Wildcrafting and Mentorship: Succession through the Forest
Updated: Jan 5
Wildcrafting and Mentorship: Succession through the Forest
by Michael Pilarski, Friends of the Trees Botanicals
Anna harvesting hawthorn flowers. Photo: Corey Chin.
THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO VIEW wildcrafting through a permaculture lens.
Virtually all sites have wild plants in them, though in many cases, they are what we call “weeds.” But oftentimes, the edible weeds in a garden are nutritionally superior to the
crop plants. Over time, a permaculture site should increase the amount of self-reliant perennial plants (and volunteer annuals). That way, the gardener/land steward becomes more of a wildcrafter on their site, with lots of tough/resilient plants that can survive on their own and less molly-coddled plants.
So many humans have strayed far from nature. Our modern technologies have cut us off from nature, more and more. This separation isn’t good for the individuals involved, nor for
society. Civilization is large and complex, but it is frail, subject to interconnected disruption as one disaster can spread to the whole. Knowing the food, medicine, and natural resources
that are found in nature makes you resilient in the face of scarcity.
Traditional Ag & Wild Plant Knowledge
Knowing the uses of the weeds and wild plants in your area should be a goal for all permaculturists. It is important to know which ones are edible, poisonous, medicinal or have
other economic uses. Knowing the uses of the wild plants and utilizing them reduces our need for outside inputs, which is key to having a resilient ecosystem, and is core to permaculture design and practice. This connection to native plants and the teachings handed down through generations was a way of life for indigenous cultures all around the world.
A large part of the world’s population still wildcrafts. Almost all traditional agriculturalists wildcrafted from their surroundings. Studies in Nepal show that for every acre of farmland, the farmers needed 2.5 acres of wild land where they gathered food, medicines, livestock fodder, building materials, craft materials, nutrient inputs for their farms in the forms of leaves, etc. Traditional Nepalese farming had virtually no outside inputs. When there are less wild areas per acre of farmland (due to population pressure and land conversion), then the quality of the farmland and the lifestyle of the farming families deteriorate.
Resilient Ecosystems & Economies
Also important to a resilient system, are healthy economics connected to place. Wildcrafting is available to all, rich and poor. Wildcrafting can be a source of income and/or
barter goods, and most localities have multiple opportunities for this. To be a wildcrafter is a boon to yourself and to those whose lives your gathering enhances. But, wildcrafting should be done on a sustainable basis—you don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg! Permaculture is about sustainability. There needs to be lots more research and writing
about how to sustainably wildcraft the many possible species, and there are tens of thousands of species worldwide!
One of the services I offer is wild plant surveys. This can be a single walk-through or multiple visits at different times of the growing season. I will list all the plant species I can find on site with common names, Latin names, and uses, especially for edibles and medicinals. A key point of identification is which species are in sufficient abundance to provide an economic harvest. Along with that, I give management recommendations to increase valuable plants and to reduce problematic plants. This is all done through a permaculture lens.
While regenerative economics are integral in permaculture, perhaps even more important is the joy and peace that comes from connecting to nature. This is a joy that accrues from day to day. Of course it is possible to be in nature and not have any connection, but a wildcrafter has to be very observant: hear the wind and the birds; feel the rain; smell the
fragrances; observe the plants and life. It is hard not to feel the presence of the Creator Source while observing nature.
Keeping the Traditional Knowledge Alive
I have been wildcrafting since I was a toddler when my mom took me on berry-picking expeditions. As a rural homesteader in the 70s onward, I have wildcrafted many things. In 1995, I decided to become a professional wildcrafter of medicinal plants. My Friends of the Trees Botanicals business has been one of my main incomes for the last 25 years. It is now a father/son family business, with Ashley Kehl, and our dedicated colleague Anna Pallotta, and many part-time interns.
When I was in my 20s I interned on quite a few organic farms. In my first year of farming, in 1972, I remember an old farmer telling me that it would take about four years before I had enough experience to know how to pull off crops successfully. Interestingly, that is about how long it takes to turn a poor quality soil around. In my turn, over the years, I’ve worked with many dozens of interns and helped mentor them. I am happy that many of them went on to become farmers, wildcrafters, and permaculturists. These relationships have spun off several other herb businesses over the years. It has been a pleasurable journey. Stick with it!
Passing the wildcrafting torch. Out harvesting Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) and Oregon-Grape Root (Mahonia aquifolium). Photo by Sam Jervey.
Mentoring Anna Pallotta for the past four years has been a real joy. She is now an integral part of our team and helps me with many skills that I do not have. She is likely on the road to a lifetime herbal career, and will in her turn mentor others. Passing it forward as humanity has been doing for millennia—keeping the traditional knowledge alive, from generation to generation. We should all be involved in the inter-generation
Michael “Skeeter” Pilarski is a Farmer, Educator, Author, and Permaculture Instructor who has devoted his life to studying and teaching how people can live sustainably on this Earth. He grows a diversity of medicinal and food plants in complex agroforestry systems, blending permaculture, restorative ecology, and ethnobotany to enhance restorative land practices. www.Friendsofthetrees.net