Wild-crafting aromatic plants in Crete: Experiences, Theory and Practice
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
We have been wild-crafting a wide variety of aromatic plants in their own natural habitats on Crete and producing their essential oils for more than 20 years. What is wild-crafting, how does it differ from cultivating aromatic plants and what is a wildcrafted oil? What are population oils? This paper presents the practice, philosophy and responsibilities of wild-crafting as we have experienced and developed it over the years.
First I will set out the reasons we chose to collect wild growing aromatic plants and how we do it. Then I will attempt to describe our experiences while we are wildcrafting and interacting with the plants in their natural habitats. In this contribution I will then link our experiences with the plants and their habitats to very recent research in the fields of plant physiology, plant signalling, eco ethics and bio diversity conservation issues. Finally, I will consider if and how a change of attitude towards wild-growing plants can contribute to the conservation and rehabilitation of plant habitats.
Wild-crafting is defined as collecting wild-grown plant materials in their own habitats, as opposed to cultivated plant material, grown and harvested in artificial environments. We have been wild-crafting a variety of aromatic plants and distilling their essential oils on Crete for decades. We collect only from plant populations which grow abundantly in the mountains and other remote areas, and take a good deal of care about how we cut, so as to give optimal regrowth potential to the plants. We do not kill any plant. All our herbs are hand-cut, to avoid disturbing plants, nature, the environment or ourselves with noise and destructive energy. We only cut as much as each plant can give, leaving as much as it needs in order to live even more vigorously the next year. We then distil each species according to its individual needs in order to ensure a complete transformation of plant material to volatile essential oil. Below I will expand more thoroughly on the practice, theory, philosophy and responsibilities of wild-crafting, as we experienced and developed it over the years.
Wild versus cultivated medicinal and aromatic plants
In cultivation, aromatic plants are sown at the same time, have an already limited lifespan and are raised according to human needs in controlled environments. Peppermint oil production in the US is an example here. It is economically more interesting to harvest the plant material of this perennial plant completely every year. All commercial mint varieties are sterile hybrids propagated each year from genetically identical stolons. Genetically uniform seeds or cuttings of other plants are used to cultivate large monocultures on ploughed fields, on a completely cleared area. Clean rows, without any cohabitants, of uniform plant size to facilitate the use of machines to fertilize, to control pests and weeds and to irrigate when necessary. The crop is then harvested by conventional hay mowers before being, chopped up by forage harvesters which transfer the plant material to containers taken straight to the distillery, if they are not allowed to wilt in the field. In the case of mint, the next machine digs up the roots, cuts them in pieces and replants them for next year’s crop. Planting, rearing and harvesting is done mechanically, without any interaction between human and plant.
We chose to collect and distil exclusively wild-growing aromatic plants. We feel that in relation to aromatic and medicinal plants, wild individuals and populations are of a clear advantage. The plants have not been manipulated genetically, nor fed and watered artificially or treated with chemicals. They are free expressions of plant nature in their own chosen environment. Here we can directly interact with the individual plants and their populations in their natural habitat.
Experiences interacting with plants
In practice, the experience of wild-crafting consists of three interrelated interactions between ‘gatherer’ and ‘gathered’, between human and plant:
Human - individual plant relationship
Out in the wild, collecting is a continuum of relations with each living plant; we begin to communicate and cooperate with each individually. We appreciate its shape, its age, its colouring, its fragrance and sense its life-force. We become intimate with it, understand how much of its growth it can share with us, and that it desires to give us freely as much as it can. In return, we promise to transform part of it into fragrant essential oil, and to ensure the plant’s vitality and survival at the same time. The plants somehow seem to know and respond to the way you are approaching them, to your intention. Wild plants are harvested by hand - there is no noise of machines, just the hum of bees and insects and the twittering of birds. The plants call you; you move from one to the other. It is a privilege to be able to experience the feelings of connectivity, communication and peaceful co-operation. You know when they are most ready to be picked; they beckon you to harvest them. Many species hold a siesta in the hottest hours of the day, fold up their leaves and reduce their surface area, they sleep and towards sundown they start resting. The plant withdraws from interacting with us: we can feel that and leave it alone.
