Think about the plant you want to harvest. Create a relationship with it before committing.
1. Where does it grow? Can you legally acquire this plant? Some places you can pick plants are public land, national forests, BLM land, in parking lots, vacant lots that are on the way to being razed for a building project, sides of roads, your own property, your friend’s property.
Places NOT to pick: National parks, national monuments, preserves, protected land, your neighbor’s land (unless you have permission.)
2. Can you positively identify it? So you figured out that you can legally collect a particular plant in a designated area. Do you know how to identify this plant? What are its distinguishing characteristics? When does it bloom or produce fruit? What are its companion plants, plant communities that its most commonly found growing in? Consult a couple of different field guides, take clippings of questionable specimen to an expert, check internet resources:
Bottom line: never use a plant in your kitchen if you don’t have a 100 percent positive ID on it. You are responsible for doing your research, and no one else can be held accountable. Do your homework.
3. Is this the time and place? So you’re 100 percent certain you have a positive ID and it is an edible plant and you’re ready to go collect. When you and your plant cross paths for the first time, before you pluck it in excitement, contain yourself. Ask yourself is it endangered? Here in this region, or is it universally scarce? What animals rely on this resource? Is this the only one for miles around, or are you wading through fields of it? Is it a protected species because its health and numbers are dwindling?
If it’s truly struggling to survive, due to climate change or overharvesting or development or any other reason, think again about your intention with the plant. Maybe you can buy seedlings and plant them in your garden? Or purchase the plant at the grocery store, or herb shop? Is there another plant that has similar properties that you can substitute in a recipe?
4. How and how much? Ok, so you’ve learned about the overall species health, and have determined that it is NOT endangered and can sustainably take a few parcels home with you. What do you plan to do with it? Do you want to harvest a whole branch, or just leaves, or flowers, berries, etc? Think about how you plan to process the ingredient, and only take what you will realistically use. Learn how to properly remove parts of the plant without damaging it. For instance, never peel bark off in a manner that strips the whole circumference in any one area. A tree cannot recover from this. Never take more than 20 percent of a plant, or of what you see if you’re in a stand. Use clippers, and clip at the base, at nodes. Peri Lee, an incredibly knowledgeable and respectful herbalist, says a helpful visual guideline for harvesting is to never leave an ugly plant. And I can’t emphasize enough: don’t take more than you need.
5. Cultivate respect and responsibility. Which brings us to the concept of having a holistic relationship with a plant. If you think about the plants’ needs, not just your own, you can begin to mindfully collaborate with the land to enrich your diet or bring exciting flavors to the table. Always do your homework first. I, nor anyone else, can not be accountable for your actions and what you put in your body. You are liable for you.