightly when going off-trail to harvest plants.
• Get permission to pick plants in an area that you do not own.
• If you are harvesting from someone’s land, offer to give them something in return.
• Never pick in protected lands.
• Don’t pick near trails.
• Botany in a Day, Thomas Epel – A good start to medicinal plant botany. Learn by plant families. Great illustrations, easy to understand.
• Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide – THE best ID guide for our area. The keys make it easy to find plants quickly, and the illustrations are excellent. However, always cross-reference with at least a couple ID guides. There are many & all have advantages/disadvantages.
• Trees and Shrubs of New England; Spring Wildflowers of New England; Summer & Fall Wildflowers of New England, all by Marilyn J. Dwelley – Dwelley’s books are specific to our region and have interesting information about the plants that most guides don’t share. Unfortunately some illustrations are poor. Generally organized by flower color, and within flower color by plant family.
• Peterson Field Guide: Wildflowers, Peterson & McKenny – Organized by flower color & relatively expansive. A good second book when Newcomb’s fails to ID your plant.
• Another great thing you can do to confirm ID of a plant is to do a Google Image search. Go to www.google.com, and click on “Images.” Then search for common or Latin names & compare the photos to your plant. Not everything on the web is accurate, but it’s a great link to millions of plant photos.
To get to know the plants in your area, walk the same spots at least once a week and see how the plants and landscape change. Try to ID every flowering plant you see.
• Go to botanical gardens now and then to see a variety of plants already identified for you. Locally, we have Strawbery Banke (herbs) in Portsmouth, NH; Garden in the Woods (wildflowers) in Framingham, MA; and the Arnold Arboretum (trees) in Jamaica Plain/Boston, MA.
• Attend a plant walk. Many herbalists host herb walks and events on their properties. Several of our local Audubon centers offer plant walks led by herbalists.