Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the medicinal plants we needed were available to us at all times throughout the year!
However, just as we work to preserve the summer harvest of garden fruits and vegetables — because we know the months of winter inevitably come — so should we learn to harvest and preserve medicinal plants in preparation for what we know will inevitably come.
Transitioning to home-based medicine requires that we let go of the “if I need it I can just go to the store and buy it” mentality.
The common cold, the flu, mystery rashes, bumps, bruises, scraps and scratches, runny noses, headaches, mild fevers, and upset tummies — among many other minor ailments — are just a part of the rhythm to life. And if we are wise…we will learn to prepare, ahead of time, our kitchens with the ingredients needed to treat them all.
Tips for Traditional Methods of Preservation
Growing, harvesting, and preserving homegrown herbs is like an insurance policy for my family and I. As insurance goes, I pray that good health would be ours and that we would rarely need it — but when we do, I’m so thankful that it’s there, well preserved in my pantry.
Traditionally, home-grown medicinal herbs have been preserved using methods such as:
- infusion in oil
- salve making
- pill making
This is done in order to secure the healing properties of the plant so that it is available to us when we need it.
Let’s talk about the most useful and popular method of herbal preservation…drying.
There are a few factors that we must be keenly aware of that have the ability to wreak havoc on our efforts. And they are:
Protecting herbs from these things will insure that the healing powers that we seek are well preserved and ready for use. Eliminating the plant material’s exposure to all 5 factors can also have a dramatic effect on it’s shelf life.
The process for drying herbs is very simple, it costs next to nothing, and it’s mostly a hands-off activity (except for the close monitoring that is required so that you can identify and avert the possible infestation or mold from developing). Not to mention dried plant material is the basis for nearly all herbal remedies that are created in the home.
Traditionally fresh cut herbs were gathered into small bundles tied with string and hung, or laid flat on a screen, and left until crisp to the touch. This method remains the most effective and preferred way to preserve herbs.
Nearly all parts of beneficial plants — flowers, leaves, roots, and fruits — have different medicinal properties that are worthy of capturing. Note: To learn more about which parts of each plants can be used and for what, I highly recommend that you add Philip Fritchey’s book Practical Herbalism to your home library.
Methods for drying include:
- Leaves – air dry
- Flowers – air dry
- Fruits and Berries – air dry in arid climates or in a dehydrator or oven set at 100°F
- Roots and Barks – requires dehydrator or oven set to 100°F
It is best practice to label your herbs upon cutting and setting out to dry — because once dried they are a bit more difficult to identify. Once crisp, the dried plant material should be stored in this manner:
1. Use an air-tight container.
2. Labeled the container with the name of the plant material along with the date of harvest
3. Do not crumble the herbs! Leave them whole for a longer shelf-life.
4. Place the container in a cool, dark, dry place. Using colored glass containers are very helpful in extending the life of preserved herbs.
Preserving the medicinal herbs that I have grown or gathered is one of the most empowering things that I have ever done! I know you can do it! Set a goal, that this summer you will grow, harvest, and preserve at least 1 medicinal herb…then use it to heal your loved ones…you’ll never be the same!
Challenge yourself, tell us in the comments what you will grow!
I think I am going to start with drying some nettles and then try Elder flowers, they are budding here now. Then I want to try to dry some elderberries when they come along. So very exciting! Thanks for another great post =)
Oh Ali! Nettles and Elder flowers are wonderful! You’ll have one healthy family:)
I got calendula seeds and also plants to grow. I am going to forage plantain leaves and yarrow from my yard. I transplanted some yarrow plants from the yard to spots throughout my garden area. The horehound plants I got are growing very well! And the lemon balm and german chamomile,too.
Things are growing well and I hope to be good with “follow-thru” throughout the entire season to harvesting.
That sounds great Darlene! You’re going to be able to make so many great things from all that you have 🙂
carrie w says
How many stems should you tie together when air drying? I have lemon balm and mint to harvest.
It’s hard to say exactly how many. I’ve never really counted 🙂 Just be sure to make it a small bundle (maybe 5-6 stems)…enough so that you think it has good air flow. Great question!
cynthia uribe says
The method I use is to dry the herbs in paper lunch bags. I place the tied bundles inside the bags, gather the open end of the bag around the stems, and place a twisty tie around it all. The bags are labelled instead of the bundle. This method keeps the herbs clean of household dust and other pollutants like the soot prevalent in cities from pollution. When the herbs are dry, I clean the stems off using the bags to collect the dry matter. The bags can be folded flat and resused again each year. I thought of using cloth bags, like one’s I made for produce, but haven’t gotten to that yet.
