Picking & Drying Herbs
In your herbal pharmacy you transform fresh and dried plants into herbal medicines. Learning to identify and use the common plants around you is easy and exciting, beneficial and safe. Making your own medicines saves you money if you follow the Wise Woman Tradition of using local herbs, free for the taking.
Even one day's work in field, forest, and kitchen can provide you with many years' worth of medicines. When you make your own, you know for sure what's in it, where it came from, when and how it was harvested, and how fresh and potent it is.
Dried herbs are best for infusions. Stock your herbal pharmacy with your own foraged or cultivated dried herbs; expand your resources and experiment with new herbs by buying dried herbs from reputable sources.
Fresh herbs are best for tinctures and oils. If you can't make your own, buy from sources who wildcraft or grow their own herbs to use fresh in preparations.
Whether you buy or make your own medicines, remember, herbal remedies may not work or may work incorrectly if they aren't prepared correctly.
Meeting the Plants
Start by noticing the plants that live with you, along your driveway or sidewalk. Don't assume that medicinal plants are hard to find. Fennel, Pepper Grass, Dandelion, Plantain, and Mugwort (to name a few) are as common in cities and suburbs as in the country.
Learn more about the weeds around you directly from the plants, from a personal guide, and from field guides and herbals.
When we open all our senses, including the psychic ones, to the green world, we learn to hear and understand plant language. Through shape, color, location, scent, texture, taste, and energy, plants tell us how they will affect our bodies, which plant parts we can use, and how we prepare them. Some Wise Women converse with the plant fairies and the devas. Some hear the song that each plant sings. Some feel the dances of the leaves, breezes, and insects. All are means of learning the ways of herbs. Though the Scientific Tradition scoffs at such knowledge, the Wise Woman Tradition honors the plant as the ultimate authority on its uses.
A personal guide into the plant world will show you plant features which ensure positive identification, such as the hairs on Wild Carrot which safely distinguish it from Poison Hemlock. A personal guide will introduce you to the foods, medicines, dyes, fibers, decorations, and delights hidden in common plants, and instruct you in wise harvesting and preparation. Check local garden clubs, botanical gardens, and nature centers for contacts with personal guides.
Field guides are indispensable references once your taste for herbal identification is whetted. I find the line drawings in the Petersen guides more helpful than color photographs when I have to distinguish between similar looking plants.
Herbals concentrate on the specifics of using plants as medicines and are rarely illustrated well enough to serve as a guide to identification. Field guides hardly ever include information on medicinal value. The link between your field guide and your herbal is the botanical binomial, or Latin name, of each plant. The binomial is (usually) consistent in all references, unlike common names which overlap and vary from region to region. Once you have identified a new plant, you can look it up by finding the binomial in herbals and other references. This can increase your confidence and ability to find and use safe herbal medicines.
My years of leading Weed Walks and helping people identify wild plants have shown me that learning to recognize herbs in the field is far easier, and much less fraught with danger, than most people realize. As Euell Gibbons is quoted as saying: "You don't learn all the plants at once; you learn them one at a time."
Even if you never pick your own herbs, knowing how the live plants look will be a great asset when you go out to buy them.
Knowing how to buy herbs is a necessary skill, just like learning to identify them. It is my personal goal to find or grow all the herbs I use. But even with access to a garden and hundreds of acres of Catskill country, I haven't yet achieved my goal. I, too, buy herbs collected, grown, and prepared by others.
In the last few years I have become aware of many practices in the commercial herb trade which appall me. Grossly substandard wages are paid to harvesters in Third World countries. Pesticide and herbicide chemicals banned in the United States are used on herbs grown overseas (and 80% of commercial herbs are imported).
Dried herbs may be legally irradiated with the equivalent of hundreds of chest x-rays, yet there is no labeling as to which herbs have been so treated. All commercial herbal warehouses, even those storing organic herbs, must legally be fumigated several times a year with chemical sprays.
I protect myself by purchasing herbs from individuals I know and trust.
Whatever the source, dried herbs should be brightly colored, fresh smelling, and as whole as possible. Powdered herbs and herbs in capsules lose medicinal value rapidly, with some exceptions, like Ginger, Slippery Elm, and Golden Seal.
