Let’s Plant Some Herbs – Harvesting, Drying, Preserving and Storing Your Herbs.

Now for the heart of the medicinal herbs! Knowing how to properly harvest your medicinal herbs will increase the potency and efficacy of the preparations you create.

Let’s understand the terminology used to describe the parts of herbs {plant parts} when harvesting.

  • Berries and Seeds: These are the fruits of the plant, harvested when they are fully ripe {usually when they have turned a rich, deep color and have softened and matured}. Rub or brush away old flower parts and the remains of calyxes {plant material between the berry and the stem}, and halve larger seeds and berries to speed up their drying time.
  • Buds: This means just the flower in its unopened state. Harvest it without any stem.
  • Flower: Harvest flowers by removing the whole flowering head, with little or no stem attached. The ideal time to harvest is just as the flowers are opening, but you can collect fully open flowers, as well. When they have aged to the point where their petals are drooping, however, their medicine is not as strong. Do not wash flowers unless they are visibly dirty.
  • Flowering Tops: This term denotes the entire flowering portion of the herb, still attached to a few inches of plant stem and leaves. The tops are best for medicine when in early to full flower, and even in late flower, in a few cases {such as St. John’s wort}.
  • Herb: This refers to the aerial parts of the plant: leaves, stems, flowers, and buds {if present} and includes only the flexible portion of the stem {which usually means the top 6 to 9 inches of the plant}. The herb is at its most potent when it’s in early flower through the full flowering stage. Once it has started going to seed, the plant’s potency has already started to decline. Do not wash herbs unless they are quite dirty. These aerial parts are usually chopped or ground for medicine making, and the thickest part of the stem is often discarded after drying.
  • Leaf: Take the leaf and petiole {the tender stem holding the leaf}, and in some cases a very minimal amount of plant stem, if it’s fleshy. Leaves that have some insect damage are fine to use, but discard those that are browning or yellowing. Dust off the leaves and lightly rinse them if they’re dirty, blotting them dry before you make your medicine. Leave them whole for drying.
  • Root or rhizome: This refers to any below-soil roots, rhizomes {underground stems that have a root-like appearance}, and rootlet parts. You will mainly be harvesting roots of perennial, not annual, herbs. Dig them in the fall, winter, or early spring, when the plant has completely died back and all its energy has returned to the root for the winter months. If the plant is a biennial {such as angelica, burdock, and mullein}, harvest from the fall after the first year of growth through the spring of the second year, before the flowering stalk shoots up. If the plant is a perennial, the best year to harvest varies with each herb. Wash and clean roots after you dig them, cut off the crown {the point where the stem joins the roots}, and either make your medicinal preparation or chop the roots into small, uniform pieces for drying.
  • Strobile: In the case of hops, these are the cone-shaped flowering portions of the plant. Harvest them when they are maturing from green to yellowish brown.
  • Whole Plant: When you harvest the whole plant, you take the roots or rhizomes and rootlets {still attached to the crown}, the stems, leaves, flowers, and buds – everything. The best time to harvest a whole plant is usually when the plant is in early flower. Wash the root and remove any brown or decaying above-ground portion of the plant. Then separate the above-ground and root portions for drying, since roots take much longer to fully dehydrate.

When to Harvest Your Herbs:

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Follow the guidelines above for the correct time of year to harvest each plant part. In general, the best time of day to gather any of the above-ground portions of herbs is mid-morning or early evening. Start your harvest after the dew has dried but while the herbs are still cool, since excess moisture can lead to mold and blackened leaves. Herbs harvested in very hot weather or under the midday sun can bruise or wilt, causing them to lose their medicinal constituents {particularly their essential oil content}. Keep them in the shade while you are collecting, and do not pile them too thickly. Roots can be harvested at ant time of day that the ground can be worked, but not when there’s soggy soil: You’ll compact the soil and destroy all the aeration those under-ground critters have worked so hard to tunnel in. remember that the soil is home to beneficial earthworms and a host of other allies.

Plan ahead: Harvest just before you make your medicinal preparations, or prepare and dry them immediately. Herbs will begin to lose potency a soon as they are harvested. Keep them in the shade while you’re working, and if you need to hold them for a time, be sure to refrigerate them right away. The faster they cool, the fresher they will stay.

After harvesting, wash them as little as possible. Do not drench your herbs unless they are caked with mud or extremely dusty. You can fill a sink or bucket with water and, holding a bunch firmly, swish the tops quickly. Gently shake off the excess water and blot them dry, or lay them out on paper or cloth towels to dry.

