Ready to harvest herbs? Where I live in the Piedmont of North Carolina the violets are starting to push through and the chickweed carpets the ground underneath the blooming red buds. Spring is the season for cleansing and, coincidentally, the best time to wildcraft for spring tonics and cleansers! But before we can wildcraft, we need the tools of the trade.
Now is the time I get my old pack out, dust it off, and start refilling last year’s first aid kit and reassess what I might need for plant harvesting.
You can put your own pack together too! I’ll guide you through my own pack, and clue you in on what’s growing in our area right now!
First Step: I already had a pack, so I unloaded it to see what I already had from last year. It looks pretty scarce. I like to have particular categories in my backpack:
- First Aid Kit
- Harvesting Kit
- ID Kit
- Personal Care Kit
- Oh Shit Kit
- First Aid Kit: I like riding around with a kit in my truck at all times. In case of an accident, or a mishap on the trail, it’s good to have one on hand at all times. A little bit of burn cream goes a long way. In this year’s kit I have:
- A thermal care patch (has been useful for a terrible crick in the neck on a hiking trip; you can’t carry a pack with a bad crick).
- Herbal Freeze Spray: Great for achy muscles and pain.
- Goody’s Powder: My #1 headache remedy.
- Eye Drops: Flushing out with creek water just isn’t an option! I’ve been on the trail before, and hiking close to drop offs with a little branch in your eye gets a little hairy.
- Burn Cream + different types of bandages + disinfectants
- Benedryl: I always keep this in my purse, my house, and my kit because I haven’t been stung or bit or have ingested everything in this world, so I’d rather be prepared! Out on the trail with no one around is the last place you want to find out you have an allergy problem.
- Lighter: Because fire is always a good idea, and I have multiple ways of making fire.
This is my ‘mini meds’ kit I made this year. This is great because 1. I carrying a lot of glass around isn’t the best idea and 2. It takes up a lot of space. These sample size roll-ons and droppers aren’t only stinking cute, they rarely break and they pack light.
- Ginger Elixir: for nausea, especially on mountain roads.
- Peppermint Tincture: for nausea too, cause one isn’t enough! I cut my foot badly one day on a stick, and after bending over for a several minutes, I felt light headed and sick to my stomach. Someone gave me a drop of peppermint on my tongue and the nausea went away immediately. So this is a must have for me. If you feel bad, you can’t take care of yourself if no one is around.
- Peach leaf Tincture: This is in a tiny roll-on bottle for insect bites. Super handy if you’re in a mosquito rich area and your bug spray doesn’t work and you’ve just had a milkshake that day.
- Aches and Pain: This is another roll-on, a mixture of essential oils like peppermint, boswellia, and wintergreen. Good for aching muscles.
- Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica): This is in a dropper, and I mainly use it as a disinfectant. While camping near the Joyce Kilmer I pulled on a tooth filling with some floss. I was given Yerba Mansa as a way to keep the area clean until I could get to the dentist. You can also use it to clean deep wounds.
- Lavender: It smells great and can help calm a panicky person, good on burns, and until WWI was used as an antiseptic to treat wounds. Also used for sunstroke and sunburn. One of the best ways to reduce anxiety and treat a wound simultaneously.
Styptics: Cayenne pepper is an internal styptic. It might be able to be applied topically, but I reckon it burns so I’m not going to try it as long as I have yarrow leaf powder around. Here we’ve got cayenne capsules for easy swallowing, and a sachet of yarrow powder for external application. Why? Internal hemorrhaging from a wound, or a nasty cut. Enough said. Listening to just one story about how a hiker has to cut his own foot off is enough for me to pack this one up tight. If you’re wildcrafting in your backyard, you probably won’t need this. If you’re hiking a steep and lonely rocky terrain, another story.
You need various tools for harvesting leaves, woody branches, stems, flowers, and roots. After all, that’s the whole reason we’re out and about rambling in the woods and fields. There’s nothing more irritating than finding the plant you need, and not being able to harvest it.
Knives: Swiss army knife (small saw is great for sawing off small branches), knife with flint stick (like I said, more fire). A Zilla tool with pliers to twist off stubborn branches. You can also use knives to cut leaves, cause sometimes your clippers get ‘weedy green’ and gummed up after a bit.
Clippers: There are two kinds of clippers, by-pass clippers and the regular kind. By-pass clippers can sometimes cause roots and branches to ‘slip’ because of the space between the blades, but the regular kind will snap right through.
Heavy Gloves: Especially good for harvesting nettles, roses, hawthorn, black/raspberries. Anything prickly. Also for digging roots. You can also use neoprene gloves for these things, but for the love do not use them for nettles unless you’ve arthritic hands.
Harvest Bags: You’ll need something to carry your herbs in! Clean bags are necessary for this, try not to cross-contaminate your herbs. Big burlap bags are great for roots, or canvas. I don’t really recommend plastic bags unless you’re going to process the herbs quickly, especially if they’re wet. Paper bags work great!
You might notice there isn’t a soil knife in the photo. Someone lost it. But it’s very important to have one. You need one.
Making a proper identification of your plant is very important. You don’t have to drag the library out into the field, unless you want Hulk shoulders, but it might be worth it if you just can’t remember the difference between hemlock and angelica, and I’m not talking about the tree. These are the books I used in school and they still help me here in the Piedmont. If you live somewhere else, obviously you’ll want to research the most updated and best versions for your neck of the woods. I also know someone who has a treasure of books in the back of their car, but if you want an ID right then and there, it’s worth it to drag them along and not have a 3 mile hike back to your car, just to make sure.