When you look at a dried herb, envision it as it was when alive. The only thing that should be missing is the water content. Red Clover blossoms are a vibrant purplish-pink, not brown. Raspberry leaves are white on one side and green on the other, not a uniform brown. Witch Hazel bark shows the lighter color of the cambium along with the darker grey of the bark; it doesn't look like leftovers from the woodpile.
Smell dried herbs carefully and reject those which lack scent and those which smell of chemicals or molds. Peppermint and Licorice, for instance, should fill your head with their scent. Comfrey root should smell clean and fresh, not musty and moldy.
The energy, or life force, of an herb can be sensed even when the plant has been dried. Absence of energy means that the herb is old, or has been handled incorrectly. If you can, hold the dried herb in your hands: feel for tingle, look for sparkle. A pendulum will react to the life force present in dried herbs; dowsing can confirm your sensory impressions.
If you are buying by mail, return herbs that do not look, smell, and feel alive. If you buy from a store, bring poor quality to the attention of the owner and demand unpowdered and unencapsulated herbs. Say what you want and what pleases you. Consumer desires do have power in the herb market. Interest in organically grown herbs has resulted in increased availability of organic medicinals.
When you have positively identified the plant you wish to use, center yourself by sitting next to the herb in silence. Take several deep breaths. Feel the earth under you, connecting you to all the plants. Listen to the sounds and songs all around you. Can you hear the song of your herb?
If you are picking only one plant, ask that plant to give you its power. Tell it how you intend to use it. If you are harvesting many plants, look for a grandmother plant. Ask her permission to use her grandchildren.Visualize clearly how you intend to use the plants.
Make an offering of corn or tobacco, a coin or love to the plants. Sing with them. Talk with them if you feel moved to do so. Thank the earth and begin your gathering.
Take care to preserve and contribute to the well-being of the plant community. Take no more than half of the annuals or biennials, no more than a third of the perennials. Walk gently and with balance.
Harvest plants when the energy you want is most concentrated:
Roots store energy in the form of sugar, starch, and medicinal alkaloids throughout the cold or dormant season; pick them when above ground growth of the plant has died back.
Leaves process energy to nourish roots and flowers; pick them at their most lush, before flowers have formed, after all dew has dried, and before the day's heat wilts them.
Flowers are fragile, pollen-filled, joyous; harvest them in full bloom, before seeds form, and before bees visit them.
Seeds are durable, but likely to shatter and disperse if left on the plant too long; harvest seeds when still green and before insects invade.
Barks (inner barks and root barks) may be harvested at any time but are thought to be most potent in spring and fall.
Look carefully at the plant you wish to pick and you will see where the energy is highest; let this guide your harvesting.
Deal with your harvest immediately. Allowing the cut plants to lie about dissipates their vital energies, encourages mold and fermentation, and results in poor quality preparations. If you intend to eat your harvest, refrigerate the plants, or wash and cook them and sit down and eat. If you intend to make a tincture or oil, cover the herbs with alcohol or oil as soon as possible; don't refrigerate them. If you intend to dry the herbs, it is vital to lay them out or tie them up as soon after harvest as possible.
To dry herbs and maintain their color, fragrance, taste, energy, and medicinal potency, you need only:
Pick when there is no moisture on the plant and do not wash the plant (roots are the exception).
Dry the herbs immediately after picking, in small bunches or spread out so parts don't touch.
Dry them in a dark and well ventilated area.
Take down the herbs and store in paper bags as soon as they are crisply dried. If insect invasions force you to store dried herbs in glass or plastic, air-dry them, then dry in paper bags for another two weeks before sealing in tight containers.
Keep the herbs as whole, cool, and dark as possible during storage. Under optimum storage conditions, well-dried volatile, delicate herbs last about six months; roots and barks maintain potency for six or more years.
Our bodies are based on water and so are plants. We digest in a water base. In most instances, I prefer herbal medicines in a water base. Nourishing herbs such as Comfrey, Nettles, and Raspberry leaf are at their best when prepared in water bases, for water is best able to extract and make accessible their full range of vitamins, and nutrients.
Water-based herbal medicines spoil rapidly and must be prepared at or near the actual time of use. However, you can store dried herbs for long periods, ready to use in a water base.
