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Ancient cultures regarded the harvest season as a special time - a time to reap the fruits of a year's hard labor and rejoice in the earth's abundance. Harvest your herbs with no less respect. In fact, the connection with nature may help maintain your health. Spending time in a forest or meadow feels very different from spending time indoors or in the city. Handcrafting herbs into medicines is itself a healing activity !
Gathering plants you've grown yourself gives you a tremendous sense of accomplishment, but you may also collect herbs growing wild. Gathering herbs from the wild is refered to as "wildcrafting". If you pick wild herbs, however, be certain you've identified them properly. Some poisonous herbs resemble harmless ones. Also, make sure the area where you are wildcrafting is free of pesticides, chemical sprays or other polutants. Avoid picking herbs growing along busy roads or highways, where car exhaust can contaminate them.
Do not harvest rare or endangered plants from the wild. Many plant species are threatened through both overharvesting and loss of habitat. Echinacea, ginseng and golden seal species, for example, are all declining. Certainly we still have some dandelion and red clover to spare, but cultivating some herbs yourself can help preserve the native habitats of some endangered plant species.
Harvesting Your Herbs
Gather herbs in the morning on a dry day. Herbs that are dry when harvested are less likely to mold or spoil during processing. Avoid washing leaves and flowers of herbs after you've harvested them. If the herbs are covered with dirt or dust, rinse them off with a garden hose or watering can, then allow the herbs to dry for a day or two before picking them. When wildcrafting, shake the water off wet herbs; you may also try drying wild herbs by gently blotting them dry with a towel. The root of the herb is the only part of a plant that you should wash thoroughly after harvesting.
Harvesting the seeds of an herb requires a little more intuition. You need to check your plants every day, and be prepared to harvest the seeds as soon as you notice that they've begun to dry. (timing is crucial: you must allow the seeds to ripen, but catch them before they fall off the plant). Carefully snap off seed heads over a large paper bag, allowing the seeds to fall into it. Leave the seeds in the bag until they have dried completely.
Do not dry herbs in direct sunlight. Dry them in an area that is warm, well ventilated and free of moisture, such as a barn, loft, breezeway or covered porch. In these conditions, the moisture will evaporate quickly from the plants, but the aromatic oils will remain in the leaves.
You can also use a food dehydrator (use the lowest setting) to dry your herbs. If you're handy, you can build a drying cabinet in which the herbs sit on screens and warm air circulates through the screens. A drying cabinet can be a plain cupboard in a warm, dry location, or it can ve a fancy version with a solar or electric heater with fans to circulate the air. Whatever drying method you use, the optimal temperature for drying herbs is approximately 85 F. Higher temperatures can harm the herbs and dissipate the volatile oils.
It may take up to a week to dry some herbs, depending on the thickness of the plant's leaves and stem. As soon as the leaves are fully dry - but before they become brittle - strip them from the stems. Store the leaves immediately in air-tight containers to preserve their flavour and aroma. Label the containers with the herb's name and date stored.
Method 1 : Use a rubber band to bind herb and flower branches. Hang them upside down in a hot, dry place that receives little or no light. Ensure that your drying area has good air circulation to prevent mold from developing on the plants. Keep herb bunches small if your drying area is humid.
Method 2 : Remove petals from flowers and leaves from stems and spread them evenly on a clean mesh screen. Leave space between herb pieces to ensure adequate air circulation. Place the screen out of the wind in a hot, dry place that receives little light.
Method 3 : To dry seeds, hang bundles of plants as in Method 1, placing each bundle inside a large brown paper bag to catch the seeds. Or hang bunches from poles laid across an open cardboard box lined with a sheet of paper.
Method 4 : Before drying roots, scrub them thoroughly. Split thick roots legthwise. Slice roots in 1/4 in thick pieces. Air dry as in Method 2, or spread roots on cookie sheets and dry them in a conventional oven at the lowest setting.
Hint : You can dry more than just herbs ! Dried apple and pear peels add flavour to teas. Use dried orange, lemon and other citrus rinds in teas, potpourris and herbal bath blends. Dried blueberry and strawberry leaves add nutrients and color to winter teas. Use a dehydrator to dry mashed, overripe fruit; break the resulting fruit rolls apart and add to teas and desert sauces.
Glass jars with tight-sealing lids or glass stoppers are ideal for storing dried herbs. You may also use tin canisters that close tightly; plastic pill holders with tight covers; and sealable plastic bags, buckets or barrels for large herb pieces.
Store herbs in a dark place to preserve their color and flavour. If you must store your herbs in a lighted area, keep them in metal tins or dark-colored jars. The worst place to keep herbs is in a spice rack over a stove: Heat from the cooking will cause your herbs to lose their flavour quickly. Remember to label each container, including it's contents and date of harvest. Discard last season's surplus as soon as a new supply is available so you'll have full-strength herbs on hand at all times.
You may freeze leaves whole or processed. Freeze mint or scented geranium leaves whole; float the frozen herbs in punches and other cold drinks. Pestos of basil and other herbs freeze well in ice cube trays. Later, when you want to use the pesto, simply pop out the cube and thaw.
Herbs to Freeze : Basil, Marjoram, Borage, Nasturtium, Cayenne pepper, Oregano, Chervil, Parsley, Chives, Peppermint, Coriander, Rosemary,Costmary, Sage, Dill, Summer Savory, Fennel, French Sorel, Scented Geranium, Spearmint, Lemon Balm, Tarragon, Lovage, Thyme.
How to Freeze Herbs
Method 1 : Seperate herbs into small shoots or leaves; chop with a knife or scissors. Pack herbs in screw-top jars or sealable plastic bags. Squeeze out as much air as possible and freeze immediately.
Method 2 : Place herb pieces in a blender or food processor with an equal amount of water and process. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze. You can also freeze whole leaves or flowers in the cube. When solid, transfer cubes to a resealable plastic bag and return to the freezer.
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