Jewelers Loupes: I have a 10mm and a 40x-25mm lighted loupe. I use the first for most identifications, but it is nice to have a lighted one to help as well. Don’t do like I did last year and leave the light on.
Personal Care Kit
If you’re thinking having baby powder is funny, you haven’t been harvesting in the Georgia swamp. That stuff goes everywhere, armpits, thighs, shoes. It’s humid, hot, and sticky down there. Or Boone, Boone has that effect in June. No Boone in June. If you like being a soggy wet sponge of heat, don’t pack it, but for the rest of us it’s a rash saver.
Having personal care is great for longer trips, or trips in the sun. I always have it just in case. I also include
- Sunscreen: in a squirt bottle, lighter and easier to carry.
- Baby wipes: to get the baby powder, sunscreen, and dirt off your hands. No one likes having their herbs mixed with these things.
- Hand sanitizer: for the above reasons (especially before harvesting), and also a fantastic deodorant (short term!) for long camping/hiking trips.
- WATER WATER WATER: I don’t have the water pack depicted because it’s been in my kitchen. You don’t want this thing moldy, so you have to keep refreshing it. Even if you think you’re just going for a one mile stroll in the woods, take a full pack of water.
- Bug Spray: I don’t usually get bit very much, but Georgia was my bane and even though the mosquitoes didn’t bite me, the spray still kept them another inch or so away. Ear plugs also AMAZING to keep the little suckers away from your ears.
Oh Shit Kit
You can’t prepare for everything, but you can prepare for something. The Oh Shit kit is a catch all for anything you might have left out. I take a pair of earplugs because my Dad’s neighbors love to shoot guns near to where I do some harvesting. I also have a pepper spray dispenser disguised as a pen. Having rain gear is good too, to cover you, your harvesting bag, and your pack in case it isn’t waterproof. I have just a big square of plastic that folds really small. Here are some ideas you might want to consider based on where you’re hiking:
- Mace, for animals and people that act like animals (the unfriendly ones, of course)
- Sun Gear: Sunhat, sunglasses, WATER WATER WATER, SolarCaine, sunscreen, lavender, burn cream, long sleeved breathable shirt and pants, oh and water.
- Rain Gear: Small umbrella, large poncho, rain pants, waterproof pack, waterproof socks, waterproof hiking boots.
- Toilet paper
Rain Story: While camping near the Joyce Kilmer forest, the thing I wanted the most was dry legs and dry feet. I used my emergency kit to bring out the fancy plastic garbage bags to wrap my feet in. I sprung a leak in my boots. My feet still got wet, mostly because grocery bags aren’t breathable and you get sweaty. Still ew. I wish I had bought a pair of seemingly expensive at the time $20 pair of breathable waterproof socks. It would have been heavenly. Also, rain pants, and not the plastic poncho kind. A sturdy kind is good if you’re out for camping. Poncho pants tear easily and before you know it you’re wet down to your also non-waterproof skivvies. It rained every day that week, and while our members were troopers and had a great attitude, we would have loved to have been dry.
Now let’s talking a little about what’s growing!
I mentioned violets before. Violets are one of the most royally beautiful, and yet lowly and humble plants. It’s often overlooked, even in the herbal world. Nutritionally, violets are high minerals and in Vitamin C and A. It has a sweet and tangy flavor and makes an incredible pesto. I used to have the kids gather violet leaves for a pesto snack at a community center I used to work for. They couldn’t get enough of it. Raw or cooked, this is a plant I purposefully placed in my garden for quick access.
Medicinally violets are cooling, mucilaginous, and alterative (blood purifier); all things perfect for a spring cleanse. Violet gives the lymphatic system a boost, helping it wash away winter’s storage of toxins, fungi, bacteria, and general waste. Out with the old, in with the new! It’s also a vulnerary, both inside and out. It can clear eczema after long periods of use and aids in gut healing (remember, your gut is made of epithelial tissue just like your skin). This is a mineral rich, mucilaginous herb, so make sure you extract in water or vinegar to get the most benefit!
Chickweed can also make a good pesto, interestingly enough. It is a demulcent, emollient, cooling, and drying. For our purposes of looking to it as a spring cleansing herb, I’ll keep the list down to the practical. Chickweed expels stored water weight and replenishes the body with trace minerals and vitamins (B Complex being a major one).
It’s an excellent skin soother. For all you nettle gatherers out there, taking a chickweed bath will help soothe your stinging skin. It’s great for burns too, as we keep forgetting that spring time skin needs our sunscreen protection, too. Harvest at the newly budded stage in the morning, and don’t let it wilt or dry out. I recommend making a folk tincture with vinegar, and then later making a nice salad dressing out of it….even with violets!
Redbud trees are a favorite of mine. The buds spring out from the branches in tiny groups and the tree looks encrusted with magenta spring time jewels. These buds are also oh so tasty. They’re high in Vitamin C and….that seems to be the end of research I can find on red bud flowers. There’s quite a bit on using the inner bark, but not for spring time cleansing. I love using redbuds as a tangy garnish to my chickweed and violet pestos. A little more VC can’t hurt! I’ve seen lots of recipes on the web from pickled to spring roll additions to relishes. I prefer to eat them fresh and raw, but if you don’t want to go picking every day or two, give pickling a try!
Now you’ve got some ideas of how to pack and what to harvest in our area this time. Tell me in the comments what you’re excited about harvesting!