Water-based preparations are called teas, tissanes, infusions, decoctions, and syrups. They may be used as soaks, baths, douches, enemas, eyewashes, poultices, compresses, and fomentations. They are all made by soaking fresh or dried plant material in water (usually boiling).
Tea is the standard water-based herbal preparation; even restaurants know how to make it. At fancy ones they call it tissane.
Use one teaspoon dried herb per cup of boiling water. Add an extra teaspoonful for the pot. Let it steep in your cup or the pot for up to twenty minutes. Honey, lemon, and milk are medicinal additions. (Don't give infants honey.)
Volatile herbs are easily extracted into water and therefore prepared as teas. Chamomile, Pennyroyal, Shepherd's Purse, Ginger, Anise and Fennel seeds, Valerian, Catnip, and Lobelia are some volatile herbs used.
Infusion is the most medicinally potent water-based herbal preparation. There are a great many definitions and recipes for preparing infusions; some herbalists use the term interchangeably with "tea."
My medicinal infusions contain a great deal of herbal matter and are steeped for a long time. The result is a liquid much thicker and darker than an herbal tea, leaving no doubt that you are dealing with a medicine, not a breakfast drink.
Prepare infusions in pint and quart canning jars. A teapot or cup is impractical for the long brewing an infusion requires and their openings allow volatile essences and vitamins to escape. Caning jars rarely break when filled with boiling water. They make it easy to measure the amount of water used in the brew. An infusion brewed in a jar is convenient to carry along to work, school or wherever, and this increases the probability that the infusion will be consumed.
And then there's the "wonder water" effect. Wonder water sounds like a new hype, but it is an interesting principle discovered by some researchers at Organic Gardening magazine. They found that plants absorbed nourishment more thoroughly and easily from water that had been boiled, poured into a jar, covered tightly, and allowed to cool. They maintained that gas molecules normally held in water interfere with the plants' rapid and complete assimilation of nutrients dissolved in water.
These dissolved gases are released upon boiling. If a jar is filled with boiling water and capped tightly, the gas molecules cannot be reabsorbed into the water from the air. This is exactly how I prepare an infusion. And I suspect that people, like plants, benefit from and respond strongly to the wonder water effect.
Herbal infusions are the basis for all the other water-based preparations: decoctions, syrups, soaks, compresses, etc.
Making Herbal Infusions
Use one ounce (a big handful of cut-up root, or half a dozen six inch pieces of whole root) of dried root in a pint jar. Fill the jar to the top with boiling water. Put the lid on the jar and let it sit at room temperature for eight hours.
Roots are the most dense and usually most potent part of perennial and biennial plants. The medicinal virtues of roots are often found in their alkaloid content, which dissolves quite slowly into water. This is why many herbals suggest boiling roots; the rapid movement of the water molecules bouncing against the alkaloids frees them from the cells and extracts them into the water. I have found, however, that a very long period of infusion extracts all the useful alkaloids and medicinal substances from the roots, without the careful watching necessary when they are boiled.
Some roots and barks do not contain medicinal alkaloids (or have alkaloids that we wish to avoid) and these should be infused for only an hour or two. Slippery Elm bark, and Ginger, Valerian, and Licorice root are herbs which should be steeped for this shorter time.
Prepare the same as roots.
"Bark" is a misleading word, as the usual part of the tree or shrub actually used for herbal medicines is the inner bark, or cambium layer, which lies between the true bark and the wood. All the nourishment and life force of the tree, passing between roots and leaves, moves through this layer, making it a rich source of valuable resins, sugars, and astringents. The wood and the bark are dead cells and thus contain little that is medicinally useful. Cambium cell walls are tough, requiring long brewing for full extraction of medicinal virtues.
Use one ounce of dried leaves (two handfuls of cut-up leaves or three handfuls of whole leaves) in a quart jar. Fill the jar up to the top with boiling water, put the lid on and let it steep four hours at room temperature.
Leaves contain the potent healer chlorophyll.
