By Leigh Joseph
Rice Root bulb with nodding onions on skunk cabbage leaf.
“Our people look after what we take, we don’t take too much, we leave something, we don’t go back to that same place, and we go gather elsewhere. All the harvesting is done to take what you need and not take everything. You need to leave something for other people and leave something so that the plant can continue to live. You’ve got to take care of those things.”
~ Chief Floyd Joseph, Squamish First Nation
I have grown up with the belief that plants are our relatives. Connected to this belief are plant harvesting and cultivation practices that are rooted in respect and reciprocity. For each plant food or medicine there were, and are, sustainable practices employed to ensure the long-term health and productivity of plants in particular harvesting areas.
When settlers arrived in Canada there was a misconception that the landscapes they encountered were untouched and unused. In reality, the landscapes were intensively managed and cultivated to maximize productivity of foods with the understanding that future generations would also carry out these practices and rely on these foods.
There are many well-known examples now of ecosystems that were shaped by millennia of cultural practices and Indigenous knowledge aimed at building sustainable and bountiful food sources. These practices centered on the understanding that harvesting has impacts and in order to balance out these impacts there must be reciprocity. Reciprocity is the practice of giving back for mutual benefit. A plant-harvesting example of this would be replanting a section of root when you are harvesting roots for food to ensure the plant you are harvesting from returns and thrives. There is often a spiritual aspect to this type of reciprocity as well, in the form of a prayer or offering to the plant.
Sustainability has been built into indigenous plant management practices since time before memory. People were taught to manage root vegetables through replanting and cultivation. They knew that harvesting too many leaf buds from a tree or shrub would stunt new growth. They knew that to harvest entire flowers meant that pollinators and animals would lose a food source and fruit would not develop.
Two examples of Indigenous plant cultivation are camas meadows and estuary root gardens.
Camas is a traditional root food that was grown in family managed gardens. Camas gardens were found in open meadows that were maintained through fire management. Burning the meadow would bring nutrients into the soil, remove grasses and provide open habitat for camas to thrive.
Estuary Root Gardens were also family managed gardens in estuaries. Management of these gardens included weeding, tilling, replanting and rotating harvest to ensure the productivity and sustainability of the gardens.
The relatively new popularization of wild foraging is leading to overharvesting and can be seen as another form of ‘taking’ from the land. I share in the excitement of harvesting but I ask you to please educate yourself and consider the impact you may have. Ask yourself: “Is this a plant I should be harvesting?” “Who else might be relying on these plant foods?” “Where am I harvesting? Is this a culturally or ecologically sensitive area?” “What is my intention with harvesting? How much do I take and what do I give back?” “How do I harvest and give back in a way that will sustain these plant foods for generations to come?”
If you don’t know the answers to these questions I urge you to seek out training or contact your local Indigenous community to ensure that you are practicing in a respectful way. Purchasing plants from a native plant nursery or transplanting into a garden setting are two great ways to have less of an impact on the wild plant populations.
Here are some great books if you are interested in further learning.
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
by Robin Kimmerer
- Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask
by Mary Siisip Geniusz
- As We Have Always Done Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance
by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.