Plant Identification for Wildcrafting
Tips for Safe & Ethical Wildcrafting
1. Before harvesting any herb or plant, be certain you have a positive identification. The plant kingdom is full of look-a-likes and sometimes the differences between an edible or medicinal species and a toxic species are very subtle.
2. When harvesting a species with poisonous look-a-likes, make sure you are familiar with the appearance of both the toxic and medicinal/edible plants. The most common examples of toxic look-a-likes can be found in the Carrot family, Apiaceae, which contains the medicinal Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota) as well as the highly toxic Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum).
3. Learn to identify Poison Ivy, Poison Sumac, and Poison Oak so you know where to tread (and harvest) carefully. Rash Plants is a free smart phone app to help ID these plants. Or visit Poison-Ivy.org
4. When in doubt, don't harvest it! Admire it, observe it, take notes, snap a photo, and leave it for another day.
5. Never taste test an unfamiliar plant. Leave this method to the seasoned experts. Even if a berry or root appears edible or resembles an edible species, leave it be until you're familiar with the plant and its properties.
6. Take note of which parts of the plant are harvested for medicinal or edible uses. The constituents (chemicals) of a plant often vary depending on the part (roots, bark, fruit, etc.) and some may not be suitable for use. More on this later!
7. Familiarize yourself with “at risk” and watch list plants. These are best left to grow in their wild habitat and should not be harvested. You may, however, find a sustainable grower of wild medicinals and learn how to propagate them yourself. Some examples of at risk plants are: Goldenseal, Black Cohosh, Ramps, and Slippery Elm. More info can be found at UnitedPlantSavers.org
8. When harvesting in the wild, stick to a 1 in 10 rule. Harvest one plant for every ten plants growing in a particular location. For the most part, weedy plants (such as Dandelion, Stinging Nettle, or Mugwort) can be harvested more freely than slower growing species (like Ghost Pipe or Usnea). Use your best judgement and be mindful.
9. Finally, take care when harvesting in urban environments. Never harvest from roadsides, medium/high voltage powerline areas (due to herbicide use) or along train tracks. Make certain that the area is not sprayed with chemicals. Avoid industrial areas as well due to concerns of toxic waste materials and heavy metals.
Observation & Getting to Know the Plants
Observation and our senses are some of the best tools for identifying wild plants. Take your time and become acquainted with the plants you'll be wildcrafting and the environments they grow in.
1. Take note of the habitat where a particular plant species likes to grow. Notice the other plants growing nearby, the insects living on or around the plant, what the soil/ground looks like, how much sunlight reaches the plant, and any bodies of water nearby. Even if the only thing you know about a plant is what it looks like, observing the habitat and surrounding environment can reveal a lot.
2. If you know the species you are looking for, use the above observations to find the plant. If you haven't observed the plant in the wild, you can use written information to guide your search. For example: Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) prefers a mostly sunny to partly shaded environment with its feet close to water or moist soil. It can often be found growing near Skunk Cabbage, Joe-Pye Weed, Marsh Marigold, and Violets. To find Elderberry, search for streams, wetlands, or low lying areas along clearings or forest edges.
3. Spend as much time as possible observing different plants, whether you're familiar with them or not. Even a commonly seen herb like Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) can reveal new information with careful observation. Dandelion has many subspecies, relatives, and look-a-likes, particularly the leaves. By looking closely at the leaves and those of similar species, you can begin to see the subtle and more obvious differences. You may also notice how Dandelions possess slight differences in leaf and flower shape, even within the same species. Plant observation reminds us not to take anything for granted.
4. Observe plants at all times of the year and learn to recognize its various incarnations. Plants change a lot throughout their life and with the seasons. By following a particular species throughout the year you will learn to recognize the plant in various phases of its life-cycle and/or seasons. This can be especially useful in Spring when plants are young and look vastly different from their adult forms. For example, Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) starts in Spring as a low, bushy plant with small, rounded lobed leaves. As it grows, the leaves become more slender with a feathery (pinnate) appearance. The plant may reach 6 ft in height by late Summer with thinner, simple leaves near the top and flowers forming in clustered pinnacles. In Winter, the skeleton of the plant's stalk will remain, marking the location where the perennial will sprout in Spring.
Resources & Skills for Plant Identification
When it comes to accurately identifying wild plants, we can turn to a number of resources to serve as guides and to help us remember what we've learned. Think about the ways you learn best and the things you enjoy doing, then incorporate these into learning how to identify plants. Below are some examples as well as a list of resources.
1. Keep a plant sketchbook. Try drawing the plants you're looking to wildcraft or want to know better. This can help you to notice details in the plant's structure which will make IDing the plant easier in the future.
2. Start a personal herbarium. Take clippings or portions of a plant and press them between two sheets of paper or in a journal. Once dried and pressed, the plant specimens can be taped, glued, or stitched to paper or journal pages (make sure to use 65 to 90 lb acid-free paper, made of cotton or alpha cellulose, which can be found at art supply stores).
3. Take photographs. Using a camera or phone camera, take photos of plants you wish to identify or document. Photos can be organized into albums (physical or digital) for future reference. Social media and photo sharing platforms, such as Instagram, Flickr, or Tumblr, are convenient and simple ways to organize photographs digitally by using tags which can be searched.
