Backyard Herbalism: Collecting, Drying and Storing Herbs
Ethical Concerns about What and Where to Collect Herbs
What? Ethical concerns?
Certainly! Whether you venture from your own backyard or not, there are things to consider when gathering from nature.
In brief, don't take all of what there is of a plant in any given area. Leave some to seed and grow for next year. And be aware, the plants you may want to collect could be endangered. Wild ginseng and goldenseal fall into this category. Here in Virginia there are laws regarding the collection of endangered plants. For the most part, unless you have a special permit, you can only collect endangered plants from your own land. In any case, don't gather plants from someone's land without their permission. While it might seem harmless on one hand, that property is still not yours to trample on.
How to Find Out about Endangered Plants in Your Area
- Endangered Species Program | Home Page
This website for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Endangered Species Program provides a search engine for looking up endangered species by state and county as well as by the species itself.
What Can You Collect on Public Lands?
- Collecting on Public Lands
Most plant parts can be collected on public lands, however, there are exceptions. Follow this link to where the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management provides information.
Toxins in Your Area? Could the herbs you collect be contaminated with toxins?
Know the area you are collecting in. You don't want to collect along a busy roadside where engine exhaust is settling on on the plants, nor do you want to collect near garbage sites, or other areas where toxins might have been dumped.
Supplies and Tools Needed for Collecting Herbs:
- A basket or bag to carry supplies and herbs.
- Sharp scissors or cutters.
- A hand trowel. For deep roots you may need a garden shovel or pitch-fork.
- Paper bags to put herbs in.
- Gardening gloves (optional).
Methods of Collecting Herbs
Flowers. Most flower heads can simply be plucked from their stems. I like to take the stem as well, though I discard it right away. This doesn't leave the plant feeding a flowerless stem when it could be sending that nourishment to other parts of the plant. Don't take all the flowers on a plant. Leave some to seed for next year. And leave some for the birds and the bees! In general, I suggest picking the blossom as it opens, not after it's in full bloom, for the best flavor and scent.
Leaves. Leaves can be collected individually, gathered on stems, or as part of the whole plant. I tend to take stems. This makes them easy to hang for drying. The whole plant is easier, but only if you're assured that more plants will grow next year, either from seed or root. After the leaves are dried, simply remove them from their stems. On a flowering plant I suggest collecting the leaves while the flowers are young buds, before the flowers feed on the leaves for their nutrition.
Roots. These can take a little work, especially if you're digging something like burdock that likes to reach deep down into the earth. Get as much of the root as you can, although leaving some pieces of root in some plants (like burdock) will insure it will come back next year. It is best to collect roots at the end of the growing season when they are rich with nutrients. Wash them after collecting and lay them out with lots of room for the water to dry before processing them for drying.
General Tips for Drying Herbs
Make sure there's plenty of air circulating where you dry your herbs. Some people use a fan in the room they select. A dry attic can work well if it's cool enough. Too much humidity and they might mold or just not taste right.
Avoid extremes in temperature. Too much heat can destroy nutrients you want to preserve. Nor do you want your herbs zapped by frost.
Avoid direct sunlight. Sunlight will destroy nutrients as well. Herbs exposed to excessive light loose their odor, flavor and color more rapidly.
There's no need to crush or chop your herbs once they're dry unless you need them to be a more managable size for storage. By leaving them intact the plant is less exposed to light and oxygen that can degrade them. Some things that are hard, like roots and bark, are better on the small size just because you want pieces that you don't have to try break up after they're dry and you're ready to use them.
I have a dry basement I like best as it is cool (but not cold) and dark down there.
Methods for Drying Herbs
- Hanging Herbs to Dry. This method is best for whole plants that are collected, with or without the roots. You can also hang individual stems. Generally these are plants from which the aerial parts are going to be used (leaves, stems, flowers). Simply tie a string around the base of the plant and hang from rafters or anywhere you have good air circulation. I recommend putting a tray or box under them to collect anything that falls from the plant as you move it around. If you are leaving the roots intact tie a paper bag around them first to prevent dirt from falling onto your herb. The benefit of this varies according to the plant but the theory is that the leaves continue to benefit from the nutrition the roots provide as they dry. The down side is that roots that contain a lot of moisture can slow down your drying time. I use this method when I grow herbs that don't have a purpose after harvesting.
- Drying Herbs in Paper Bags. You can place your herbs to be dried in paper bags and put them in a cool, dry area. This works best when single leaves or flowers are collected (rather than the whole plant). Don't pack the bag, just put a layer in the bottom of the bag and use more bags if you have more herb. I recommend giving the bag a shake once or twice a day as well as leaving the bag open to help air to circulate.
- Drying Herbs in Trays. Laying your herbs out in trays can be effective for leaves, flowers or roots. The roots should be cut or chopped into small chunks. You can use a solid tray but even better would be a tray made of mesh that allows the air to go through. A simple holder that allows you to stack trays can be made. I prefer this method for roots.
- Dehydrators. I have little experience with dehydrators but I know folks who have used them. They use a low heat and air flow to dry out your herbs and would be particulary good for roots and fleshy herbs that have a lot of moisture in them. The benefit is the short drying time.
Storing Your Dried Herbs
- Expiration. How long an herb will keep depends on the quality of the herb as well as appropriate storage. The best way to tell if an herb has been kept past its time is to check first its color and smell. If these have faded it is time to add it to the compost pile.
- Glass jars. This is the most recommended way to store herbs. Jars should be clean and the herbs dry before putting them in. Amber or blue jars are nice because they cut down on the herb's exposure to light but storing them in a cupboard will do this also. Label all your jars with the herb's name and the date of collection. Plastic bags work but jars are better. If you do use plastic bags make it for short term use.
- Oil Infusions. Herbal oils can be made from many herbs particularly flowers such as dandelion, calendula (aka pot marigold) and St. John's Wort. It's as simple as packing fresh flowers in a clean jar and covering with oil. I recommend grapeseed oil for its lightness but other, preferably cold-pressed, oils can be used. Olive oil is particularly good as it doesn't go rancid quickly. Tap the jar to get all the air bubbles to rise and top the jar off with oil to the very top. Put the lid on the jar loosely and leave the jar in the open where it can get the benefit of the moon and the sun. I recommend 4 weeks to allow your herb to infuse into the oil. This is a moon cycle, and to begin and end on the full moon is an easy way to remember. Some herbalists also believe the herb is stronger when harvested during the full moon due to energetic reasons. When it's done, strain the particulate matter out by pouring it through cheese cloth and then store in another clean jar. You may need to strain it more that once. A little cloud may settle into the bottom of the jar. Oil infusions are usually good for about a year, especially if stored in the refrigerator.
- Herbal Tinctures. Tinctures are a popular way to keep and use herbs. They may be made with alcohol, vegetable glycerin or, sometimes, vinegar. Typically a 1:1 ratio of herb to liquid is used but 1:2 or 1:4 may be used according to preference and whether the herb is dry or fresh. There are cool and warm methods. Techniques vary depending upon whether leaves and flowers, bark and woody parts, or roots are used, and what solvent is used. Some plants dissolve readily into an aqueous based solution like glycerin or vinegar while others need either the addition of heat or the strength of alcohol to extract their active constituents. Commercial tinctures are usually made with grain alcohol but a good vodka will suffice. Once you do them, tinctures are relatively simple, however, specific directions are beyond the scope of this article.