The Right Tools for Harvesting Your Herbs:

It’s important to use the right tool for the job. Use scissors that you have dedicated to your herbs to harvest very fragile flowers, stems, and leaves. Invest in a good-quality pair of clippers for sturdier plant parts; this will be your most frequently used tool, so buy the best. A hand trowel is versatile, especially if it has a thinner profile for maneuvering in smaller spots. If you’re gardening outside, use a digging fork rather than a shovel for most root-digging harvests. A fork is gentler on the roots, lifts them out more efficiently, and disturbs the surrounding area the least.

Always use clean tools when you’re digging and clipping plants. It’s often recommended that clippers be dipped in a weak bleach solution and rinsed periodically to disinfect them, especially before taking stem cuttings or after pruning a diseased plant.

Drying, Preserving and Storing Your Herbs:

Since you can’t have fresh herbs year-round, and because you do not always use everything you harvest, a drying area at home is the key to preserving your bounty and building your home medicine chest. There are three elements necessary to dry herbs effectively and safeguard their medicinal potency.

  • Darkness: The most crucial factor is to avoid drying your herbs in direct sunlight. Generally speaking, the darker your drying area, the better {although there are a few exceptions, such as some roots}. You can use a closet, a cupboard, an old oven, an attic, or even a barn loft for drying. If you use an area in an open room, be sure to store herbs immediately after they dry, or their color {and their medicinal components} will fade before too long.
  • Air circulation: Choose a breezy area or keep air moving throughout the drying arae so your herbs will dry evenly and quickly, before mold can grow. Even in foggy or damp weather, you can set up a fan to counteract moisture buildup. The percentage of moisture in the air should be 25 percent or less. {You can gauge it with a hydrometer.} If humidity is an ongoing problem, you may want to invest in a small, potable dehumidifier.
  • Heat: A steady heat source really makes a difference in the time it takes to fully dry herbs. You can set up your drying system near a wood-stove or radiator or in a hot water heater closet. You can also make use of the heat rising up to your attic or into your uninsulated summer garage. Forced air dryers, such as food dehydrators, are great for small quantities of herbs, and for larger batches, you can find plans and sample designs for electric and solar dryers online. The ideal temperature for drying most leafy plant material is 90 degrees to 110 degrees F; for thicker, woodier parts, the temperature can go up to 120 degrees F. But you can dry herbs effectively at a typical range of indoor home temperatures if you have good airflow.

Drying Racks:

To dry herbs quickly and evenly, set up screens or racks and lay individual leaves, flowers, berries, and root slices on them.

You’ll get excellent airflow on all sides, and you can move the racks around easily. Window screens or screen doors can be set on blocks, boxes, or any kind of support. You can stretch shade cloth, netting, or fabric over wooden frames, racks, poles, or sawhorses to use as a drying surface {but do not use synthetic sheets because air doesn’t pass through the fibers well}. In a pinch, you can lay herbs on butcher paper or art stock spread over tables, taking care to turn and fluff the material frequently. Be sure to brush off the drying racks or other surface before each use to remove dust and particles from previously dried batches.

Spread your plant material thinly, without clumping or piling it. If you’re planning to dry roots or other parts that need to be cleaned, wash them immediately after harvesting, pat them dry, and spread them out on your drying racks. Try to keep all of the above-ground portions of herbs as whole as possible {you can sort them after they have dried}, but slice your roots to speed the drying time. Chop them into uniform-size pieces either horizontally {like carrot rounds} or vertically {like tongue depressors} if they’re large enough, so they dry evenly.

Turn over the herbs daily until they’re completely dry. This avoids uneven drying where plant parts overlap and pockets of moisture hide. Some very delicate flowers shouldn’t be turned because they’ll bruise and break, but most other leafy plants will need to be turned at least twice before they are crispy and dry.

Dehydrators:

A food dehydrator is handy for drying small batches of herbs, especially leaves that are separated from their stems. It’s a bit of a financial investment, but a fast and efficient food dehydrator can become the home herbalist’s favorite tool.

Hanging Your Herbs:

drying-herbs-1You can bunch long-stemmed herbs with elastics and hang them to dry. Take care not to create bunches that are too big or too dense, as this prevents air circulation in the center of the bunch, where molding can easily occur. The ideal bunch size at the elastic is the same as if you put your forefinger and thumb together in the shape of a circle. Thread a long length of twine or other sturdy line material through several bunches, like they’re hanging on a clothesline, and suspend the line somewhere warm, dry, out of direct sunlight, and convenient – like your kitchen, attic, or spare room. You can suspend bunches on hooks, clothes hangers, or even on a line hung along a wall. Just be sure to store them before they fade. This method is not ideal for leafy herbs that lose their color and potency rapidly {such as spearmint, lemon balm, and oregano}; be sure to store these herbs immediately after they have completely dried.

