Wildcrafting from Discovering Wild Plants by J Schofield
HARVESTING AND DRYING HERBS
Wild plants are often vastly superior in nutrition and flavor to store-bought produce.
They are free of pesticides (if harvested in dean areas) and free of cost. For me, harvesting combines a healthful, enjoyable walk with the benefits of no-cost, fabulous vegetables, home remedies, cosmetics, and natural dyes. Drying extends these benefits over a long period of time.
Tools for Harvesting
Tools needed are minimal. When collecting near home, I favor a collecting basket. For car-based trips, I recommend large paper bags for storing the herbs. (Herbs can compost quickly if in a plastic bag in a hot car!) Even when stored in paper bags, plants should be transferred to drying racks as soon as possible.
A knife will be needed for collecting bark, and a hand trowel for digging roots. I often use kitchen shears or scissors for snipping greenery.
In addition, a field guide is highly recommended. A personal notebook is another useful tool; use it to record location of prime herb patches, the date collected (and the stage of the plant’s maturity), and other pertinent data. Use a plant press for collecting new specimens; include the plant’s botanical and common names, habitat, location, collection date, and name of collector.
Places to Gather Wild Plants
(Prepared in conjunction with the Alaska Native Plant Society)
1. Lands scheduled for development are prime lands for digging wild plants for gardening purposes. If the owner is unknown, call the municipality or borough zoning and platting department. For new road construction, contact the Department of Highways —right-of-ways. Permission is generally readily granted. Valerian, twisted stalk, and elder are just a few of the wildlings in my Homer garden that I rescued from lands slated for bulldozing.
2. Check with your state or province for foraging rules. In Alaska, foraging wild plants is not allowed in national, state, and municipal parklands and campgrounds It is not allowed on private property, unless permission is obtained from the owner.
3. When digging wild plants in permitted areas, do follow these guidelines:
a. Take plenty of soil, and BE SURE to fill in the resulting hole with downed plant material, rocks, and or soil. A hole is not only unsightly and dangerous to leave, but also does great damage by exposing roots of nearby plants.
b. After digging your new plant, replant it as soon as possible. Water well the first season.
1. Be positive of the plant’s identity! If in doubt, don’t harvest. To expand your knowledge of plants, study field guides and floras and taxonomic keys. Go on plant walks with knowledgeable guides. Take classes. Spend time in the field observing. If you can’t recognize a plant when it first appears, return time and again during the season. When the plant is in flower, it is easiest to identify. As you repeatedly follow plants through the seasons, you will learn to recognize them in all seasons and stages of growth.
Sit and meditate with plants. Plants teach you a great deal about themselves. Listen to your intuitive flashes, but back them up with other knowledge as well!
2. Harvest each plant and each plant part in its proper season.
- Roots: fall to spring. In these seasons sugars, starches, and other nutrients are stored in the roots. During the growing season (when the plant is busy producing leaves, flowers, and fruits), roots tend to be tough and tasteless. Use a vegetable brush to clean roots. Roots may be dried whole or sliced; resinous roots are generally split in half and dried.
- Leaves: spring before flowering (unless the whole herb is gathered). Once the flowers appear, the leaves often become tough or bitter.
Avoid diseased or bug eaten leaves. With leaves, I generally harvest a few from each plant; the actual amount depends on the size of the plant and what I feel it can spare without harm. Use your best judgment. The tops of some plants, such as mint, can also be collected; this encourages the plant to produce new growth. Mint can be harvested several times during the season.
- Flowers and buds. Gather buds when they are almost ready to open. Collect flowers when they’re freshly opened, before fading or wilting occurs.
- Seeds. Collect seeds when ripe. To gather, cover the plant with a paper bag, cut the stem and hang it upside down. Seeds will fall into the bag in a few days. Shake the stem to make certain all seeds are released. (Leave plenty of. seeding plants in the field to assure reproduction of the herb patch.)
- Whole herb. The whole herb is generally picked when flowering.
- Bark spring or fall. Harvest bark from a pruned branch (unless the tree has been harvested for firewood). Chip bark with a small axe or a knife.
- Berries. Harvest berries when ripe. Rose hips are best after frost (Some fruits are picked slightly under ripe for making preserves.)