I’m in a travel trailer for the spring and summer, visiting family in San Diego, so I’m growing my culinary herbs in pots this year. I don’t think I could cook without fresh herbs and my own very fresh dried herbs this coming winter. I just have the basics, no medicinal herbs. Nice turtorial, and very nice website. I’m going to try some new things this week…
That is awesome Cynthia! Thank you for sharing your great tips!
Medicinal Herbs is my “learning focus” this year! I find this even more exciting than food gardening. I grew & dried a few herbs last year – and learned to not leave them “drying” too long as they loose all their potency.
I already have in my Kitchen Herbs: Mint, Lemon Balm, Oregano, Lavender, and Garlic.
I have added (either planted or received for Mother’s Day): Echinacea, Calendula, Comfrey, Elderberry, Chamomile, and Arnica.
I’m still looking to add: Aconite, Aloe, Fennel, Willow, and Sage.
To make a drying rack we bought an ugly old painting at Goodwill ($3), took the cool looking shabby chic gilt frame and lined it with leftover chicken wire, suspended it about 4 inches down from the ceiling and then we used little homemade S-hook wires to hang the bunched herbs from the mesh. Works like a charm and it’s charming to look at. I dried the mint, lavender, oregano, thyme, and popcorn this way last year & plan to do more soon!
Love the drying rack idea! I am going to do this as well – thanks!
I love it too:)
great idea, think I’ll steal it!
Is sage a medicinal herb? I have a very established sage plant that comes back every year. This year it’s exploding! I normally harvest it for cooking, but started wondering if it’s medicinal. I also started from seed Plantain, Yarrow, Chamomile, and Calendula. I already have comfrey and mint in the garden. I need to finish preparing the dirt, but have an area for my medicinal herbs to go. This will be my first year of medicinal herbs and I’m SO excited!
Horray! Sage is highly medicinal! As an infusion (i.e. tea) it is great:
-as a scalp rinse
-as a wound wash (combine it with that plantain and comfrey you have)
-to treat nausea (combined with your mint)
-for sore throats
Good, good stuff…you blessed to have all of that available to you 🙂
We dry and store herbs throughout the growing season..I open air dry them most often, and will propagate some in pots for fresh herbs through the season. Thanks for sharing.
I’m still just hoping that the herbs/flowers I planted in my herb garden last spring come back this year! I’m not seeing signs of life from all my plants although around these parts it is still a little early.
I’ve already gathered yarrow flowers, some are in oil and some just dried and stored. I have been harvesting bee balm flowers but found I don’t like the medicinal taste in tea, so I will probably make a tincture with some and maybe try some pills. A friend that is studying chinese medicine showed me how. I have tons of rosemary and 2 elderberries. Can’t call them bushes as they are just a skinny tree.
Here is a fun tip: Do not put cat nip out to sun dry on the porch when you have neighborhood cats. The catnip gets knocked down or stolen by the cats. *not that that has happened to me very recently or anything*
Excellent post! As you know, we built a solar dehydrator last year. My only regret is that we didn’t make it bigger! I loved it because it made drying herbs so easy. Do you lay some of yours out on the patio? I would think bricks would be a good place to air dry them.
Wow! I was looking for inspiration on drying herbs and lo and behold, you have read my mind! Earlier I harvested and hung to dry some sage, spearmint, and lemon balm from my patio garden! Thanks for the tips and inspiration!! 🙂
I have an entire medicinal garden. I lost the heliotrope this past winter though, not sure why. I often bundle and hang culinary herbs, but medicinal herbs here are so much more volume I frequently use window screening to set them on. This way they can be moved in and out of the barn as the nights get dewy here.
Yes! That’s a great idea Anna!
This may seem strange to ask, but where can I find Plantain seeds/plants? I have looked at all the local nurseries and they do not carry them.
I am loving all the wonderful things I am learning from you Andrea! I’ve been making my own personal care & cleaning products for about 2 months now & am slowly making it through this blog, excited to get started. My mom made me a few pots w/herbs a few years back (I live in an RV) & by the grace of God I have managed to keep the rosemary, thyme & sage alive. They are ready to harvest, & I see the early am is best time. My issue is that there are some very overactive spiders here & they are covered w/tons of little webs. How do I go about cleaning the plants up? Is it best to do before harvesting or afterward?
Thanks for sharing! I have been establishing my medicinal garden for the last couple years, now it is time to begin harvesting and preserving, not to mention using! This last year I was able to do a whole-plant echinacea tincture that has been great for colds so far.