Long steeping extracts all the chlorophyll, as well as the vitamins, minerals and other medicinal components of the leaves. Steeping in a closed jar keeps the water-soluble vitamins from escaping in the steam. Some leaves are tough and leathery and need to be steeped for more than four hours; Rosemary and Uva Ursi are leaves which require longer infusing, up to eight hours.
Some leaves release their medicinal factors very easily in water. Catnip, Shepherd's Purse, Lobelia, and Pennyroyal are leaves that require steeping for an hour or less.
Place one ounce of dried flowers (two big handfuls of crumbled-up flowers) in a quart jar. Fill the jar up to the top with boiling water, put on the lid and infuse for two hours.
Flowers are the sexual expression of the plant. They are generally delicate and volatile. Chamomile is exceptionally volatile and should be infused for no more than thirty minutes. When the stalk and leaves of the plant are used along with the flowers, as with Yarrow, Red Clover, and Skullcap, infuse for four hours, as though it were the leaves alone.
Use one ounce of dried seeds, berries, hips, or haws (one to three tablespoons) in a pint jar and fill it to the top with boiling water. Screw on a lid and infuse no more than thirty minutes.
Seeds are the embryo of the plant. Though they are hard and dense, like roots, they are engineered to open and release their properties immediately upon contact with water, so they do not need to be infused for a long time. In fact, if seeds are brewed for too long, bitter oils and esters are leeched out into the water and a foul-tasting brew results. Rosehips and Hawthorn berries are exceptions; they may be steeped up to four hours.
When preparing infusions containing several herbs, it is generally best to brew the components separately so that each herb infuses for the proper length of time. This is unnecessary if the combination is all roots, or all leaves, or leaves and flowers treated like leaves, etc.
If you buy herbs which are already mixed and wish to infuse them, brew for the shortest time needed by any ingredient; for instance, a mix containing Chamomile should be steeped for no more than thirty minutes. Some medicinal potency will be lost this way, but you will avoid extracting bitter esters, oils, and resins which may cause unwanted side effects.
The Wise Woman tradition focuses on the use of simples. A simple is a medicine made from a single herb. When combinations are used, the formula rarely exceeds three herbs. This tradition allows for maximum feedback on the effect of each herb and rapid understanding of medicinal herbs.
Dosage: Two cups, 16 fluid ounces, of an infusion per day is the standard dose for a person weighing 125-150 pounds. Use one cup if you weigh 65-75 pounds. Half a cup for 30-40 pounds. A quarter cup (4 tablespoons) for 15-20 pounds.
Summary of Infusion Data
Length of Infusion
8 hours minimum
4 hours minimum
2 hours maximum
30 minutes maximum
External Uses of Infusions
A soak consists of an infusion that has been rewarmed after the plant material has been strained out. The affected body part is then soaked in the warm infusion.
If you soak your feet in an herbal infusion, it's a foot bath, an excellent way to soothe and heal the entire body, and absorb herbal benefits.
A sitz bath is a big soak! Two or more quarts of infusion are usually needed to fill a shallow bowl or pan big enough for you to "sitz" in.
A bath is an enormous soak, like steeping your body in an infusion. You can prepare an herbal bath by putting the herbs directly in the tub, but my plumber made it clear to me that herbs and drains are incompatible. Some herbals say to put the herbs in a cloth and allow the bath water to run over them but I find the resulting bath too weak. If you want a strong herbal bath, try it this way: Infuse two quarts of your favorite bath herb, strain, and add the liquid to your hot bath. Ahhhhh!
Enemas, douches, and eyewashes are herbal infusions carefully strained and inserted into the proper body cavity.
Plant material strained out as an infusion still contains healing qualities and can be used to poultice. Simply place the damp plant material, warmed if desired, or fresh plant material grated, chewed, or crushed, directly on the body. Poultices are preferred for first aid and infections.
Make a compress by putting macerated fresh or infused dried plant material into a cloth. Compressing is recommended when using hairy herbs like Comfrey leaf which irritate sensitive skin. They are less messy than poultices, and are often the choice when dealing with internal organs and growths.
For a fomentation, take a clean washcloth or a small cotton towel, soak it in a heated infusion, wring it out, and apply. Fomentations treat breast congestion, sprains, muscle aches, and the like.
Herbs prepared in vodka, brandy, or other liquors, or vinegar, are called tinctures. Tinctures can be used internally or externally.