4. Keep a plant journal. Document your observations of the environment where you wish to wildcraft. Keep a log of the plants you see, the conditions they're growing in, changes throughout the seasons, species names, etc.
5. Learn Latin names. As you study a plant, learn its Latin (scientific) name. Most plants have multiple common names, some of which may be shared with an entirely different species. By learning the Latin name you eliminate the risk of misidentification by common name. For example, Wild Oat may refer to Uvularia sessilifolia (Sessile Bellwort) Avena fatua (Common Wild Oat).
6. Take notes on parts used and preparations. As mentioned earlier, the parts of a plant used for medicinal or edible purposes can vary. For some plants this may mean the uses will vary by part. Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) flowers have a different affect upon the body than the berries. Also, not all parts of a plant may be suitable for medicine or consumption. To use Elderberry as an example again, the flowers and berries are widely used for medicinal and edible purposes, however the leaves, bark, roots, seeds, and stems contain hydrocyanic acid, which is toxic and present in varying quantities throughout these parts. Typically, when toxicity is present, the roots of plants contain higher concentrations of toxic compounds. Unripe berries should be avoided but dried, cooked, or small quantities of ripe, fresh berries are all safe for consumption and use. The leaves have traditionally been used in topical applications but internal use is not advised.
1. Use Apps on a Smartphone to help with identification. There are a number of free apps available for smartphones and tablets which can help you ID plants on the go. I recommend these free apps:
a. Like That Garden – Helps you identify any plant from a photo. This app will search for plant species based on the photo you take. It will provide a list of possible matches with the common and scientific names. The app isn't 100% accurate, so you still need to double check and use your judgement. Also, you'll have much better accuracy with photos of mature or flowering plants.
b. Leafsnap – Helps you to ID plants (primarily trees and shrubs) from a photo of a leaf. The photo must be taken on a white background, which isn't always convenient. You can also search their database.
c. ID Weeds – A mobile dichotomous key (provided by University of Missouri) that allows you to ID from a list of attributes or search for plants by name. You can also browse the weed database by photo.
d. Vtree – From Virginia Tech, an app that helps you to ID trees based on your latitude and longitude. Tree species are listed for your location by Latin and common name along with a search function. Provides photos and appearance information.
e. About Herbs – A simple guide to a range of medicinal herbs, which includes detailed information on the plants uses, constituents, contraindications, and clinical research. The app also lists alternative medicines, homeopathic remedies, and supplements.
f. Wild Edibles – A guide to wild edible plants (with photographs) by Steve Brill. Both a free and paid version are available. Some of the descriptions are written “tongue in cheek”, but overall it's a useful guide with info on edible/medicinal uses and toxic look-a-likes.
2. Use websites to search for and ID plants. Some of my favorite plant ID websites:
a. GoBotany.NewEnglandWild.org – Specific to New England plants, this website provides a large searchable database as well as an easy to use dichotomous key. You can also access “Plant Share” where photos can be shared with an online community or with a botanist who can help answer your plant ID questions.
b. Plants.USDA.gov – A nation-wide searchable database of plants with photographs. Endangered, threatened, and invasive species are listed as well as a wide range of topics on plant cultivation and conservation.
c. PFAF.org – Plants for a Future provides an extensive database of medicinal plants from around the world. You can search plants by use, name, appearance, zone, etc. Medicinal properties are listed for each plant as well as growing conditions and propagation.
d. Wildflower.org/plants – A large database of plants that can be searched by state, plant characteristics, growing conditions, etc. You can also view plants in an image gallery and learn more about propagation of various species.
e. DavesGarden.com – A plant identification guide which also includes a variety of guides for gardeners. This site provides online forums for discussion, ID guides for plants and garden fauna, and a terminology encyclopedia.
f. IdentifyThatPlant.com – This site not only provides clear, large photos of a range of plants, but also offers numerous online resources for plant identification. They also have a Facebook page so you can easily follow their posts and ask others for ID help.
3. Use books as guides for ID and medicinal uses. Some favorite field guides and books:
a. Peterson Field Guides – A famous series of field guides offering a wide range of topics, including Medicinal Plants and Herbs and Edible Wild Plants.
b. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants: In Wild (and Not so Wild) Places – Written by Steve Brill and Evelyn Dean. Similar to the Wild Edibles app, this book lists a range of wild plants, how to ID them, and their edible or medicinal uses. Toxic look-a-likes are mentioned too.
c. Backyard Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies – Written by Julie Burton-Seal and Matthew Seal. The North American edition lists 50 native plants along with photographs, their uses, how to harvest, parts used, recipes, etc.
d. The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses – A comprehensive guide to medicinal herbs from around the world. Although this book is not specific to plant ID, it provides a great resource on how to harvest and use herbs as well info on their uses and propagation. Color photographs are given for each plant, organized by latin name.
© 2015 Vincent Frano
Information on this website has not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. All information is for educational purposes only. The U.S. FDA does not evaluate or test herbs or herbal products. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any illness or disease. Please consult with your physician for diagnosis or treatment.