Wildcrafted vs Organic Herbs
What does wildcrafted actually mean and how does it compare to organic?
There seems to be a lot of confusion out there regarding the term “wildcrafted” or “wild-harvested” and what it actually means and if it’s “better” than something that is grown “organic”. This is particularly true when it comes to herbs because it’s important to know they provenance (wildcrafted, organic, or conventional), particularly for skincare products.
Let’s start with what wildcrafted really means in simple terms: wildcrafting is the practice of foraging, of gathering plants and fungi in the wild. So basically any plant that grows on its own, without human help, and in a natural (not cultivated) habitat can fall under the wildcrafted designation.
One thing that I find amazing about wildcrafted herbs is that they are usually much more resilient than their cultivated brothers and sisters. They have to thrive and survive in environments that are much harsher than those of a coddled plant on a farm where the soil is free of weeds, with consistent supply of water, etc. Wild herbs need to be strong in order to compete with the rest of the vegetation that is vying for the same nutrients and therefore they tend to be more potent botanicals. Survival of the fittest!
We have a few herbs that grow wildly on our property in Burgundy, like yarrow, lemon balm, dandelion, elder, st. john’s wort, plantain and nettle. I am super excited to test out the properties of the yarrow that grows wildly and compare it to the yarrow that we will be cultivating in the beds to see how the constituents and properties differ. Don’t worry, that will be a big journal post in and of itself when that comes together, so stay tuned!
In any case, in regards to herb farming, there are many farmers that like to choose a location where the natural environment already provides a wealth of naturally occurring herbs. Ideally your farm hasn’t been over-cultivated to the point where no herbs grow wildly on the property anymore. If you read The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer from Jeff and Melanie Carpenter (I know, I know, we plug them all the time, but it's just the best book for this sort of stuff), they talk about how they have skullcap (and other herbs) that grows wildly along their farm in Vermont and they harvest it in a way where it grows back beautifully every year.
This brings up an important point, namely that the harvesting of wildcrafted herbs should be done with much care and knowledge, because it is quite easy to rip an herb out of the ground and thereby prevent it from propagating and thriving any further. Some plants can be harvested repeatedly and not affect its survival, but for the most part it is advisable to only take a small amount. That is what we do with the plants that grow wild on our farm: we only take enough to allow the plant to keep living happily and we also spread the plants propagation by replanting them in beds alongside our biodynamic botanicals.
Also, there are some plant species for which wildharvesting is not acceptable simply because there isn’t an abundance of them (mainly due to high commercial demand, habitat destruction, and low reproductive rates). Those you leave alone. Best thing to do is to educate yourself and get foraging books that will give you the information to not only identify the plants out there in the wild, but also tell you if and how to harvest them. Our friends at the Herbal Academy put together a good list of resources here.
When it comes to plants, fungi, and vegetables labelled as certified organic, the farms and companies are saying that the produce is grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, sewage sludge, and ionizing radiation. Getting your products certified organic can cost a significant sum, so there are many farms out there growing produce organically that don’t get them certified organic because it’s too expensive to do so. In a case like this, if you then wanted to know how a product was grown, you would need to inquire directly with the farm.
So basically anything that is truly wildcrafted, is also then organic. The main issue I see in the market currently is that there is no designated certification for anything that claims to be wildcrafted, you basically need to take the company’s word for it. It is also difficult to trust any company that claims that its products are wildcrafted if it produces a large quantity of the herbs and/or plants, since we now know that wildcrafted products are extremely difficult to harvest for large commercial consumption.
The way we plan on wading through these murky waters is to show people where and how our wildcrafted herbs are growing, and also to publish the results when we eventually test our herbs grown on the farm versus those that grow wildly. This will also give us valuable information for the skincare products we make!
I hope that this information has proved interesting and valuable for you, because I believe that the more information you have the better you can navigate all the different buzzwords out in the market today. I purposefully didn’t touch on other designations that you see like biodynamic and regenerative farming, as I will talk about those separately in future posts. Tomorrow we’ll be in France to start our planting so stay tuned on my Instagram where you’ll have much more frequent updates!