3. Pick herbs at the proper time of day. Collect in the morning after the dew has evaporated, or in early evening before moisture sets in. Avoid collecting in the hot sun, as well as on damp days.
4. Gather with respect and awareness.
Don’t disrupt the balance of the plant community. Be aware of the effect of your harvesting. The plant community should increase in vigour and abundance as a result of your gathering.
5. Gather only from healthy plants. Avoid plants plagued by insects or disease.
6. Gather only in clean areas, away from roads, electric lines, railroads, sprayed areas.
Stay at least fifty feet from roads to avoid contamination from car exhaust.
7. Gather only when there is a sizable community of plants. Be careful of endangered or rare species.
8. Leave enough leaves, fruit, seeds, and flowers so the plant can continue to exist abundantly.
9. Leave an abundance of roots. Gather no more than one out of ten roots. (With some plants, such as chocolate lily, you can replant by knocking a bulb back into the hole you have dug.)
10. Pick only what you can process properly. Avoid plants going to waste through mishandling. Gather only what you can properly process and use during the season.
11. Pick to propagate. Prune plants, don’t bulldoze! Develop a caretaker attitude toward the plants. Leave plenty of healthy strong plants to seed other plants. Don’t pick all the “breeding stock.”
I find that harvest rituals increase enjoyment of the time spent in the field, and heighten sensitivity toward the plants.
1. An American Indian ritual involves turning to the seven directions before gathering: east, south, west, north, father sky, mother earth, and sister moon — while scattering cornmeal and thanking all for gifts.
2. Seek the elder of the plant community
— the oldest tree or strongest plant in the community. Take a moment and meditate. Leave a gift. Mentally ask permission to gather.
3. Plant something each time you harvest Plant seeds where you harvest a root
4. A simple ritual is to offer a prayer of thanks for the harvest
To dry herbs effectively, you need a warm, shady area with good ventilation. Herbs should be out of direct sunlight as sun can bleach the plants. My favourite drying places are above the wood stove and in the sauna when temperatures have moderated to 70° to 100°F. Some foragers like to use the pilot light of a gas oven as the heat source for drying.
Methods of Drying Herbs
1. Bundles. Many whole herbs are hung to dry in bundles in a warm but airy location out of direct sun and dust. Bundles can be tied with rubber bands. Moist herbs (such as horsetail) should be in small bundles as mould can easily form. Drier bulky herbs (such as willow) can be in larger bundles. As soon as the herb is dry, it should be transferred to storage containers. I often tie two herb bundles together and string them over a beam.
2. Drying rack. To make a drying rack, construct a frame of two-by-twos and cover with nylon screening. (Aluminium screening can taint the herbs. If metal screening is used, be certain to cover it with a layer of cheesecloth.) Hang the rack in a warm, shady area, and spread the herbs loosely on its surface.
3. Baskets. Place herbs in a single layer in shallow baskets and hang in a warm place. This is a good method for drying small quantities of herbs. I often use it to dry organic orange peel, chopped green onions or chives, and other leftover fruits or vegetables.
4. Floor. During “emergencies” (when you’ve picked more herbs than you have space to dry), you can place plain brown paper or muslin cloth on a floor and spread the herbs to dry. Herbs must be turned at least once daily. The first three methods are recommended; this one can serve in a pinch.
If conditions are ideal (a balmy breeze), leaves and flowers should be dry in four to six days. Roots and stems take anywhere from one to three weeks.
Bend the herbs to test for dryness. They should be brittle, but not so dry that they disintegrate. If too much moisture is left in the plants, they will mold.
Store herbs in airtight containers in a dark closet. Label and date all herbs. Trying to identify dried, unlabeled herbs three months after the fact is a challenge I recommend you bypass. Label your herbs!
I like to store herbs in gallon glass jars in a dark closet. Wooden and cardboard boxes that seal well can also be used for herb storage. Some foragers discourage using plastic bags; others swear by them. If herbs are THOROUGHLY dry, I find that placing herbs in paper bags inside a sealed plastic bag can work quite well. (This is the method I generally use when I run out of glass containers.)
Most leaves and flowers have a shelf life of one year. Roots and barks are generally good for two. Some plants, such as chickweed and shepherd’s purse, have a shelf life of only six months.
(This section was based on information taught by David Bunting and Rosemary Gladstar in California School of Herbal Studies classes.)