Human - population-relationship
In collection, as we move from plant to plant, we get to know and appreciate their intraspecific variety and diversity; another reason for us to prefer wild-crafted aromatic plants is that they live in populations. A plant population comprises all kinds of individuals of different ages and sizes, experience and life-force, each of them expressing individuality in the community. Even though some plants produce millions of seeds, only a few survive and this ensures genetic diversity and strength in a population. Each individual population has its own characteristics as well, they differ depending on environmental factors such as altitude, humidity conditions and geological formations. For example a population of Thymus capitatus growing at sealevel along the shore arranges its life differently from a population growing in the mountains in rocky environments. Vitex agnus castus populations grow crowded, tall and lush in riverbeds and more spread-out and dwarfed by the beach. Salvia triloba plants grow taller in rolling hills amongst many other plants than in populations made up of individuals living on, and clinging to, steep cliffs.
Human - habitat relationship
Each plant population grows in its own natural environment. In its natural habitat, the individual and the population can exist in community and relationship not only with other plant species but also with bacteria, fungi, insects and birds. Each species has its favourite neighbours, companion plants and visitors, its favourite soil and microclimate. In the communication with each plant population in its own ‘wider sense’, its special habitat, we can feel its nature and appreciate its energy - being strongest in free and healthy plants which are allowed to express their individuality and coexist harmoniously and freely in their communities, just as is true of we human beings.
These three interrelated aspects of wild-crafting lead to an integrated, holistic experience of the interaction between plants and human, and to the realization, that a plant can only live wild and free in its natural habitat. The practical experience of collecting wild-growing plants can be a living, dynamic interaction between human and plant beings. Our experience is that a plant can communicate with us and enjoys doing so. Through interaction we come to ‘see’ and acknowledge the plant’s being, develop respect and gratitude while collecting.
We have chosen, and are fortunate, to live in Crete, a place where natural and relatively undisturbed habitats still exist, and where we can delight in the fact that plants have a chance to live their own lives as much as possible. However, we also have encountered the destruction of biotopes. It is heart breaking to come and see a whole habitat cleared, bulldozed and barren. All we can do here is spread seeds we have collected and hope that plant life eventually will succeed in surviving.
The on-going assault on plant habitats, the destruction and alteration of habitats by deforestation, conversion to plantations, pasture and industries directly threatens 20- 30% of all plant species and results in environmental degradation, species extinction, loss of genetic diversity and climatic change (1, 2). The loss is ours as well, as it has been found that our spending less time in natural environments potentially could have very serious implications for our mental health. Having the possibility to encounter natural habitats and interact with natural environments should be encouraged (3). It is thus our responsibility, as well as being in our interest, to actively conserve and protect plant populations and their natural habitats.
The responsibilities and possibilities of wild-crafting
Wild crafters can make an important contribution towards conservation of plant diversity and habitat. It has been reported that sustainable, non-destructive wildcrafting is increasingly seen as the most important conservation strategy for most wild-harvested species and their natural environment and contributes to maintaining populations, species and ecosystem diversity. Additionally, wild-harvesting, as opposed to domestication and cultivation, achieves conservation of the genetic diversity of any given plant species. To reduce the extent to which wild plants are collected may lead to environmental degradation and to the loss of genetic diversity and of the incentive to conserve wild populations. (1). The authors conclude that except for slow growing and destructively-harvested medicinal and aromatic plants, where cultivation could be an option; the priority conservation strategy is sustainable harvest from wild populations.
Wild crafters should be involved in the conservation and protection of plants and their habitats. As we know from experience as well, harvesting wild plants in their natural habitat in many cases is the best insurance that people will observe the environment, understand and care for those plants and their habitats. Every person gathering wildgrowing plants should be aware of her/his responsibilities and possibilities and actively contribute to the conservation and rehabilitation of plants’ natural habitats. Not just gathering or harvesting, wild-crafting in its true meaning is an activity, a craft, which needs commitment, skill and experience.
It would be beneficial to improve the commercial viability of environmentally sustainable land management through a growth in the market for products which, because of their production methods, area of origin, or other qualities can help to sustain the diversity and environmental quality of natural biotopes (4). Indeed, wildgrowing medicinal and aromatic plants are in many cases preferred to their cultivated relatives. Medicinal plant properties are mainly due to their complex mixture of secondary metabolites, which the plants need and produce in their natural wild environment as a response to stress and competition. The proportion of active ingredients as well can be much lower in fast-growing cultivated plant populations than in older and slow-growing wild populations (1).
