Respectful Summer Foraging

  in Blog

By Sierra LaRose, Bear Earth Herbals

With summertime foliage in full force and “foraging” being the new buzz word among nature enthusiasts and culinary professionals alike, many folks are increasingly curious about the wild plants in our area. While I am thrilled to see such an interest in wild plants, I have also become aware of the need for a change in the way we see our relationship to these green beings and the land that sustains them, and us. I have often heard foragers refer to their harvests as “free food” and it seems to me that, while we aren’t paying money for these wild harvests, nothing is truly free. A phrase I say a lot when teaching is, “Plants are people too,” and, just like people, they thrive in reciprocal relationship. If a friend were to gift us a pie, we would offer gratitude and perhaps gift them something in return; we most likely would not take it from their hands and exclaim, “Free food!”

As we explore what wild plants can offer us, I find it equally as important to ask what we can offer them. As science catches up with ancient indigenous wisdom, we are beginning to understand the sentience of plants and their ability to perceive and respond to their environment. When we speak to a plant, it can actually feel the vibration of our voice and responds via electromagnetic pulses and phytochemical reactions. This could mean that when we ask the plants permission to harvest or share a song of gratitude, it fundamentally changes the properties of the plant and the medicine it offers.

When we use observation skills and a knowledge of the environment, we can harvest in a way that is both safe and sustainable. I look for signs of pollution, disease or, damage and take note of the plant populations are in an area, never harvesting more than the population can sustain. The best practices and things to look out for are different for each species, making it important to really get to know each plant well before harvesting. 

In getting to know the plant, we also discover ways to help it thrive. Some plants love to have the area around their roots cleared, while others prefer to be undisturbed. Some plants thrive from being pruned back, some grow very slowly and need more time to recover from a harvest. Other plants, like wild mustard, absorb and store heavy metals from the soil and while this quality can be useful in bioremediation, it also means we need to be very mindful of where we are picking.

Learning new plants is exciting and inspiring, but can sometimes feel overwhelming. The more I learn, the more I realize I do not know. I like to encourage folks to choose one plant and work with that one plant for an entire year. Just like making new friends, it can be much more meaningful and fulfilling to establish one deep friendship than many acquaintanceships. Plants make truly wonderful friends!


While this unassuming plant is almost always underfoot and often confused with the banana with which it shares a name, don’t let it fool you; knowing this plant could save your life. As a remedy, chew some leaves into a poultice for bites, stings, wounds, or infections. Repeat this poultice with fresh plant material until the pain or infection is gone. Infused into an oil, plantain soothes the skin and can even help with muscle and joint pain. Just as it is healing to the external skin, it is also very healing to the “internal skin” or gut lining. Chop the leaves perpendicular to the strong lateral veins (like celery) and add it to salads and soups, or juice and it and freeze the juice into ice cubes for later use.


A member of the aster family, yarrow is abundant in open fields, clear cut areas, and trail sides. Yarrow has been used since ancient times as a wound herb as it has a great ability to staunch bleeding and has loads of antimicrobial properties. It is also anti-inflammatory and a blood regulator, being used to help with issues where the blood is involved such as menstrual flow, headaches and infections. One of my favorite ways to use yarrow is to care for a puncture wound by soaking the affected area in a strong, warm tea of yarrow repeatedly. It can also be added to a digestive bitters blend to help strengthen digestion and balance gut bacteria.


Many of us recognize the soft, fuzzy leaves of biennial mullein in its first year, or its tall, prominent stalks along the road sides that give it the feel of a desert plant in its second year. What most of us don’t realize is that we can learn a lot about a plant’s uses by the way that it grows. A mature mullein leaf looks astonishingly like a lung, just as the tall stalks are reminiscent of the human spine. As it turns out, these are the two areas of the body mullein is best at supporting! Mullein leaf tea offers great respiratory support, especially for those struggling with chronic respiratory issues. It is important to strain it very well though, as the fine hairs can be irritating. I recommend using a coffee filter.

Red Clover

The prolific pink and purple flowers of red clover blanket the fields of Northern Michigan, replenishing nitrogen to the soil and offering nourishment to many pollinators. Among their many incredible benefits, red clover flowers make an excellent mineral-rich infusion that nourishes the whole body and helps clear toxins from the blood. Red clover blossoms are a wonderful protective ally for women’s reproductive health and can even be added to a cough syrup recipe for their expectorant and demulcent properties. Just remember when harvesting, identify correctly and pick gently, as these are a favorite of the bees.


One of the most nutrient dense plants out there, kale doesn’t stand a chance against nettles in the superfood department. Nettles can be harvested from early spring into early summer before the plant goes to flower. The leaves are a great addition to soups, stews or stir fries but be aware, this plant contains chemicals that burn and irritate the skin upon contact when fresh. I recommend wearing gloves while harvesting and processing, and to always cook or dry it. Ironically, while nettles cause an allergic reaction topically, they are one of the very best remedies for allergies when dried and made into tea. A cup or two of nettle tea every day can really help to relieve allergy symptoms and calm the histamine response.