Harvesting Medicinal Herbs

Where:

Herbs should be harvested in clean, unpolluted areas away from roadsides, sprayed farm fields, toxic dump sites or other suspect activity. Harvest in places where there is an abundance of the plant you are gathering.  A general rule of thumb is to only gather 1/3 or less of the same species in any given area to ensure sustainable harvest sites.

When:

Harvesting medicinal herbs is best done in the morning just after the dew has dried, early evening, or any time on dry cloudy days.

Harvesting by the moon:

Many herbalists believe that the plant medicines are strongest when harvested in harmony with the cycles of the moon.  Traditionally, the underground parts of the plant are harvested at the dark of the moon, and the aboveground parts during the waxing or full moon.

Thunderstorms:

Another auspicious time to gather herbs is just before a thunderstorm when the plants become very vibrant and electirified or charged, hence especially potent at that time.  Pay attention to the plants next time you experience a thunderstorm building up.

 

Rose in the nettle patchHow:

Harvesting herbs is really very simple, much like harvesting food from your garden.  Tools you may need are a shovel for roots, scissors or a sharp pocketknife for tough-stemmed plants, and a pruning saw to cut branches for barks.
Allow yourself time after a harvesting expedition to process the herbs before they wilt or lose vitality.

  • Roots:
    • Roots are gathered in spring and fall.  This is when the ‘energy’ and nutrients of the plant is concentrated in the roots and they are considered most potent.
    • Roots need to be washed carefully-a vegetable brush works best-and then cut into small pieces and spread on trays or screens to dry.  A food processor works great to chop most roots.  Some people dry their roots whole, but I find them very difficult to use for teas and other formulas later.  Pre-cut roots are very handy and easy to use.
  • Leaves and flowers: 
    • Flowers: Harvest just before fully opened as they begin to wilt and lose their vitality soon after picking once fully bloomed.  Some recipes call for flower buds.  These are best picked when swollen but little or no flower color is visible yet.
    • Leaves: Leaves are best gathered before the plant makes its flower.  Plants concentrate much of their vitality into flowering and seed production, so leaves are considered less potent at that time.
    • Plants can be bundled together and hung to dry or spread loosely on screens or newspapers. Another method is to put them in brown paper bags and hang them on a clothesline in the sun.  This only works on dry, low humidity days.  A parked car with the windows rolled up in the sun can be a great drying place too.
  • Barks: 
    • Harvest barks when the sap is running, spring or fall.
    • Peel the bark off the branches in thin strips with a very sharp knife.  Then cut the strips into smaller pieces with sturdy scissors.  The inner bark is what you are after but it is okay to leave the outer bark on, too.  Spread on screens to dry.

Herbs should always be dried out of the direct sun.  Low oven drying is generally not recommended but occasionally is necessary in humid weather.  Many herbs contain precious volatile oils that easily evaporate with high heat.

Dried herbs should be stored out of the light.  Herbs have a limited shelf life so try to harvest only what you think you will use.  Leaves and flowers keep 1-2 years if cared for properly.  Roots, barks and seeds keep up to 3 years, sometimes longer.

Always be sure you have positively identified the plants before you harvest them.  Label all your herbs carefully with name of plant, date of harvest and any other information you might need.

Experience is the best teacher.  Happy harvesting!

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