How to Choose High Quality Herbs and Herbal Remedies
Not all herbal remedies on the shelf are equally effective. Make sure you’re getting the best quality herbs and herbal medicine preparations by looking for these signs.
The potency of herbal medicines depends on many factors, such as growing conditions, proper harvest time, plant parts used, storage, contamination, and freshness.
Whether buying bulk dried herbs, small-batch preparations, or manufactured herbal products, this post will guide you in choosing quality herbal medicines, looking at all factors from the growth of the plant to its preparation in medicine. Some of these criteria may be found on a label, whereas others will be more difficult to determine; talking to your local herbalist or medicine maker is the best source for determining the quality of herbal preparations.
1. Choose the right herb
First, do your homework, or consult with a herbal practitioner. Not all herbs affect everyone the same, and some herbs can be unsafe for people with certain conditions or when taking medications. Before buying herbal preparations, it’s important to choose the right herb, know which parts of the plant have the desired medicine, and which method of preparation is most suitable for your needs.
Different parts of the plant can have different therapeutic uses. For example, the roots and leaves of stinging nettle contain an anti-inflammatory compound, but only the roots contain the steroid-like compounds, so you would need to choose the right plant and the right plant part to get the right medicine.
2. Plants are free from contaminants
Medicinal herbs should be organically grown or sustainably wildcrafted from an area free of contaminants. Wildcrafted herbs should be harvested in a clean environment away from traffic and other sources of pollution. Has the area been sprayed with herbicides such as glyphosate?
For plants from North America, look for USDA certified, wildcrafted, or other commitments to chemical-free agriculture. The label might say something like “Grown and cultivated without chemicals” meaning they should be free from pesticides, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, GMO’s, synthetic chemicals and are free from irradiation and chemical sterilization.
3. Plants are harvested at their peak.
Different plant parts should be harvested in particular stages of the plant’s growth to get the most potent medicine.
Leaves are generally gathered in spring before the plants flower. If all aerial parts are used, then the whole plant is harvested while the plant is in flower.
Flowers are harvested when just opened, before the wind or pollinators take the pollen.
Seeds are harvested when ripe, with a few exceptions, notably milky oat seeds, which are harvested when the seed is green and not fully ripe.
Roots are generally harvested after the aerial parts die down in fall.
High quality herbs are harvested at their peak to get the most medicinal benefit.
4. Only the most potent plant parts are included in the medicine.
Just because a plant is medicinal, it doesn’t mean the entire plant is medicinal, or has the desired therapeutic use. For example, the medicinal part of red clover includes the flower head and the few leaves surrounding the flower, but not all the aerial parts. If the product says “cut and sifted” then the whole plant was used, and the medicine will be less potent. Look for products that say “blossom”.
5. The Herbs Come From a Reputable Company
When purchasing herbs, look for well-established companies with a good reputation, and knowledge of their products. The adage “you get what you pay for” is often true. Herbal products may be adulterated, substituting or adding less expensive herbs to a preparation, weakening its effect.
Companies that process imported bulk dried herbs might be using herbs that have been irradiated or fumigated in transport.
If the herbs are wild-crafted, the company should also proclaim a commitment to a sustainable harvesting policy.
6. The Preparation and Dose are Appropriate to the Herb
Even with the best ingredients, prepared herbal products are not all equal. Here are some things to look out for in different types of preparations.
When choosing dried herbs, trust your senses.
High quality loose or bulk herbs should closely resemble the fresh plant in colour, texture, fragrance, and taste. The larger the pieces, the longer they will stay fresh.
For tinctures, the alcohol must be strong enough to extract the desired medicinal constituents, and the ratio of plant to alcohol is appropriate to the dose.
Tinctures are a preparation of herbs steeped in an alcohol-water mixture called the menstruum. Most herbal tinctures can be made with an alcohol strength in the range of 25-40%, but some constituents, especially resins, require a higher percentage of alcohol for extraction. For example, usnea requires at least 70 % to extract its anti-bacterial benefits. Calendula can be extracted at lower percentages for some medicinal properties, but must be extracted at 90% to extract the anti-fungal constituents from the resins.
The plant material in a tincture is called the marc. A knowledgeable medicine maker will know if a plant should be tinctured fresh or dried.
The strength of the tincture is written on the bottle as a ratio of plant to liquid (marc to menstruum).
1:1 means that there is an equal ratio of plant and liquid.
The first number is plant matter, and the second number is liquid, so a 1:5 tincture has 1 part plant matter for every 5 parts liquid, by weight. Therefore, as an example, a 1:2 tincture is much stronger than a 1:5 tincture. This means the dose would be lower, and you would need to buy less to get the same medicine. This should be noted when comparing herbal tinctures prices, the strength of the tincture should be reflected in the price.
Glycerites, which are water-glycerine preparations, should also have a ratio on the label, which represents the plant-to-glycerine ratio.
Herbal preparations vary widely, so here are some other considerations when purchasing herbal products.
- Does it list all medicinal and non-medicinal ingredients?
- Does it contain fillers? Some products may have a high ratio of benign ingredients or less potent herbs.
- What is the expiration date?
- Is the plant’s scientific name and plant part used on the label?
7. The Products are Fresh
Last but not least, even the highest quality herbs and herbal medicines don’t last forever. Tinctures have a very long shelf life due to the alcohol content, but other preparations such as glycerites, salves and dried or powdered herbs have a shorter shelf life.
The shelf life of dried herbs varies. Purchase dried herbs from places that have a high turnover and make orders frequently so you’re not getting herbs that have been on a shelf for a long time. Whole herbs last longer than ground or powdered herbs. Generally, dried leaves and flowers are viable for one year, dried roots, seeds and barks for up to two years.
For herbal preparations, the shelf life is dependant on the life of the solvent used to extract the medicine, ie. the oil, vinegar, honey, glycerine, and how readily microbes will grow in the preparation. Oil-based preparations are most likely to go off due to rancidity, or oxidation, whereas honeys and vinegars will go off because of the growth of microbes. Check the expiration date on products. For products without an expiration date, glycerites can last up to 3 years, and syrups and vinegars can last about a year in the fridge.
In general, medicines will be strongest from healthy plants, harvested at the right time of year, and getting the right plant parts for the medicine you want.
Keep these factors in mind the next time you buy herbs and you’ll always get the highest quality herbal medicine. It can be tempting to buy cheaper herbs or medicines, but as you can see, you might not be getting what you pay for by buying lower quality herbs. The best way to buy quality herbs and herbal remedies is to get to know herbalists in your area. Many herbal practitioners also make small batches of remedies, and they’ll be able to answer all your questions about the source, method, and ingredients. It’s always best to support local, but if they don’t make the medicines themselves, they’ll know which brands are best to order from.
If you want to harvest your own high quality herbs in the right season, you can download Bloom’s Harvest & Wildcrafting Calendar. It shows you what you can harvest in every month here in Nova Scotia.