By consciously practicing, supporting and encouraging sustainable wild-crafting we can all directly contribute to the preservation, rehabilitation and conservation of plant habitats and genetic variety. At this point, it might be interesting to investigate what or whom we chose to protect and come to the question of what plants actually are to us.
Plants provide the oxygen, the breath for all living beings, all food. Every bit of us, flesh, skin, blood, nerves and brain is raised and sustained by plants. Plants can lose up to 90% of their bodies without dying, offering this proportion of themselves to us. Plants provide for all life. They transform sunlight, water and nutrients to flora, biomass, food and shelter. Medicinal and aromatic plants contribute to satisfying the physical and spiritual needs of mankind. Plants produce millions of seeds, thousands of fruits, plenty of leaves to feed all life; they do not just produce for their own genetic survival. Plant life not only nourishes us and maintains our physical survival. It also provides for our emotional and spiritual needs and has a significant influence on our mental wellbeing. It deserves our acknowledgement, respect and gratitude.
Plants: passive green resources or intelligent beings?
After all these years of experience out there with the plants it is interesting to see that recent research in plant physiology, plant behaviour and intelligence, plant signalling and communication has shown that plants indeed are highly communicative beings, capable of memory, learning, choice and of intentional and variable adaption to challenges through coordinated behaviour responses (i.e. 5, 6).
In the classic and inspiring ‘Secret life of plants’ by Thompkins and Bird, published in 1973, the authors had reported that plants respond to mental and emotional stimuli, react to human action and intention and respond to sound – reacting differently to noise than to harmonious music. Plants grow when they are loved, wither when treated with contempt. They respond with conditioned reflexes, perceive and respond to human beings and each other (7).
It was a popular and controversial book at the time, and though criticized as scientifically incorrect and irrelevant by contemporary botanists (8), it was nevertheless very inspiring. It was a pity though that the popularity of the book, combined with the sceptical and critical attitude of contemporary scientists, effectively prevented any further serious studies in the subject. It would take another 30 years before respected scientists started to acknowledge and research the themes in Tompkins and Bird’s first accounts of plants as much more than just passive green stuff.
Recent studies have shown that plants are indeed much more than passive green stuff. The rapidly expanding new field of plant signalling and behaviour in biology research seeks to understand how plants perceive and respond to information and challenges in an integrated fashion and studies plants as behavioural organisms capable of receiving, storing, sharing, processing and using information from their environments (reviewed in 9)
Plants were found to communicate extensively within their populations and with other species sharing their habitat. Pisum sativum plants emitted drought-stress cues to their unstressed neighbors, which not only perceived and reacted to them, but also passed them on to additional unstressed plants, a kind of intra-population warning system. Additionally, the forewarned plants were better able to withstand drought conditions later when those actually occurred (10). Artemisia tridentata plants emit volatile signals to warn their neighbours when they are wounded, resulting in increased levels of resistance to herbivores in the receiver plants. Additionally it was found that the plants responded more effectively to volatile cues emitted from close relatives, exhibiting kin recognition (11). However, inter-specific warning cues producing defence mechanisms in the receivers have also been reported between species sharing a habitat. For example, thistles warned bailey against aphids, sage brush warned wild tobacco plants against herbivores and beans received and reacted to volatile signals emitted from several cohabitants (see 12).
Several interesting studies report that plants perceive and react to sound. The recorded sound of leaf chewing caterpillars was played to unaffected Arabidopsis thaliana plants which then reacted with the production of defensive chemicals. The plants could distinguish leaf chewing from wind sounds or other insect sounds played to them, in which case they produced no chemicals (13). A recent study showed that ‘soft and smooth’ music enhanced plant growth and flowering in eight medicinal plants studied, as well as the concentration of metabolites such as phenol (14). Others recently reported a kind of gradual preference in music choice. Rosa chinensis plants grew larger and flowered most when exposed to Indian classical chants and music, more when exposed to classical western music, less when exposed to silence and even less when exposed to rock music (15). For further reading on the subject, Monica Gagliano reviews recent studies on plant communication in general and what she calls bioacoustics, the study of sound produced by, or affecting, plants in particular (16). Plants can learn as well, and it was reported that Mimosa pudica plants can get used to and subsequently ignore a certain potentially dangerous stimulus. After habituation they stopped folding their leaves up. Interestingly, they remembered that behavioural change even when, after being left undisturbed for a period of time, they again were subjected to the same stimulus (17). The cited studies are only few examples of recent research into plant cognition, behaviour and communication.
