The term, "wildcrafting", simply means to go out into nature and harvest plants for their medicinal value. This is probably the best and cheapest way to obtain fresh potent herbs. In order to obtain the most potent form of a natural growing plant, one needs to know a few commonly held rules. First and foremost, before harvesting, make sure you have the proper identification of your intended plant. Always harvest ethically by never over-harvesting all plants in any one area. Leave plants to carry on reproduction and give thanks to the ones you take. Select healthy plants that do not appear to be in danger of contamination by manmade toxins. For instance, avoid plants that are growing along side of highways. These plants are too close to toxic auto exhaust with additional possible roadside herbicide/insecticide contamination another danger. Select plants that are growing in natural, organic surroundings further from man's meddling, the better. Let me stress that the below rules are not written in stone. Sometimes the herbalist will have to make do with the conditions at hand when herbs are needed, now. In a perfect world, the below rules should be known and followed when possible.
One of the first considerations in harvesting a wild plant is to determine if that plant to be harvested is an Annual, a Biennial, or a Perennial.
Annuals . . . . . . are plants with one growing season, dying at the end of that season, never to grow again. You will often find this type of plant's whole existence being geared to producing a seed for future reproduction for the following year.
Biennials . . . . . . . are plants that have a two-year life span. The first year involves this plant developing a viable root system. The second year, this same plant will develop a flower/fruit system and then die, never to again grow. The roots of biennials are medicinally the most potent and desirable during the first year of growth. Burdock would be an excellent example of a biennial whose first year root is the desirable medicinal root. Always dig the burdock root up in the first year of growth. The second year growth will find this same root much devoid of potency with the entire energy of the second year plant being pooled to produce viable fruit for future reproduction of the species.
Perennials. . . . . . are plants that grow and produce fruit for many years of a prolonged life cycle. The herbalist will often find these types of plants to be the most potent and valuable. The older they become, usually the more potent that root will become medicinally.
So you see, right off the bat, knowing what type of plant you intend to wildcraft, dictates how it should be harvested! You must think like a plant and figure out when and what part of that plant will be the most potent, that is, contain the highest amounts of the valuable nutrients and individual bio-chemicals during any one particular stage of growth. For instance, you would not want to harvest the roots of a biennial in the second final year of life. By that stage of its growth, the entire plant's ultimate resources will be invested in producing seeds. The seed will have drained the plant's root of much of its potency by the time that seed has matured. In contrast, the roots of annuals should be gathered before the flowering season and not after. The roots of a biennial should be gathered during the first year growth in the Fall, Winter, or early Spring. The Perennial root may be gathered at any time in the Fall, Winter, or early Spring before the next growth phase begins. Think about it. The root of the perennial, once it starts producing the top structures, will send much of the root's potency upward to the plant's structures designed to replenish the entire plant in years to come. During the growing season, the perennial's root will be much less potent with the sap running to the top. Once frost occurs, the root will be dormant with much of its medicinal potency present for the taking during that stage.
Medicinal wildcrafting should take into consideration weather conditions and time of day. Do not collect herbs during rainy weather. Accordingly, use water sparingly when and if you need to wash the various harvested plant parts. I have never washed leave or flower material. Root material may be washed, but avoid over washing. Sometimes it may be best to just slice off the outer root bark and avoid washing all together but, then, the outer root bark is desirable to keep in other cases. You must know your plant. It is generally considered that the best time of day to gather herbs would be immediately after the dew of early morning dissipates. The prolonged heat of the sun may sometimes diminish the potency of the upper structures with midday harvesting being discouraged.
Wildcrafting various Selected Herb Parts:
Whole herb. . . . . . may be best gathered when the flower is just forming but not yet opened. Gather combined leaves and flower tops during this stage
Flowers . . . . . . . . . harvest just before the bud opens. This will best catch your flower's essential oils intact. The older a flower, the less potent it will be in this aspect. Of course, it is not always possible to catch a plant's flowers in the budding stage. Mature flowers may be harvested, but just be aware that it may not be of the most potent stage. Depending on flower types, it may be best to cut the entire flower head and tincture fresh. Larger petals may sometimes be picked separate. It all depends.
Leaves . . . . . . . . . . harvest as soon as mature, but before the plant has flowered and certainly before that plant has produced fruit/seed. You will often find in those herbs that have leave growth before stem growth, that those leaves are the most succulent and potent. Annual leaves should be gathered before the plant blossoms. For aromatic annuals, the leaves may be best gathered after the bud has formed. Biennial leaves should be wildcrafted during the second year of growth, if possible, before the stem has grown very extensively. Perennial leaves should be harvested before the flowering of that plant.
Fruit/Berries. . . . . . Generally, the medicinal fruit should be gathered in its ripen state, but there may be exceptions. Know thy herb.
Seeds. . . . . . . . . . .are often used in many medicinal herb applications as the most potent form of that plant. One tends to find three types of seed configurations: (1) naked heads, (2) pods, and (3) fleshy fruit. Those plants that produce the bare seed should generally have seed harvested when that seed is most mature, just before dropping. Seeds that commonly come into this world surrounded by a pod should likewise be gathered when fully mature with the pod dry and ready to break open. Those seeds found embedded in the succulent fruit should be harvested when that fruit is ripe.
Barks. . . . . . . . . have been long used in herbal medicine and are often the commonly harvested medicinal part of many trees. Note that when you hear the term, bark, it almost always means the inner bark, the bark which contains the running sap of that woody plant--not the outward dead protective covering. Naturally, to harvest the most potent inner bark, one would need to strip the tree or other plant when that sap was actually flowing through the inner bark. This would be in the spring or autumn.
Excrescences. . . . . . . . . are the gums and other excretions of a tree that form around an injury, i.e. oak gall, etc. These laid natural "bandages" should be harvested when the leave is mature on that plant. This would guarantee maximum potency with the sap raising.
Roots/Rhizomes . . . . . . . may be dug in the fall, winter and early spring after or before new growth. The perennial root will be found to be the most potent and valuable of roots. Annuals and Biennials' roots generally are comparatively much less potent--the older the perennial, the more potent the root. Dig the annual root before that plant type flowers. Dig the biennial root in the fall of the first year's growth, after frost. Perennial roots may best be dug in the fall after the top has matured and succumbed to frost until next spring when new growth continues. The sap should not be in motion when the root is harvested to guarantee maximum potency.