Herbs prepared in rubbing alcohol are called liniments. Liniments are for external use only.
Tinctures are a popular way of using medicinal herbs. They have the following advantages over water-based preparations:
-Tinctures remain potent for many years.
-Small quantities of tinctures are effective, sometimes as little as one drop, making them more portable and potable.
-Tinctures act very rapidly, especially when administered under the tongue.
-Certain herbal alkaloids and resins are extractable only into alcohol, not water.
-A very small amount of plant material produces a tincture consisting of many medicinal doses.
Nourishing factors found in herbs, such as vitamins and minerals, are extracted into tinctures but, since only small amounts of tinctures are taken, only small amounts of these nutrients are ingested. The Wise Woman tradition focuses on the excellent nourishment available in wild foods and herbs to support the body's ability to repair and heal itself. Thus, water-based preparations are usually my first choice as herbal medicines, but I use tinctures when I travel, when I need immediate medicinal effect, or when I am dealing with rare, horrible tasting, or expensive plants.
People who refrain from using all alcohol can still take tinctures. Since alcohol-based tincture doses are small (20 drops is the average dose) and diluted in water, the taste and effect of the alcohol is virtually non-existent. Many alcoholics indicate that herbal tinctures react like medicines in their bodies, not like alcohol. To further mitigate the effect of the alcohol, let it evaporate somewhat by adding the tincture to some water and letting it sit exposed to the air for a few hours.
Dosage: Tincture dosage is widely variable. Experiment with caution and consult references.
Making a Tincture From Fresh Plant Material
The best tinctures are made from fresh plants. These tinctures are so far superior to commercial tinctures made from dried plants that they almost appear to be different medicines!
Tincturing is amazingly simple:
-Identify and pick the plant parts you desire to tincture.
-Look through the plant material and discard any damaged parts.
-Do not wash any part of the plant except roots, and those only when necessary.
-Chop the plant material coarsely, except flowers and delicate plants.
-Fill a jar to the top with the chopped plant material.
-Then fill the jar to the top with 100 proof vodka, vinegar, or the spirit of your choice. (Yes, you can fill a jar to the top twice!)
-Cap the jar tightly.
-Label the jar with the name of the plant, the part of the plant used, the type of the spirit used, and the date. Example: Shepherd's Purse, the whole plant in flower, 100 proof vodka, 12 May 1985.
-Top up the liquid level the next day. (The plant fairies come by and take a little taste of each new tincture.)
-Allow plant and alcohol to mingle together for six weeks or more.
-Decant the tincture and it is ready to use.
Making a Tincture From Dried Plant Material
Most dried plants are unsuitable for tincturing, with the exception of dried roots, resins, barks, and leathery leaves such as Rosemary, Uva Ursi, and Wintergreen. Powdered herbs are never suitable for tincturing.
The procedure is similar to making a tincture from fresh plants:
-Put two ounces of dried root or bark in a pint jar.
-Add 10 fluid ounces of 100 proof vodka or other spirit.
-Cap well and label (plant, part, type of spirit, date).
-Watch the alcohol level closely for the first week and top it up as necessary. (Those fairies get very thirsty.)
-Decant the tincture after six or more weeks.
Making a Vinegar Tincture
Vinegar tinctures are not very potent, don't last for as long as alcohol tinctures, and have an aggravating tendency to rust the lid onto the tincture bottle. A few medicinal herbs, such as Lobelia and Wintergreen, are commonly tinctured in vinegar. Many garden herbs, such as Tarragon, Oregano, Chives, and Rosemary, are put up in vinegar.
If you make full strength tinctures with these seasoning herbs, instead of the weak brews you've probably been making, you'll be thrilled with the marinades and salad dressings you'll be able to create.
Follow the above tincture instructions for fresh and dried plants, with these changes:
-Fill your jar to the top with room temperature, not boiling, vinegar.
-Use apple cider vinegar, wine vinegar (or wine), rice vinegar, etc., but no white vinegar.
-Use cork or plastic to cap all your vinegar tinctures. A piece of waxed paper or plastic wrap between the jar and the metal lid is acceptable.
-The usual dose of a medicinal vinegar t