Wildcrafting Ethics

How do I find out about endangered plants (in the USA)?

Check your local Heritage Program Database, call the Dept. of AG or a local Native plant society chapter to find its address. This will connect you this experts on particular plants and current lists.

The endangered species act has many flaws, I personally believe there should be an endangered ecosystems act instead but it’s all we’ve got and better than nothing.

Some listed plants are truly rare, once numerous but destroyed by loss of of habitat through man or nature.

Many listed plants are endemics, located in a specific area. These may be geographically isolated islands of flora as are often found in the intermountain west, or they can be found at the border of major plant systems. Many endemics are found in southern Oregon, where the Northern California system blends with the Pacific Northwest system, with a spattering of Great Basin plants. This does not mean these plants are sensitive, just unique. The threatened Penstemon peckii grows only within twenty miles of my house, and nowhere else on earth. It can withstand trampling, wildlife grazing, and disturbance. In fact, now that the forest service has realized that this species thrives with moderate disturbance (partial cuts), it has become a reason to log, i.e. increased health of the population of this plant.

Plants become listed due to political boundaries. Gentiana newberryi grows nearby, and is threatened in Oregon. It’s northern most sighting is within a half hours drive. There you can see people play football on it, run horses on it, pick its beautiful flowers only to find they wilt immediately, and then the flowers end up on the ground. Sometimes hundreds of them. Elk graze it heavily. It isn’t a sensitive plant, and it’s population is healthy and stable in California, but the population happens to cross over to Oregon where there isn’t that many stands. Thus it recieves the same protection as the truly rare plant. Southern Oregon has many of these kinds of listed plants.

There has to be a perceivable threat to the plant population in order for it to be listed. Sometimes the threat is obvious, and sometimes the threat is obscure.

What about an introduced plant that has become a pest, or a native out control in a system out of balance. When the St. John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum, is down to a handful of populations, it will fit the definition of threatened, even though humans intentionally irradicated it.!!

This was written for the 1994 Central Oregon Plant Show for the non-botanists that pick flowers. It was also used by the Deschutes National Forest for their Wildflower Week Celebration.

What Plants Shouldn’t I Pick?

Some plants are not damaged easily. Blackberry, Rubus sp., and Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, are two that are nearly impossible to eliminate, even if you dig their roots. If a piece of root stays in the ground, it will grow back. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, can be cut with a lawnmower and still flourish regularly. Nettles, Urtica dioca, when grown for fiber can have 3-4 aboveground harvests in a growing season. Plants that fit into this category are generally perennials. You can pick them and not threaten their survival.

Rare, Threatened and Endangered Plants

Endangered plants are species in danger of becoming extinct in the foreseeable future. Threatened plants are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. A species can be threatened or endangered throughout its range, which means if it goes extinct we will lose its hidden secrets forever. Many of these plants only grow in one special area (endemic). The Columbia Gorge on the border of Oregon and Washington hosts many endemic species. Peck’s Penstemon, Penstemon peckii, grows only in the Ponderosa Pine Forest in Deschutes and Jefferson Counties. A species can also receive protection for part of its range. Newberry’s Gentian, Gentiana newberryi, has stable populations in California, but is listed as threatened in Oregon. Deschutes County is at the end of its range, and there are less of them. Rare plants have small, localized populations. They may not be listed as threatened or endangered if the populations are both stable and numerous.

The US. Fish and Wildlife Service determines which plants receive federal protection. Unfortunately, they are very slow in reviewing candidate species. Many have become extinct while waiting to be listed. The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Fish and Wildlife of each state is responsible for determining state protection. We also have the Oregon Natural Heritage Program. This program has its own list of plants that deserve protection, but haven’t made it into the clogged federal and state lists. They also have a list of plants to watch and monitor. A copy of Rare, Threatened and Endangered Plants and Animals of Oregon is available from:

Do not pick these plants. Unfortunately, they are not always easy for an amateur to identify. They are not always showy. There may be large amounts of them in one spot, so that they appear plentiful. There are some good picture books available. All folks who pick plants from the wild should try to familiarize themselves with the local protected plants. When in doubt, don’t pick it.

Sensitive Plants

Some plants are sensitive to disturbance. Please do not pick them even if they aren’t protected. The Calypso Orchid, Calypso bulbosa, is a fragile plant that lives partially off leaf mold. Its little root is close to the surface, and easy prey to slugs and others. Minor disturbances can easily dislodge the root from the mold. If someone picks its flower, it can ooze fluid and essentially “bleed” to death. Even disturbing the area around it during flowering could kill it. The law does not protect this plant because it is too numerous. It is our responsibility to help sensitive plants survive.

How can you tell if a plant is sensitive? Most plants that are not green (contain no chlorophyll) are “no picks.” These weird species are white, brown, red, or purple and just plain eerie. Botanists call them parasites or saprophytes. They are particularly fascinating. These include Broomrape, Orobanche sp., Coral Roots, Corallorhiza sp., and Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora. Other “no picks” include the Orchid Family (Orchidaceae) and almost all the Lily Family (Liliaceae). The Orchid Family includes Calypso Orchid, Calypso bulbosa, and the Rein Orchids, Habenaria sp. The Lily Family includes Trillium, Trillium ovatum, and Mariposa Lilies, Calochortus sp. These families are easy to recognize with a little practice. Not every Lily and Orchid is sensitive, but it’s a good place to start. Check these plant families out today at the show.

Most (but not all) of the unusual or showy plants are no picks. If you are not sure, don’t harvest it.

Why do I see pressed specimens of “no picks”?

There are too many people who don’t care or know about the plants they pick. They will gather plants for a bouquet, and get tired of carrying them around. Perhaps the plants will close up or wilt before they get back to the car. The people throw them on the ground. These pressed specimens were found wilting on the ground in local parks and campgrounds. They were already broken by humans or animals.

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