Whether you are collecting the flowers, leaves or stems, you should always harvest them on a sunlit day and only when the dew has dispersed from the plants and prior to the garden being filled with the day’s full heat. In case the plants contain volatile oils, for instance, lemon balm and mints, it is best to harvest them immediately prior to noon. This is because the oils get enough time to move to the leaves, but they have not been evaporated by the heat of the day. As it has been found that rain sweeps away some amount of the aromatic volatile oils, it is advisable that you should wait for at least one day after a rainstorm and then harvest the leaves. Preferably, you should wait for two to three days prior to harvesting, as this will give the plants sufficient time to gather their essential oils.
In case it is still time for harvesting the whole plant, you should only consider selective harvesting, for instance, pruning the plant or the parts that are useful as an herb. At the same time, you should be careful not to collect more than just one-third of the harvest available, as this will help the plants to survive even after such selective harvesting. However, it would be much safer if you just picked one-fourth of the available harvest. Provided you are not sure as to the extent of selective harvesting the plants will be able to endure, you need to start by harvesting just one-tenth of the available harvest. In addition, you need to ensure that you monitor the herbs during the current season as well as the subsequent season, and properly note the effect of the selective harvesting on them.
There are several things that you must remember and be careful about while collecting herbs. For instance, it is important that you do not harvest any unhealthy plant or collect the plants from any site where they may have come in contact with toxic fumes emitted from cars or the harmful chemicals used for cultivation. You can control this aspect much better if you grow the plants in your garden, rather than picking them from anywhere in the wild. In addition, scavengers ought to be very cautious not to encroach on any private property or perturb the habitat while collecting the plants. At the same time, foragers ought to be extremely skilled so that they are able to keep away from wild locations where pesticides or herbicides have been sprayed. Also be careful to stay away from collecting herbs that may have grown along the highways, close to farm fields (unless you are certain that organic farming is undertaken in a particular field), forest lands where pesticides may have been sprayed to repel gypsy moths during the summer, marshes where insecticides may have been sprayed to eliminate mosquitoes and also places near the fence of your neighbor if he/ she has been using herbicides or pesticides on their lawns.
You can very easily collect the flowers, leaves or stems of young, non-woody stemmed plants using a sharp knife or scissors. However, you will be requiring small shears meant for pruning if you are harvesting woody or tough stemmed plants.
Speaking generally, it is much better for the plants you harvest and also for the ensuing dried out herb, if you harvest their entire stems or branches, instead of removing the leaves and allowing the stripped branches and stems to remain on the plant. It is very easy to harvest the entire plants if they have flexible stems like those of oregano, mint, lavender and pennyroyal and strip their leaves afterwards when they have been dried. While you are stripping the dried out herb from the branches or stems, you should be careful to ensure that the leaves remain whole – at least as far as achievable. When you do this, it helps in preserving the healing properties of the herbs for a longer period. Remember to put on your gloves if you are harvesting any prickly or hairy plants, such as borage, comfrey, mullein or nettle to ensure that you are not hurt or you do not come in contact with the prickles or hairs.
If you are careful, as you are while pruning any plant, it is also possible to harvest different material from plants having relatively woody stems as well as from different parts of trees. While it is comparatively easy to harvest some parts of the plants, for instance, elderberry leaves and oak leaves, which can be picked individually, in general, harvesting the plants by stripping their entire branches and removing the leaves later when they are dry, is a much better harvesting method. In case you only plan to use the leaves of an herb, dangle the branches of the herb in bunches upside down for some days. Hanging the branches in this manner will facilitate the movement of the sap contained by the branches or stems to the leaves. Subsequently, you should lay the leaves out on screens in slight layers till they become dry. However, if you intend to use the entire branch, you need not hang it.
Harvesting roots and bark
While unearthing the roots of some plants is quite easy, digging up the roots of some others is really challenging. For instance, if you are excavating the roots of any herbaceous plant like comfrey, dandelion or dock, the job is quite simple, provided you have prepared their growing bed in the proper manner. To cultivate plants having elongated roots you ought to make a deep bed, which is permeable and well aerated, as this will help you in digging up the roots manually later. However, digging up the roots of plants growing in the wild and in compacted soil is like a challenge. It will be helpful to dig out the roots of such plants if you use a shovel having an elongated and slender blade at its end. It is advisable that you use this shovel to make a hole deep down on any side of the plant’s root. Then start removing the soil gradually adjacent to the hole and in the direction of the root. After the soil on the side of the root has become loose, just drag the root to one side and into the hole. When you adopt this method, it will cause less damage to the root compared to that caused by digging down on all sides of the root and directly pulling the root up. This is all the more important if the root is longer that the length of one shovel.