You can also place your loose herbs in paper bags and hang them in a warm or sunny place. The paper protects the herbs from light and allows air circulation. You can even punch tiny holes in the bag to increase airflow. Shake the bag every day or two so the herbs don’t clump, and check them for dryness after a week. This is a great way to dry flowers and save seeds: Remove the entire flower-head or seed-head with a nice, long stem; carefully lower it, flower pointed down, into a bag; and cinch the top of the bag loosely so debris and dust do not enter.

Oven Drying:

Oven drying is a fast and slightly unpredictable method of drying herbs, yet it’s a good choice if you need to dry herbs quickly or if you don’t have ideal conditions to dry dense roots or big berries that might mold over time. Herbs dry very quickly in the oven, so you will need to pay attention. Place the plant material on a cookie sheet, and turn the oven to the pilot light or lowest possible setting, taking care to leave the oven door open during the whole process. This is a touchy method, and it’s easy to over-dry delicate herbs because the temperature level is unpredictable.

We do not recommend drying medicinal herbs in the microwave.

Assessing Dryness:

No one who’s worked hard to plant and grow herbs wants to go to the cupboard to find a gray, fuzzy mass of moldy chamomile flowers a year after putting them in storage. To avoid this scenario, you need to carefully judge the dryness of your herbs. A completely dried herb will be brittle and breakable in your hand. If stems are still bending and leaves are still pliable, they are not dry. The woody stems and denser parts of the plants will take the longest to dry, so test them first. Flower-heads {such as calendula} might seem dry on the surface, but the interior could still be damp. Press your finger all the way into the center of the flower-head and feel for brittleness in the core of the head to be sure it’s dry all the way through. It’s a common mistake to bag up calendula flowers that are not fully dry and then find the entire crop lost. Be vigilant. You’ll find that atmospheric moisture will dramatically affect the final stages of drying: Herbs can reabsorb moisture overnight and be slightly damp in the morning, so wait until late afternoon to take your herbs off the drying racks so they have the heat of the day to get “crispy” dry.

Don’t leave your herbs on the drying racks or hanging in bunches for too long; remove them as soon as they feel completely crispy. If they keep drying beyond that point, they will soon brown and lose their medicinal and nutritional qualities. The end product of your efforts should resemble the living plant, both in color and texture. A good indicator of success is how recognizable your herb is as it sits in its storage container.

Fast-drying, delicate herbs generally take 3 to 5 days under ideal conditions and as long as 2 weeks in damp conditions. Roots and barks are denser and can take 2 weeks longer. Check your plants regularly, and make no assumptions about drying times.

Storing and Preserving Your Herbs:

Once your herbs are dry, put them in storage immediately. The best storage is clean, dry, dark, and cool. Glass jars, paper bags sealed tightly shut, stainless steel {non-aluminum}, and natural fiber containers work perfectly as long as they are airtight and protect from light and heat. If you need to use plastic bags temporarily, be sure the plastic is food-grade. {Avoid stiff white, gray, or black grocery bags.} Label your container with the name of the herb and the date.

Most flowers, leaves, and other above-ground portions of plants will retain their medicinal potency for a year {and in many cases, even longer} if stored correctly. Roots and barks can retain their potency for up to 2 years.

If your herbs are not carefully stored, you may find yourself with a pest problem: Mice just love dried elderberrries, astragalus roots, and rose hips. Moths may get into your containers and lay eggs on drying seeds, flowers, or berries. If you find a layer of minute brown particles at the bottom of a container, with webbing or disintegrating material among the pieces, you will have to discard your medicine. When this happens, set several insect traps in your storage area and monitor them daily. If the infestation hasn’t progressed too far or you’d like to make sure a batch is protected, put the herbs in a plastic bag in the freezer for 14 to 21 days. Make sure to let the bags return to room temperature before opening them.

Keep your herb-drying and storage areas sealed off from rodents, insects, and cats looking for a comfortable place to nap. Wash your hands before handling, turning, and bagging your herbs.

Freezing is an excellent way to preserve certain herbs, if you have the space for it. They will emerge from their frozen state somewhat discolored and mushy, but they will smell and taste potent.

Generally speaking, this applies to leaves and fleshy roots only {such as comfrey and burdock}, because flowers tend to lose their color and roots lose their texture.

You can freeze herbs two ways. With the first method, brush off or lightly wash the leaves or roots, chop them finely, and place them in closed plastic freezer bags that are labeled with the name of the herb and the date. Use them within a year. For the second method, brush off or lightly wash the leaves or roots, chop them coarsely, pop them into a food processor or blender with enough water to barely cover them, and process them until they are finely chopped or pureed but not paste. Pour this puree into ice cube trays and freeze. When the cubes are frozen solid, break them out and put them in freezer bags. Label and date the bags, put the herb cubes back into the freezer quickly, and use them before the year is out.

Now, after months of planting, growing, harvesting, and storing, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy knowing that you have created a home medicine chest that will give back for years to come!

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