Tips for harvesting medicinal herbs

Correct plant identification is very important when harvesting wild herbs. To harvest wild medicinal herbs, you have to know what is what. Never trust a photo when gathering wild herbs. Cleavers look a lot like a type of wild mustard that can cause irritation. A person thinking they are using cleavers in home-made deodorant quickly realizes something is wrong when the armpits start burning and itching. Other mistakes are more dangerous. The best way to identify any herb is with the help of an experienced relative, neighbor, or friend. A good field guide is your next best bet. Medicinal herbs can be identified by color, leaf shape, stem shape, growth pattern, smell, and habitat. Never harvest anything that you cannot identify. Poisonous plants can cause rash, stomach upset, and even death.

Little girl in the woods with flower
Photo of girl in woods -- courtesy of

Most medicinal herbs can be found in shady, moist places. Peak harvest season is from mid-summer to late fall.

Harvest medicinal herbs in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.

Harvest herbs in spring (chickweed), summer (basil), fall (yellowroot), and winter (rosehips). Many wild herbs are free for the picking. Mullein, mountain mint, bee balm, blackberry leaf, yarrow, plantain, chickweed, cleavers, red clover, and nettle (just to name a few) grow in fields, meadows, and most yards. Always ask permission before harvesting plants on someone else's property. Do not harvest plants that have been sprayed or exposed to car fumes.

Harvesting wild herbs comes with risks.

There are some risks when gathering wild herbs. To repel chiggers and ticks rub socks, shoes, and pants legs with lavender essential oil . Dusting shoes with sulfur before stomping through weeds is also effective. Once a chigger bites, there's not a whole lot you can do although itching can be treated with peppermint, chickweed, and hot compresses.

Watch out for poison oak, ivy, and shoemake (poison sumac). If you realize that you are in a patch of poison oak or ivy, look around for some jewelweed (with small orange flowers) and rub the juicy leaves on exposed area immediately. Jewelweed is often found growing near poisonous plants and may help stop harmful reactions. If you are near water, wash well for at least five minutes.

Carry gloves and watch out for snakes when harvesting wild herbs.

Gloves are required when gathering stinging nettle. Watch out for copperheads and rattlers -- although they usually slip away undetected and cause no harm. Wear sunscreen and if you are allergic to bees, have a bee-sting kit on hand.

Harvest mullein, mint, and bee balm in July.

Mullein leaves are at their peak in July and still have a few flowers left if there haven't been a lot of strong winds. Mountain mint makes excellent iced tea so gather some of that, too. In July, bee balm leaves are at just the right stage for powerful bedtime potions.

Harvest just before herbs start to flower.

Many people grow culinary herbs in their backyards. Rosemary, thyme, lavender, chives, cilantro, sage, basil, fennel, garlic, dill, peppermint, spearmint, and parsley are southern favorites. Most culinary herbs are at their peak of flavor just before or during flowering so harvest may begin in June or July.

Harvest wild herbs on a dry day.

Do not harvest leafy herbs right after a shower or when the dew is on the leaves. Harvest on a dry day. After cutting, shake off all bugs and debris. Do not gather dusty herbs or you will have to wash them before drying which can cause mold. Do not gather any herbs that show signs of mildew or disease.

Store extra herbs for later use.

Fresh herbs must be prepared for storage if not used within a few days. There are many ways to preserve leafy herbs. Dehydration, infused oils, tinctures, ointments, and even the freezer can capture healing properties for winter use. Leafy green herbs like basil and tarragon can be chopped and frozen with olive oil or water in ice cube trays for use in the kitchen. Once frozen solid, put individual cubes in a freezer bag and add as needed to stews, gravies, and soups.

Store by drying -- do not crowd leaves.

The traditional way to prepare herbs for storage is dehydration or drying. Hang upside down in a well ventilated, dark place with a temperature around 75 degrees. Make sure that air circulation is good. Do not crowd the green plants when drying. Mold is easily prevented if air flow is good.

When herbs are dry, store in airtight containers.