A lot of times, the therapeutic properties of a tree are found in their branches, trunks, or the internal bark of the roots. As a result of this, the harvester is faced with more problems. When he tries to remove the bark from the tree, it not only injures the plant, but also damages it. Moreover, evacuating the roots of such trees is similarly harrowing. In such situations, using the bark of the trees’ branches that may in any case require pruning, instead of severely damaging a vigorously growing tree is an easy and straightforward solution.
However, the bark of the tree itself or the trunk is more effective compared to the branches’ bark, while the bark of their roots is further potent compared to the bark of the trunk. Therefore, one way to avoid cutting strong living trees for their herbal content is to search for trees that are being felled in any case. In case you are harvesting from a woodlot owned by you or your private orchard, you may also choose the trees that may require removing or pruning. For instance, to harvest the bark of the trunk or roots, you may select the trees in your orchard that have grown very old and need to be removed. You may also select young trees that require pruning or trees which require removing for the reason that they have become an obstruction for your house, a road, a scenic beauty or even coming in the way of a scenic beauty. Similarly, you may also use trees that have already been injured by animals, cars, lightening or weather for this purpose.
It is also possible to collect the barks of the roots of healthy trees quite safely, provided you are careful and undertake the harvesting in a manner like pruning to the tree roots mildly. In order to harvest the roots of a living tree, you should make a hole at the farthest point on the periphery of the tree’s root. The circumference of the roots of the tree will approximately be parallel to the perimeter of the branches of the tree. Similar to the bark of the tree, the bark of its roots becomes thicker with the maturation of the tree and, hence, you will not be able to obtain much bark from the young trees. Moreover, the root bark of young trees is not potent. You need to be very cautious while harvesting the root bark and ensure that you do not cut the main roots of the tree. Prior to harvesting the root bark, you must locate a medium-sized root (harvesting the root bark of smaller trees will not yield therapeutically potent barks) and use a saw, an axe, or pruning clippers (as may be necessary) to cut the roots cleanly and without causing much injury to the tree.
It is worth mentioning here that rather than using the bark of the trunk of a full-grown tree, you may also use the twigs as well as the small branches of a tree for therapeutic purposes. Ideally, such twigs and branches should be cut during the spring, as the sap rises to its maximum at this time of the year. You may consider this method to be similar to pruning. Remove the inner bark of these small branches and slice them into small parts prior to laying them out for drying. If you have collected tiny twigs, simply cut them and then spread them for drying.
Most commonly, herbalists use the living cambium (the layer of subtle meristematic tissue found between the inner bark and the wood) layer of the trunks, branches and roots for therapeutic purposes. The technique employed to open up this delicate inner bark may possibly be different for each tree. At the outset, you may scrape, cut, chop or even use force to open the rough outer bark. You may use several different types of implements to achieve this, for instance a knife having razor-sharp blade and point is excellent for scraping the bark from the roots, which are usually neither very chunky nor hard. Similarly, you may use a small, incisive hatchet to separate fragments of the inner bark from the branches’ heartwood harvested by you. You may also use a big chisel plus a hammer for peeling the inner bark. Provided you are familiar with handling a machete, you can use this implement for removing the external and even the inner bark.
Irrespective of the implement you may be using for harvesting herbs, you should ensure that it should be sharp, easy to hold and also be handled easily. Once the parts of the external bark have been removed, chop it down all the way through the cambium stratum using a chisel or knife, subject to the hardness of the bark and the thickness of the wood. Subsequently, take away the inner bark of the tree in chips, squares or strips, depending on which is easier. Next, slice the inner bark into little pieces prior to drying it for many weeks in a shady place or in any warm site.
Whether or not you are harvesting the plants in your backyard, herbal garden, on a land belonging to your neighbor or in the forest lands, always remember to carry containers for the harvesting. In addition, these containers ought to be dirt free as well as lightweight and they should permit proper ventilation for the herbs to remain fresh and not dry prematurely. You may also use flexible baskets having handles, dirt free drawstring bags that have been made using burlap or any other cloth, bags made with double canvas that sling from your shoulder or shoulder straps for this purpose.
When the harvesting of the plant parts is complete, you should try to your best to restrict them from coming in contact with sunlight and make preparations for drying them up at the earliest. In addition, if you are transporting the herbs by any vehicle to dry them, you need to ensure that they are protected from heat, dust and wind. Provided you are transporting the herbs employing a pickup truck, you need to use a trap to wrap the bed. On the other hand, if you are piling the herbs in a car, ensure that the windows are open, as it will help to keep the temperature inside the vehicle down and also help in preventing them from drying up ahead of time. Nevertheless, use a light cloth to provide shade to the herbs as well as shield them from sunlight.