Gathering herbs

Gathering herbs is a wonderful task. I really love going into my garden and picking some fresh herbs and using those herbs either in cooking or as a part of some remedy. Not all medicinal plants are cultivated. Though the trend toward cultivating such species is growing, many still come from forest, desert and meadow wildlands.

Guidelines for gathering herbs

Medicinal plants are an important part of our lives. They provide us with medicines, food, and beauty products. In return, there are things we can do to help ensure their survival into the future.

Much research has gone into the effects of the plants' growth cycles, daily rhythms and climate on the chemical composition of the plants. The active components are found at different levels at different times of the day, of the month and of the growth cycle.

However there are some generalisations that can be made. The levels of active constituents is the highest at the end of the period of most active growth. The plants should then be gathered as follows:

  • barks in the spring,
  • leaves before the plant flowers,
  • flowers on the first day of opening, and
  • roots are best in the autumn (although they are sometimes harvested in spring, prior to the aerial plant development).

When lifting a root an effort must be made to get out the entire root, so a long spade or fork is needed.

A day without rain which has been sunny since dawn is ideal for gathering herbs. Too much heat in the day dries the oils out of the leaves, so try to pick them in the cool of the morning.

Only the best shaped, greenest leaves should be picked. Any leaves that are imperfect (insect bitten, stained, or withered) should be discarded. When the whole plant is harvested the leaves that are close to the root will usually be imperfect.

Whether gathering from your own garden or in the wild you will need to harvest selectively so that you don't kill the mother plants. You need to cut the leaves or the parts of the plant with a sharp knife or secateurs - pulling the parts off the plant by hand may damage the tender stems. This may lead to a delay in new growth or allow the entry point into the plant for fungus or insects.

When gathering the herbs in the wild be sure that you gather them:

  • in an area free of chemical or industrial pollution of air, water and soil.
  • at least 1/4 mile from any travelled roads, and
  • at least 10 miles from any waste disposal or toxic dumping areas.

Protect the area from over-gathering by leaving at least 3/4 of the stand intact for reproduction and continuance of the species. If roots are dug, root crowns and seeds should be replanted to perpetuate the growth of the plant.

It is vitally important to properly identify the plant you are harvesting before you use it - this is particularly the case if you are gathering from the wild. There is a range of plant identification books for particular regions, and medicinal plant hand books that are sources of botanical identification. It is wise do a course on plant identification and use or go with an experienced guide when you are in the early learning stages.

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Drying herbs

Herbs leaves, stems and flowers should be dried by spreading them in loose single layers on a flat drying surface. Wire cooling racks (like the ones from the kitchen) may be useful as they allow the air to circulate around the herbs and there will be a shorter drying time.

The drying can be done in the sunlight or the shade. The shade takes longer but it does seem to preserve more of the herb's aroma. You can also dry herbs in paper bags, just don't make the bag too full and be sure to write the gathering date on the outside of the bag. Check the paper bags in about a week and if they're not drying (they should be papery and crumbly to touch) spread them on a flat surface in a dry, dark area. Then they will dry before moulds attack.

The amount of time that they need to dry will vary according to the plant and the conditions. If it is arid the herbs may dry too quickly, especially if they are in the direct sunlight. If it is humid or overcast or foggy, you may have to use the addition of heat - baking the herbs in an oven to remove the moisture.

Root are the most difficult part of the herb to dry. The only real way to remove the excess soil from the root is to wash it - scrubbing when necessary. The stems and rootlets should then be cut off and large roots, such as Liquorice and Burdock, may be sliced to hasten drying.

Spread the roots out so they do not touch or they can be tied singly in a string in a shed or greenhouse for about 10 days, being turned and inspected every day. When they have started to shrink (roots loose about 3/4 of their weight in drying) they can be finished off in a cool oven. Roots are dry when they are brittle

To dry bulbs and corms, tie them up in small bunches like onions in a shed. Keep a watch over them to see that they are drying evenly.

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Storing herbs

When the herb is dried (whether root, leaves stem or flower) they should be placed into a dry container. The material needs to be handled with care as it will break easily.

Herbs which contain volatile oils should not be stored in boxes or sacks as these materials absorb the oils from the herbs. Use glazed ceramic or dark glass containers with tight fitting lids.

They need to be stored away from direct sunlight or heat as these rob the herbs of their potency. Enjoy your herbs!

References

Duke, J.A. 2000, Anti-aging Prescriptions. Rodale.

Hoffman, D. 2000, The New Holistic Herbal. Element Pub.

McGrath, W.R. 1991, Common Herbs for Common Illnesses. American Survival Guide.

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