Harvesting and Storing Medicinal Herbs
After nurturing our herbs, it is time to move onto one of the next steps … harvesting and storing medicinal herbs.
Harvesting Medicinal Herbs
Fresh herbs are generally preferred, but dried herbs work well for medicinal purposes. In fact, the active principles of an herb is sometimes increased by the drying process when done properly. This works out very well since herbs do not always grow well in the cold winter months when we often find we need to use them more frequently.
Different herbalists have varying opinions on the best time and way to harvest herbs for medicinal use. Having said that, there are some basic guidelines that should be followed.
There really are very few rules to consider when harvesting medicinal herbs. It is best to gather the herbs on a sunny dry morning right after the dew has evaporated. Damp and wet plants can mold or mildew. Therefore, harvest the herbs by cutting the stems in the mid-morning hours when they are still fresh and have not begun to wilt in the hot afternoon sun.
Herbs also need to be harvested before they start blooming. Once an herb begins to bloom it is preparing for reproduction and all of its energy will go into that process. This uses up some of the beneficial components of the herbs.
Pieces of the herbs can be plucked during the growing season to begin storing the harvest. This also stimulates additional growth, often encouraging bushiness and discouraging legginess. For this reason, many herbs are harvest late summer, right before the herbs begin to flower.
Drying Medicinal Herbs
To dry medicinal herbs, you will need a warm, shady place with good air circulation. Air drying herbs that have a lower moisture content like, thyme, oregano, rosemary or dill works well. But herbs with a higher moisture content, such as roots and heavier leaved/stemmed herbs, will dry better using a dehydrator after chopping them into 1-inch pieces.
Air Drying Requirements
To air dry herbs, cut the stems mid-morning as discussed earlier. Then remove any unhealthy leaves. If necessary, rinse the herbs and pat dry completely. When drying herbs, especially air drying, moisture is the enemy. Tie them together in small bundles of 4-6 stems using a rubber band or string. Remember that the stems will shrink and the rubber band or string will need to be checked and tightened periodically.
Once bundled, hang the bundles upside down as they are using the string or rubber band to attach them to a drying line.
Be sure to label them as you create you herb bundles. Many dried herbs look similar.
The ideal temperature ranges for the drying process is between 90⁰-100⁰ F. This is much warmer than a typical home so drying herbs in the home is not always the best option. Depending on your location, an air barn or well ventilated attic may be an option.
Air circulation is important so that any moisture evaporated from the herbs is moved away from them.
If the temperature isn’t right and the air circulation is not adequate, the herbs may mildew leading to spoilage.
The location also needs to be shady because direct sun bleaches out the herbs and bakes out the volatile oils making them less potent.
Keeping all of these conditions in mind, it is easy to see that a dehydrator is often the best alternative.
Herbs are sufficiently dry when they crackle between your fingers. Dried herbal flowers will still maintain their shape.
Storing Dried Medicinal Herbs
Once the herbs are sufficiently dried, they can be stored in airtight containers like canning jars or Ziploc bags. Rigid containers are best preventing the herbs from being crushed. If the herbs cannot be stored in total darkness, it is best to store them in ceramic jars or darkened-glass containers to prevent deterioration.
Be sure to label all storage containers with the name of the herb and the date stored.
It is recommended that the herbs be stored without grinding or powdering until needed for use. Grinding or powdering allows them to release their essential oils making them less potent when used later. When ready to use, a mortar and pestle works well.
Dried herbs can be stored for several years in a cool, dry place. They can maintain their full potency for up to one year. If you want to judge the potency of your herbs, smell them. The more fragrant the aroma, the more potent the herb.
Quick frozen herbs will keep for up to two years in the freezer. Use airtight Ziploc bags. Be sure to label these bags as well.
Photo credits: Photo 1 (hanging herbs), Photo 2 (handful of chives) is from the MorgueFiles, Photo 3 (drying screen), Photo 4 (coarse herb materials), Photo 5 (dried hanging herbs) is from the MorgueFiles, Photo 6 (jars of herbs) is from the MorgueFiles