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Sustainably gather wildflowers and edible plants

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Collecting, eating, and admiring plants and flowers in the wild can be a great way to get back to your roots, but don’t make the mistake of destroying that which you appreciate in the process. Careful gathering of endangered and threatened flora will ensure they survive for your next camping, hiking, or backpacking trip.

How to sustainably gather plants while outdoors

Whether an empty stomach’s got you eyeing a juicy berry or you’re looking at a little flower to press into your journal, pause before you pluck. Most of the flora and fauna you see around you is important to the health of the wild space you’re enjoying, and excessive, unsustainable harvesting methods can take a huge toll on these natural resources. Make it easy on yourself by doing some advance prep-work to be sure you’re not negatively impacting the environment during your next outdoor adventure.

  • Hands-free viewing: As natural as picking plants and wildflowers may seem when you're out in nature, it can actually harm local ecosystems. Sure, you’re just one person, but multiply your penchant for picking by millions of other plant pluckers, and there may be little left to appreciate. So, if your desire is to gather plants or flowers for aesthetic purposes only, exercise a hands-off policy. Pull out your camera instead, or if you’re the artistic type, sketch a picture.
  • Collect with care: If gathering some food or a medicinal plant becomes necessary, take care by following some basic, eco-friendly foraging guidelines:
    • With your newfound knowledge of endangered species, and using your own IDing experience or a field guide, selectively choose the plants you’ll need for first aid or your next meal.
    • Collect only a few leaves from each plant, being careful to leave the roots intact (unless you’re after the roots for food). This will ensure the plant can still recover and grow.
    • Avoid fragile ecosystems such as bogs.
    • Take only what you need. That is, don’t collect more than you require, and avoid indiscriminate picking, like choosing healthy plants that you won’t end up using. In particular, you’ll want to be sure you don’t completely harvest all of one plant species in an area. The goal is to take so little that those following in your footsteps won’t even realize you were there.
    • Notice a bare patch? It might be that an animal or another human has recently gathered plants in this area. If so, look for a new stand of plants to avoid over-thinning, which can make it difficult for plants to regenerate.
    • If you’re digging to collect roots, be sure to re-fill the hole with soil and other organic matter.
    • Plants aren’t always able to filter chemicals and pollutants, so to avoid harmful contaminants, steer clear of plants by the side of the road, in recently forested areas, or in other locations with heavy human activity.
  • Weed watch: Did you spy a pretty little unidentified flower or some interesting greenery? Beware! What may look harmless can actually be an invasive plant that might seriously disrupt other ecosystems if transported away from the area where it's growing. Seeds transferred in your hand or on the soles of your shoes are equally menacing, so be aware of these dangers before heading out. Learn more with these resources:

Find it! Fields guides to edible and medicinal plants

Take the wisdom of learned foragers with you on your next hiking or camping trip by picking up one of these handy books.

Gathering plants and flower sustainably helps you go green because…

  • It ensures that they're not over-harvested and therefore promotes their continued place in the biosphere, while also aiding biodiversity and forest preservation.

The earth’s biodiversity is at risk—one in eight plants worldwide are currently listed as threatened or near extinction.[1] Biodiversity is an often overlooked component of planetary health. The dizzying array of plants on the planet is the result of 3.8 billion years of evolution. Plants make all life possible, provide the basis of every ecosystem, and can resist almost any destructive threat except humans.[2]

Although species loss is part of the earth’s natural system, human activity has bumped the extinction rate up 100-fold[3] to levels rivaling the five mass extinctions of past geologic history. Genetic diversity helps plants endure harsh environments and enables them to compete with weeds, and thereby survive.[4] When one plant species becomes extinct, it can contribute to the disappearance of up to 30 other plant species and wildlife.[5] "We are living in an era when our great-grandchildren may live in a world in which more than half of the plant species that exist now will be known only as specimens," said Dr. Peter Raven, a world leader in plant conservation, who presented his findings at the Sixteenth International Botanical Congress.[4]

A staggering 400,000 tons of medicinal and aromatic plants are bought and sold around the world every year—$3 billion worth heading to US markets—80 percent of which are harvested in the wild. Important plants are at risk of extinction due to over-harvesting and habitat loss—Cascarilla cinchona pubescens (quinine) used to treat malaria and American ginseng, to name two.[6] Today, 21 percent of all medicinal plants are at risk of being lost—that’s about 15,000 species in all.[7]

The Endangered Species Program uses the following terms to describe plants that are in danger of disappearing from earth:[8]

  • Protected: On the official state monitoring list.
  • Special concern: Some states use this term to indicate that a species needs some protection, however it has not yet been classified as threatened or endangered. Alternate terms include rare and unusual.
  • Threatened: The species is likely to become endangered in the near future throughout some or all of its range.
  • Endangered: Refers to the highest level of concern, where the species is close to extinction in all or part of its range.

Over-harvesting of plants in forest ecosystems can lead to the endangerment and destruction of fragile plant species, making sustainable plant gathering practices extremely important in preserving earth’s biodiversity.[9] To address the specific concerns of medicinal and aromatic plant species loss, the International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, ISSC-MAP was developed by the Medicinal Plant Specialist Group of The World Conservation Union (IUCN) in 2007.

Glossary

  • biodiversity: Biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals.
  • invasive species: In the case of plants, invasive species are those that spread inadvertently from gardens and other agricultural areas into the wild. They often reproduce rapidly, are very adaptable and aggressive, and can displace important (sometimes endangered) species of plants. Without natural enemies, these species can wipe out native populations and as a result, the biodiversity of an area can seriously suffer.
  • native plant: A tree, flower, grass, or other plant that has occurred naturally in an area for many years. Adaptations have allowed these species to exist (and self-propagate) in specific locales which are sometimes, but not always, unusual, limited, or harsh (such as a plant that’s learned to to grow under rocks in a very dry region). The introduction of exotic (non-native) species into a certain bioregion can threaten the survival of these native plants. Some native plants are considered endangered.[10]

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