Including plants - towards an integrated plant-worldview
Anthony Trewavas, a biochemist and professor of plant physiology, advocates considering plants as intelligent organisms capable of sensing, learning, memorizing, making intentional choice and adapting in varying ways to challenges through coordinated behaviour responses. He proposed the concept of ‘plant intelligence’ as plants exhibit the simple forms of behaviour that neuroscientists describe as basic intelligence. Plants adapt to environmental challenges by information processing, decision making and ultimately behavioural changes, activities which cannot be explained as pre-programming or automatic reactions (see 5, 18).). He also mentions that it is in the competitive foraging for resources and in communication with their natural habitat that the majority of intelligent plant attributes were detected, and that real intelligent behaviour is expected in wild plants.
The awareness of plant life as an ‘intelligent’ life form capable of communication, sensing, interacting and memorizing, awareness gained by experiencing it, through scientific findings or both, invites acknowledgement of, and respect for, plants and their living nature. And indeed these findings spurred the discussion of plant ethics and how we relate to plants as complex, ‘intelligent’ living organisms. Gagliano and Grimonprez (6) ask if it is possible for humans to perceive and appreciate the making of meaning by other life forms and suggest that perhaps our approach should rather be appreciative of the different ‘cultural background’ plant life has. It is the appreciation of diversity and an attitude of respect and tolerance which is fundamental to ethical consideration within and between human societies as well as towards other, animal or plant, life forms.
Even though contemporary scientific knowledge finally recognizes plants as autonomous beings, human action does not acknowledge their sentient, intelligent autonomous status. These theoretical formulations, however, must become direct action and need to be manifested in our behaviour, as Matthew Hall mentions in his very inspiring book ‘Plants as Persons’(2). He advocates including plants within the realm of moral consideration and calls for a discussion on human - plant ethics. Humans have tended to exclude plants from their value systems, denying their autonomy, regarding them as mere resources. This results in exploitive, purely instrumental relationships with plants and comes with serious ecologically destructive environmental consequences. As long as we regard plants solely as materials and resources which can be dominated, manipulated and exploited, the destruction of habitats, the extinction of species, the loss in biodiversity and environmental degradation can continue without any moral or ethical consideration. Becoming aware of plants as life forms with ethical and moral rights, reflecting their individual nature, their diversity and most of all their natural habitats, lays the foundation for our actions to preserve and protect plant life. A different plant-worldview can be developed, which demands consideration, respect and care for their life forms and habitats. Finally, philosopher Michael Marder (19) questions rhetorically if it is ethical to eat plants. It can be argued that the question of whether it is ethical to eat plants is not the issue; nor should it be ‘having to harm plants to survive’. I believe plant life in general is not harmed by feeding all life. It is plant life’s purpose and joy to provide for all life. Plant life is harmed by our respectless way of dominating, manipulating, enslaving and exploiting it, by our destruction of its habitats and of its genetic diversity. Accordingly, what is needed is an ethical approach to plants’ rights to their own life and habitats. As Hall (2) suggests, the protection and re-creation of plant habitats, leaving space for plants to thrive, should be one of the priorities for humankind in the 21st century.
Finally, what started out as an account of our decades of experience of wild-crafting a variety of aromatic plants in their diverse habitats has become a plea for wild plant life, for the moral rights of plants to the genetic variety in their populations and to the interaction with their cohabitants in their natural habitats. Both our own, decades-long, experience of harvesting wild plants and recent scientific research suggest that plant life is a life-form with its own ethical and moral rights on this planet, a life form with its own purpose and needs that should be respected and protected. It is in the direct and actively experienced communication with plants in their habitats that we can reflect on our relation to, and interrelation with, plant life. I hope that this contribution can inspire a change in our attitude towards plant life, this being the necessary foundation for a conscious effort to protect and preserve natural habitats and biodiversity. On that foundation of respect and acknowledgement then, we may perhaps begin to interact with plants on their own terms, acknowledge them and actively care for and promote their rights to be wild.
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