When gathering or harvesting your herbs, first be absolutely sure you know what you are gathering! This is very important when gathering plants from the wild. Be absolutely certain you know what the plant is before you attempt to use it. If you are not sure of a particular plant, or it "looks like" something but could be something else, leave it alone. You would be better off to purchase the herb through a store or mail order. The alternative may leave you dead, as there are many poisonous plants that look like some of our favorite medicinals. If you care about our natural plants, you will prefer to purchase or grow what you need. Today's herbal needs are creating quite a strain on the numbers of medicinal plants in the wild, and wildcrafting has driven many species to the brink of extinction.
First, know what part of the plant you need for medicinal or culinary use. Some plants are used in their entirety, others only specific parts, such as leaves, roots, blossoms, etc. When you are gathering plants from the wild, remember not to take all of a particular species you may find in an area. Leave some to grow and seed and flourish for the next time you need them. Removing all of a group of plants is rude, and Mother Nature would not be pleased! If you have come across a stand of a rare or threatened plant, take only the amount you need for your personal use, to give the plants a fighting chance to keep thriving. Give thanks to the plants you take for your uses. Sprinkle around some of their seeds, to help them propagate. Give them an offering, i.e. some natural fertilizer, a prayer, etc. in return for your uses. When taking leaves, branches, or bark of a plant, leave plenty for the plant to survive. You should offer the same respect to those plants you gather from your own gardens. Be kind to the Earth Mother and all She has to offer, and She will reward you for your efforts.
The parts of the plant above ground should be harvested in the morning, before the heat of the sun has a chance to wilt them. It is preferable to do so when the dew is still on the plants, or just after it evaporates. As a general rule, leaves should be harvested before the buds and blooms appear, and flowers should be harvested before the fruits and seeds appear. Bark and roots should be harvested in the early spring, just as the plant is beginning to show its leaf buds, or in the fall, just as the leaves are turning. Don't strip bark from around a tree trunk, as this will kill it. Instead, strip bark from small patches, or particular limbs, to preserve the mother plant for later use, and to preserve its life.
When using an entire plant, it is customary to hang the plant upside down in a dry area free from pests to allow the plant to dry. Make sure your herbs have dried thoroughly before storing them for further use, or you may discover that you have a moldy mess instead of a medicinal herb. Roots should be carefully washed, scraped, and chopped into small pieces to be sure they dry uniformly and thoroughly, then spread them out on a fine screen or something similar, so that the air can circulate around them and dry them well. It helps when drying herbs to move them around every once in a while during the drying period. Bulbs are usually tied together and strung up to dry. Many herbs and roots are suitable for drying in a dehydrator, see the manufacturer's instructions for the ones that work best with your particular model. In humid climates, such an appliance may be a necessity to insure even and complete drying without mold.
The dried portions can then be stored according to your needs. Roots are usually ground into powder for use, or left in small chunks for uses in decoctions, tinctures, and syrups. Leaves are stored in their entirety, or crumbled for use in teas. The same applies for blossoms. Store all of your herbs in air-tight containers, and keep them out of the light in a cool area. The best containers to use are colored glass. The herb then does not pick up impurities from plastics, and does not eat through your plastics, as can happen. If you don't have dark colored glass, then keep them in a dark area. Light can often break down the healing properties of your gathered herbs, shortening their shelf life and rendering them nearly useless after a short period of time. If stored properly, the shelf life of dried herbs is approximately one to two years for leaves, berries, roots and flowers. Tinctures can be stored for to two to five years. Capsules should be used within one year. Once an herb has been ground, it shortens the amount of time the herb is effective, so do pay careful attention to when you have purchased or stored an herb, for maximum effectiveness.
Fresh herbs can also be frozen. This works best with seeds, leaves, and flowers. First wash your herbs thoroughly, then allow them to air-dry. You can place them in freezer bags, or other freezer-safe containers. You can grind the fresh herbs and then freeze them, if you wish. I like to blend together various combinations, grind them fine, and then use ice cube trays to freeze them into useable blocks, then store in a freezer-safe container.
If you wish to use your herbs decoratively, you can of course always dry them as you do any other dried flower or plant material and use them in pretty arrangements. You can also press them for use in arts and crafts. They can be incorporated into soaps, recipes, potpourris, natural cosmetics and salves, anything you can imagine!
Don't forget to label your herbs, regardless of the method you use to preserve them, and be sure to add the date that you preserved them as well, to help you keep track of shelf life. Most of all, know what you are using, and have some fun!
About the AuthorI am a nationally certified Naturopathic Doctor, certified by the American Naturopathic Medical Certification & Accreditation Board of Washington, DC., and a member of the ANMA (American Naturopathic Medical Association). I work towards teaching people preventative natural medicine and proper nutrition, while treating what ails them - an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure, especially in today's world. I have been working with medicinal herbs for over 16 years. I own and operate the Natural Wellness Center, a clinic for everyone, free of discrimination.
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