The Process of Processing Herbs


The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses.”

-Hannah Rion


 

A Word on WEEDS.:

Cultivate your weeds or know your weeds! Local weeds are excellent medicinal herbs. They may be the gateway to wildcrafting or growing herbs. Local weeds such as dandelion, burdock, nettle, plantain, and valerian are traced back as medicinal and edible sources that European settlers relied on when arriving in North America.

When teaching about plants, I like to start with weeds. They tend to be the most abundant and easiest to work with. Native plants, blessed be their medicinal properties, are more at risk or already are endangered. Over harvesting is quite a concern of environmentalists, herbalists, and plant conscious folk. I highly encourage starting with the weeds and learn how to properly I.D. a plant in the “wild”.

 

Herbal Gardens:

Medicinal and culinary herb gardens are a wonderful way to get acquainted with our green allies as well. There is a certainty in knowing the plant (if you planted it) and there’s nothing like walking out into your garden to harvest a plant. Growing herbs allows one to watch the life cycle of a plant from their kitchen window. You may gain a stronger relationship with that herb just by tending it.

And here’s where I have a little bit of bias-ness. I like to ethically harvest wild plants because they are “WILD”. Wild plants have to work for their way of life. No one is providing them with soil filled with nutrients. No one is watering them during a drought. Wild plants have a lot of nutrients and strong medicine within them. I prefer to work with wild plants, and I also respect them by harvesting “ethically”.

 

Harvesting the wild:

Take what is given and needed. Do not pick a plant if you will not use that plant. I tell this one to three-year-olds and forty-five year-olds. Once a person learns about a plant or gets into the lovely state of harvesting it is hard to stop your groove. But LISTEN, STOP. Only harvest what the land says is appropriate and what you truly need (most of the time if you have this discussion with the plant or land, you’ll know the appropriate amount).

 

My Harvesting Protocol:

-Harvest Abundance ONLY

-Be AWARE of your impact (LEAVE NO TRACE)

-Gather from HEALTHY plant communities

-Know where you are harvesting from (is it polluted? Do dogs pee there?etc.)

-Get Permission (Don’t harvest on private land without permission, this includes state and federal land)

-Harvest at the RIGHT TIME

-Be sure of the plant you are picking.

And spoken more poetically, check out Robin Wall Kimmerer's The Honorable Harvest.

So, when to harvest what? (A General Guideline)

BUDS & FLOWERS: Best harvest these when they are about to open. Much of the medicinal potency is lost when flowers are fully open. Also do you know how hard it is to tell whether a flower (such as a dandelion) has been pollinated? Once a flower is pollinated all of it’s energy is put into it’s ovaries (seeds) and the strength of medicine reduces.

 

LEAVES: Before the plant is in full bloom much of the medicinal strength lies within the leaves and stems. The leaves should clearly be fully developed. Be aware of the leaves you’re harvesting, make sure there aren’t any insect bites, discoloration indicates an unhealthy leaf or a leaf going through senescence (death), does it taste strong? Also, if you are harvesting leaves when the weather is warm, make sure to harvest in the morning or towards the evening to prevent wilting. Mints are best picked with the flowers in bloom and during the hottest part of the year, when their essential oils are thoroughly developed.

 

ROOTS: Harvest during the spring or fall to capture the energy of the plant while it’s still deep within the root or bulb. Biennial plants are best harvested in the early spring of their second year. And perennials have a lot more energy in their roots when the aerial parts die back in the fall.

 

Dry thy Herb:

Once the herb is harvested, the next step (according to James Green) is to “prolong its potency”. So, you can just eat it…getting all of the medicinal constituents, the flavonoids and minerals right there, already heading to the digestive system to be “processed”.  OR you can “process” the plant by making a tincture, oil, vinegar, oxymels/shrub, elixir, or honey OR you can simply dry the herb.

When drying an herb, how fast or slow is your herb drying? If you dry your herb too fast, most likely using too much heat, your herb will roast and lose its potency. Drying an herb too slow can either lead to molding or self-destruct by enzymatic actions.

 

Drying to the preserve potency:

-Dry your plant matter in a warm, shaded, well ventilated area, ideal temperature is 90-110 degrees Fahrenheit

-Do not bruise your leaves

-Minimal to know humidity is IDEAL

-Protect your herbs from direct sunlight (this can wilt or heat or take energy from the plant, changing its potency)

**Well-dried herbs keep their color… they do not change into a hay brown or brownish green…they stay vibrant!

 

If you live in the PNW and your house is prone to coldness or moisture (like mine), then a dehydrator is simply the best and most efficient way to secure high-quality dry herbs.

Dehydrator: Place herbs in single layer on drying racks. Stack racks. Turn dehydrator to 95-100 degrees and leave on for AT LEAST 2-3 days.

Bundling herbs for drying: Make small bundles. Wrap with rubber bands. Hang on clothesline and have them well-spaced in shaded location with warm air circulation.

Drying screens or baskets: Place herbs in single layer and space somewhat apart so they get good air circulation. I like to place my herbs on clean window screens and then store them on a wooden clothing/drying rack in front of the wood stove. I make sure that there is about 10-12 inches in between my screens. Again, allowing for good air flow.

 

Storing your dried herbs:

Dried herbs will be nice and crisp (or crunchy depending on the plant), also they will preserve their color. It takes about 2-4 days for most of my herbs to dry in a dehydrator, if that gives you any perspective on how dry they should be. Dried herbs can be garbled and stored in glass jars with tight-fitting lids.

 

Remember LIGHT, HEAT, MOISTURE and EXPOSURE TO AIR DETERIORATE DRIED PLANTS.