At this time of year my access to fresh herbs (and food) dwindles with the change of seasons and I have to switch from remedies utilizing freshly picked herbs to processing and preserving for fall and winter. Like gardeners preparing fruits and veggies for storage by canning, pickling, jams, and dehydrating, we herbalists do the same by making tinctures, infused oils, syrups, vinegars and drying.
Since the onset of the pandemic, folks are intuitively placing greater emphasis on home gardening and self reliance, plus it has been an enjoyable pastime during lockdowns. With the enthusiasm for gardening comes the happy task of dealing with the inevitability of abundance.
Just like anyone can learn to preserve food, so too can folks learn herbal preservation and home remedy making.
The most basic preservation method is drying. Drying methods vary, depending on the growth form of the plant and the part used. I have outlined various examples below:
Tall stems, leaf and flower – goldenrod, yarrow, vervain, mugwort, fireweed, mint, motherwort, St. John’s wort, nettle, meadowsweet
These can be tied in bundles of 2-3, at the base of the stems. Fewer stems allow better air flow and less chance of mold. Hang upside down in a well-ventilated room. Once dry, run fingers along the stem to slide off the leaf and flower.
Short stems, leaf and flower – violet, self-heal, thyme, sage
Like with tall stems, or use drying racks. Simple drying racks can be made with window screens, or mesh stretched between two chairs. Turn the plant every few days for even air flow.
Flowers or leaves – calendula, red clover, rose, plantain, lady’s mantle, dandelion, marshmallow, Labrador tea, sweet fern
Drying racks or baskets, single layer, turn every few days.
Fleshy (high moisture content) leaves and all roots, fruits and barks – mullein, comfrey, rosehips, hawthorn, rowan, elderberry. (Root medicine article to follow in my next newsletter)
Dehydrator, sometimes a basket next to a heat source such as a wood stove or radiator.
Seeds – Queen Anne’s lace, dill, fennel, any seed for future planting
Let the seeds mature and dry on the stem, you can delay harvest until fall, or when the seeds turn from green to brown. After harvest, hang the plant by the stem, upside down, with a paper bag secured around the flower head containing the seeds. The seeds will completely dry and fall into the bag, give the flower a shake, seeds will fall when ready.
These are general guidelines, there are always exceptions for individual herbs, i.e., some tree barks dry well in baskets. Always harvest herbs for drying when they are dry, free from dew and rain. Dry all herbs out of direct sunlight, in a well-ventilated area. Drying times will depend on the inherent moisture content of the plant and humidity levels, roughly 2-4 weeks.
Storage – Herbs must be 100% dry before storage to prevent mold and spoilage, they should crumble and snap. Store in paper bags or glass jars, air tight and out of direct light. Be sure to write the name and date on storage containers.
Shelf life – Leaves and flowers can be kept for one year, roots, fruits, barks and seeds for two years. Some herbs have a shorter shelf life, such as echinacea, valerian, eyebright, chickweed, shepherds’ purse, and should be processed in some other way such as tinctures, vinegars and oils; I don’t use these herbs in dry form in my practice. There are other herbs I prefer to use only fresh, in teas and tinctures, such as St. John’s Wort.
Dried herbs are versatile in that they can be used in cooking, as teas, or transformed into many other preparations. In some cases, it is advantageous to use dry herbs instead of fresh, notably infused oils and vinegars where the introduction of water from fresh plants can increase chances of spoilage.
I am looking ahead to my fall and winter herbal needs, especially cold and flu remedies and herbs to support my nervous system. I have a good supply of dry thyme, sage, marshmallow leaves, yarrow, skullcap and holy basil for teas and other preparations. What herbal needs might you be preparing for?