By Nick Italiano
When I think about all the wilderness skills I have developed over the years, nothing excites me more than foraging, wildcraft, and herbalism. While technically these are three separate skills, they all intertwine into one another. They are not just skills, but a way of life and an expression of the values I hold most dearly in the core of my being. While some readers may be very familiar with these topics, I would like to discuss them and go a little bit deeper as to why they are so very important to me and anyone seriously pursuing a self-sufficient outdoor lifestyle. To start, let’s establish some definitions and understanding of each one of these skill sets, as we do this it will be easier to understand their role in the self-sufficient lifestyle.
On the surface, foraging is the understanding of plants and fungi found in the wild, knowing what you can eat and what will make you sick. This is valuable information for survival scenarios as it will give an individual the ability not to go hungry while in the woods or during a food shortage crisis. Some people, such as myself, integrate this knowledge into their daily life. Foraging is a means of obtaining free nutrient rich food, saving money, and increasing wellness. If we look at foraging on a deeper level it leads to a better understanding and connection to our wild ecosystems and our primitive roots. There is an inherent responsibility for those who forage on a regular basis to understand each of the plants they gather and their role in the ecosystem. If we overharvest not only are we ruining the potential for future sustainable food sources but we may also be eliminating an important source of food or habitat for local wildlife. This understanding makes it clear that we are not above the ecosystem, but a part of it. Then we can integrate ourselves back into the food chain and ensure that we can maintain the balance between what we need to live and what the ecosystem needs to thrive.
Herbalism takes the knowledge of foraging a step further, it goes beyond what we can eat and the nutrients the plant contains; herbalism gives us an understanding of the chemical compounds in plants that can lift our moods, help treat our wounds, support our bodies immune system, and so much more. While those who are unfamiliar with the art of herbalism may look at it as some kind of hokey “folk magic” there is a true science to it. Plants and fungi contain a host of chemical compounds that can have a profound effect on our body systems. Our primitive ancestors had an awareness of these effects, without understanding the specific science behind them, and many of our modern medicines are derived from plants and fungi.
Wildcraft is the art and science of taking wild plants and fungi and utilizing them to create purposeful meals and various wellness items. The key to this concept is wild gathered, not grown in a garden or bought from a distributor. While as an herbalist, I do purchase plant materials or grow plants to ply my trade, I much prefer to gather my materials from the wild. Wild plants and fungi are typically more nutrient and active compound rich than their cultivated counterparts. In fact, the food we normally buy from the supermarket does not represent the healthiest plants for us, rather they are the easiest to grow, ship, and maintain. When we gather from the wild we obtain plants that grow in their natural environment, get the nutrients that they need from their natural environment, and don’t go through any form of processing until we touch them. They aren’t sprayed with chemical pesticides, subjected to artificial growth chemicals, they aren’t frozen, or stored for long periods before we get them. They are harvested directly by us for our own use and maintain the highest level of nutritional compounds because of their lack of exposure to artificial growth processes and long-term storage for shipping.
This all sounds ideal, so why doesn’t everyone do it? Well…it is difficult, there is training that needs to be done. There are some very dangerous plants out there that can make you sick and even kill you if eaten. There are plants that are quite edible, but if eaten in large quantities will make you sick. In some plants, only certain parts are edible while other parts are toxic or even poisonous. Understanding this is a time-consuming process, requiring training, research, and experimentation. Another reason foraging is not more prevalent is the lack of access to resources. People in urban areas don’t have wildlands to forage from, suburban areas may have more wild plants, but pesticides and chemicals used to treat home lawns and landscapes present health concerns. There are also legal ramifications to keep in mind, many areas have laws about wild harvesting on state and federally owned land. If you can overcome all these challenges wild harvesting is time-consuming, you must find the specific plants you are looking for. Many times when foraging a new area it can take hours of searching before you find a good amount of the specific plant you are looking for.
Despite the challenges, there is very little I find more satisfying than eating a salad made of wild-harvested dandelion and trout lily, using my homemade cleaning products derived from my local pine trees, and enhancing my overall health from self harvested turkey tail supplements! If this sounds like something that would be exciting for you, this section of my website will definitely be for you. While I will not teach you everything you need to know to be a knowledgeable expert in these areas, I will share with you a number of tips from my personal experiences as well as the resources I have utilized to further my understanding of these subjects.
Let us take this journey together, teach one another, and empower one another! Stay safe, stay wild!