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Northern Research Station
One Gifford Pinchot Drive
Madison, WI 53726
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Sustaining Forests

Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine

Plant Gathering Practices in the St. John River Watershed

Gathering lupines for Maine Swedish community's Midsommar celebration, photo by Michelle Baumflek

Gathering practices can vary from person to person, but there are common threads in the things people do when they harvest plants.  These practices arise from knowledge, which we discuss on its own page.  Below, we describe in more detail the practices mentioned earlier.


Most tools used in wild plant gathering are remarkably simple.  Gatherers use their hands, a knife, scissors, or a basket to collect most plants.  Occasionally, some use mechanized tools like chainsaws and tractors to harvest large shrubs and trees like brown ash.  Processing plants into basket material, herbal tinctures, natural dyes, jams, and  other products also relies on common household tools and materials.  Partly because of this, individuals from small children to frail elders, from the affluent to those with few financial resources, can gather and make things from wild plants.

Gathering as a social or solitary affair 

Some gatherers recall family outings to gather fiddleheads, berries, or ash trees.  One woman describes her memories of running into neighbors and friends at forest burn sites that were lush with blueberries.  Some people plan such outings for their children or grandchildren.  For others, gathering is a time to be alone while experiencing nature

Goldthread leaves and root, photo by Michelle Baumflek

Norms of sustainable harvest 

Gatherers emphasize that anyone intending to harvest wild plants should understand the specific needs of each plant.  However, there are some general guidelines for harvesting that many gatherers mentioned:

  • Harvest in moderation:  Take only what you need, never take all of anything.  If the species you are harvesting is not abundant, think carefully about its long-term survival and how much you really need. Remember that wildlife and others may also depend on the same resources.

  • Know what you are picking:  Depending on the species and its use, you can often harvest plant material without doing it serious harm.  You may even be able to take measures to increase its population.  Find out which plant part you need before gathering, and only take that part if possible.  For example, avoid uprooting an entire plant when you only need the fruits.

    Knowing what you are picking also extends to plant identification.  Some desirable plants and fungi have look-alikes, and are difficult to identify. Proper identification can mean the difference between a delicious snack of highbush cranberries (Viburnum opulus var americanum) or an unpleasant mouthful of bitter, inedible berries from its relative, the maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium).  Some wild plants and mushrooms are more than unpleasant,  they can make you sick and a few are even fatal.    To help make positive identifications, carry a guidebook that describes plants and fungi found in your area, such as Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide or the Audubon Society’s Guide to North American Mushrooms.

  • Be careful where you step:  It is easy to damage a sensitive environment in a short time.  Plant populations can be destroyed by trampling.  Certain soils are easily compacted, which affects root growth and plant health.  Think about how you enter a specific area, and try to minimize the number of trips you make to avoid unnecessary damage.

  • Pay attention to plants and populations:  Does a population’s size change from year to year?  Do your harvesting activities appear to have positive or negative effects?  Use this information to decide on your future harvesting approach.  Do what you can to encourage healthy plant populations as you gather and teach.

  • Give thanks, show respect:   Many gatherers we spoke with emphasized the importance of expressing gratitude before harvesting a plant.  Some make an offering of tobacco, say a prayer of thanks, or ask the plant for permission to harvest.  Others take care of sites for many years before ever harvesting anything.  These practices are part of the ancient legacy of people depending on and relating to plants.


For details about a variety of gathering practices, you might enjoy reading about these gatherers:
Tania Morey
Richard Silliboy
Natalia Bragg


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Last Modified: 05/26/2010