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Laurel's Herb Gathering & Storing Hints
Gathering & Drying Herbs
If using herbs for medicine, magick and crafts is an art, so is learning to identify, gather and properly preserve them. There are countless books on identifying wild herbs in each particular area; I recommend either the National Audoban Societyís publications or a Simon & Shuster field guide. Each will come complied specially for your area, and will have pictures, which is important; never use an herb that youíre unsure of, as many can be harmful and even fatal.
That said, there are many reasons to gather your own herbs from the wild. They are garanteed to be fresh, donít cost a fortune, and can be gathered according to the Moon or other correspondence, depending upon your needs. It is best, as a rule, to gather above-ground herbs during the waxing Moon, when their energy & power is in their leaves, stems and flowers; during the waning Moon, gather roots, bulbs and tubers. There are other systems that can be used, and a good magickal herbalism book will give you examples.
When you actually go to harvest the herbs, there are a few rules to follow.
1. Never gather from an endangered plant. Check your field guide or with your local extension agent to learn which plants are endangered; it is best not to gather ginseng or goldenseal at all anywhere, as it has been terribly ravaged by gatherers. Buy only farm-grown ginseng & goldenseal.
2. Never gather more than one third of the plant you are seeking. Donít prune more than 1/3 of the leaves or stems, and if pulling roots, donít pull more than 1/3 of the plants in the area. Gathering more will weaken the plantís ability to return next year.
3. It is generally best not to let the plant touch the ground after harvesting. This is particularly important with mistletoe, dodder and tree leaves.
4. Bring herbs home and begin drying immediately; if any sign of damage or mold appears, discard that part or it may ruin the whole batch.
5. Check for insects before bringing inside; a stink bug in the house is no fun!
Once you have gathered your herbs & brought them in the house, there are several ways to dry them. These include air drying whole herbs, air drying roots, and artificial drying. Each method has its own advantages.
Air drying plants is, of course, the most ancient method. Bundling up stems & hanging upside-down is traditional, and works for many plants, particularly those without blossoms. But, if you live in a humid climate, you may experience trouble while air-drying whole herbs. Here are a few pointers for air drying.
1. Make sure the plants are completely dry, with no dew or other moisture, before bundling.
2. Make several smaller bundles rather than one large one.
3. Hang out of direct sunlight for best color retention.
4. Papery flowers and tiny flowers can be air-dried successfully. Try a small batch; if you tend to lose the flowers, tie a paper bag around the entire bundle, so that the flowers arenít lost. This works with seeds, too.
5. Use your bundles to their best advantage; they are very attractive when hung from rafters, pegs, etc..
Roots are slightly different than whole herbs; they can take as long as a year to dry properly. With all roots, refrain from scrubbing them clean of dirt; just shake off the excess and leave them a bit dirty, as this helps prevent mold while drying. Large roots, such as Mayapple or American mandrake, take forever to dry, so splitting the roots into two or even four thinner pieces will hasten drying. Be careful when working with roots; it is very easy to cut yourself while dealing with a tough, awkward root. All roots should be dried in the dark, such as in a closet, to prevent excessive shriveling and discoloration. It is often easier to artificially dry roots.
Artificial drying may be done in a commercial dehydrator, in an oven, or in a homemade solar drier. Dehydrating herbs is very similar to dehydrating vegetables & fruits; the object is to dry the herbs as fast as possible without compromising their color, oil content or herbal integrity. It will take some experimentaton with any artificial drying appliance to achieve consistant results. Commercial dehydrators are easy, because they take up little space and leave your oven free for more mundane tasks; however, unless you buy an expensive model, they canít really be adjusted. Some things, such as rose petals, should be dried relatively quickly if they are to retain their aroma and color; an oven turned to 130-140 degrees works well. Other items, such as cedar twigs and roots, can be dried very adequately in the dehydrator. In most cases, flowers with a high water content, such as roses, gardenias, honeysuckles, etc., should be dried in the oven; other flowers, such as bachelorís buttons, goldenrod, and thistles, are fairly dry by nature, and work well in the dehydrator. Donít be afraid to experiment; try two or three methods at the same time with one batch of herbs, and make notes on successes & failures.
Here are some tips for artificial drying.
1. Make sure to separate petals from their buds, and to evenly spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet or in your dehydrator. They should be stirred and turned occasionally during drying to prevent those touching pieces from improper drying.
2. Buy an oven thermometer, for use in the oven or the dehydrator. If the temperature gets very much above 145 degrees, you will be cooking your herbs, and much of th aromatic oils will be cooked off. Some dehydrators run hot, up to 165 degrees; this is entirely too hot for drying most things.
3. Roots or large twigs may be placed directly on the oven rack. This will facilitate even drying.
How do you tell if your herbs are sufficiently dried for storage? With whole herbs, this is relatively easy; check several stalks by breaking them in half. If there is any Ďgiveí or flexibility at all, the herb is probably not dry. Check the thickest parts of the stems & leaves; they should be crisp, very light-weight, and crumbly. Flower petals are a bit harder, as some will retain a bit of flexibility even after proper drying; they will be much lighter in color, and as close to crisp as you can get them. A bit too much drying is fine, but storing any herb that hasnít been dried enough is an exercise in futility- they will mold!
Roots are very difficult to test for dryness. Most will retain some flexibility, and some that seem very crisp & hard will turn out to be completely wet in the core. So, the best method of taking care of roots is to dry them until you are sure they are dry, and then take the precaution of hanging them in paper bags until they are needed in a place with low humidity. They will not mold so easily as if you store them air-tight.
Speaking of storage, most of your dried herbs should be stored in an air-tight jar or canister. Try not to use metal or plastic, as either can alter the aroma; glass Mason jars are perfect and inexpensive. Store your jars away from heat and light, perhaps in their own enclosed herb cabinet. It is often practical to buy an upright wardrobe-type cabinet with shelves, because you can use the shelves for jars, and leave one or two spaces from which to hang roots & drying bundles. Label your herbs well, with the date, place of origin, and proper name; keep a notebook tracking the progress of your herb-collecting, so you wonít forget that great little spot with all the witchgrass next year. Try to use within one year; if there are extras, give them back to the Earth by pouring them out on the ground. Roots are an exception; roots may be kept and used indefinitely.
This should get you well-started in the addictive hobby of drying your own herbs. Everything stated above goes for the herbs youíve grown, too; this is just as rewarding as field hunting. One more note before we close: if you are planning on using your herbs for magic, try to leave an offering to the plants from which you gather your supplies. Traditionally, magical herbalists leave bread, honey, or coins, but you may leave whatever you feel is an appropriate offering to the spirit of the plant. Working with herbs is very interactive- you will find that if you are kind and courteous to the plant kingdom, it will reward you with treasures unbounded. Nature contains many powerful elements, but the plants of the Earth are perhaps the most immediate and most abundant; learn to work in harmony with their power and you will be truly blessed.