Herbs should be dry in a week. Strip off leaves from stems when brittle and store in a clean glass container with an airtight lid. Herbs can also be stored in paper or cloth bags. Watch for bugs, mold, and mildew. Discard all herbs that are suspect. Label containers with variety and date. Keep the containers in a dark, cool place for best results. Most dried herbs will keep between twelve and eighteen months before losing their culinary flavors and medicinal properties.

Large leaves like mullein can be harvested and dried individually. Smaller leaves like bee balm are best left on the stem. Gather leaves of deciduous herbs just before flowering and evergreen herbs like rosemary throughout the year.

Dry herbal flower tops on wooden or woven bamboo trays.

When harvesting flower tops like chamomile or calendula, gather after dew has evaporated. Cut heads from stems and dry whole on trays. Always remove dirt and insects before drying.

Harvest herb seeds when seeds are almost ripe.

When harvesting seeds, pick entire plant when seeds are almost ripe. Hang upside down over paper out of direct sunlight. Seeds should fall off when ripe, usually within two weeks.

Harvest herbal roots, wash, and chop before drying.

When harvesting medicinal roots, wash and chop while fresh. Gather most roosts in autumn -- except for dandelion which is harvested in spring. Spread roots on cookie sheet and dry for 3 or 4 hours in a warm oven. Transfer to a warm, sunny room to complete the drying process. Sometimes dried roots will absorb moisture from the air. They will become soft or moldy and must be discarded.

Harvest tree sap in the autumn.

Harvest tree sap and resin in the autumn when sap is falling by making a deep incision in the bark. Collect in a cup. Harvest juice from plants like aloe any time. Squeeze sap into a bowl or cut the leaf and scrap with a knife.

Harvest medicinal fruit when ripe but not mushy.

Harvest fruit like rose hips when almost ripe but not mushy. Spread on trays to dry. Turn fleshy fruits frequently. Discard any fruit that shows signs of rot or mold.

Harvest bark in autumn.

Harvest bark like white willow and wild cherry in autumn. This minimizes damage to tree. Don’t remove a complete band unless you plan to kill the tree! Dust off bark to remove dirt, moss, and insects. Break into pieces and dry.

Harvest bulbs in late summer or early fall.

Bulbs like garlic should be harvested when aerial parts have wilted.

Medicinal herbs are living medicines.

They are a gift from God and should be treated with respect. Herbal medicine is an art that everyone can learn. When a person handles and works with a certain herb, a relationship is formed.

Please remember that most herbal remedies are not quick fixes.

Herbal medicines take time to work. Many people give up after a couple of days. When there's a choice of herbs to use, let your body be your guide. If one herb smells unpleasant to you and another smells good then choose the one that pleases you. If you have a known allergy to any plant, be careful using any of its relatives. Listen to what your body tells you.

Grow herbs in the right locations and they will thrive.

Culinary herbs usually need well drained soil, plenty of sunlight, and protection from wind. Medicinal herbs usually like partial shade. Most medicinal herbs are native to woodland settings. They grow best in moist, rich soil.

Tall herbs like angelica, comfrey, fennel, mullein, and foxglove should be placed in the back of a border. Calendula, sage, and cilantro work in the middle while thyme and oregano should be out front.

Read about teas and getting herbs into the body.

* Never gather herbs that are on an endangered plant list. Always leave some specimens to reproduce and just take what you will actually use. Digging ginseng usually requires a permit. Always consult with a healthcare professional before using any herbal remedy especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking other medicines.

Payne Mountain Farms

Buy yellowroot and other wild-harvested herbs at Payne Mountain Farms.

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Herb Articles by Janice Boling

"The only way to really learn about herbal medicine is to touch and smell herbs, taste them, use them daily, and grow them if possible. Herbal medicine is a way of life. It is not a quick fix." ... , herbalist, web designer, writer, photographer

"Ointment and Perfume Rejoice the Heart." Proverbs 27:9

Every Green Herb is a place to learn about medicinal herbs and essential oils. Visit my online store to buy wild harvested yellowroot, mullein, bee balm, and other herbal products at Payne Mountain Farms.

* Note - the information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

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