Excellent! You have grown an herb or found one that you have properly identified in the wild. Now it is time to harvest it. There are many things to consider before harvesting an herb.
Do you need the herb?
If you do not have a use for the herb its simple! DO NOT HARVEST IT! It is so easy as budding herbalists to go gung-ho and harvest every herb we come across. ‘I will use it some day.’ No, this is irresponsible wildcrafting. It is important for our ecosystem to grow plants and many of the herbs we use for medicine get severely damaged and will die when they are harvested. If you do not have a plan on what to make with the herb and what to then use it for do not harvest it. Allow the plant to grow more, create little baby plants, and spread further so that the following year when you do know how to use the plant you have even more available for you to work with. Be responsible. If you don’t need it don’t harvest it.
What kind of medicine are you going to make with the plant and how much do you need?
There are many different kinds of herbal preparations out there and knowing which ones are best for each herb is a technique you will come to learn over time. For instance, marshmallow is best in water and will not create good medicine in oil. Some herbal preparations you may want to make can be found here.
Be sure to know what kind of dosage you want before you go and harvest your plant. If you want to just make one salve you do not need 1/2 lb of herb. If you want to take stinging nettles as a tea all winter long you are going to want more than a 1/2 lb. Take some time and do the math. Research the herb and make sure you are going to have enough with out taking more than you need. Remember: herbs will reduce in weight by 50-70% when they are dried. Most dosages are described in their dry weight, not their fresh weight.
If you do need a lot of an herb remember to only harvest 10% of a given area. If this is not enough herb for the medicine you need, find a second, or third location to harvest from. Protect your region and keep the plants growing happily and healthily by not over harvesting them.
What part of the plant do you plan to use as medicine?
These are the most difficult to harvest and keep the plant alive. Generally, harvesting roots of plants will kill or severely damage the plant. We want to keep our plants as alive as possible so we have more plants in the future to harvest. Be ethical and do not harvest more than 10% of the plants you see in a given region so that you are sure they will continue to grow. If you don’t see 10 plants, there are not enough in that region to harvest them. Gently dig up the plant, remove dirt from the roots, and cut off the smaller roots from the main branches. Keep the main branches of the root intact and replant the plant.
If you are harvesting roots from a tree, start at the base of the tree and dig to the roots. Follow the root (continue to dig) until you find the end of a root. Harvest from the end of the root. If you harvest closer to the tree you will end up killing all of the roots that are further away from the tree from where you cut. Keep the sacred plants safe, happy, and growing as strong as you can.
*One good time to harvest the larger roots is if you are trying to remove a plant from a region. One good example of this may be comfrey which can easily take over a garden. Keep some to use later but openly harvest plants that are preventing others from growing.
These are the easiest to harvest. Remember: make your harvest beneficial to the plant. When harvesting leaves, prune the plant right above a node. Nodes are where leaves attach to stems. Most plants will then branch at their node, making two stalks where there was previously one. This will encourage the plant to have even more leaves. With more leaves, the plant can make more food for itself and become even stronger.
Flowers and Seeds:
For most plants these are the reproductive parts of the plant. If they are all harvested there will be no plants for the next year. Keep this in mind when harvesting for flowers and seeds. It is not a bad idea to save a portion of your seed harvest with the intention of planting them yourself to keep the plants growing and spreading.
Do you need to dry your herbs?
If you are going to make a hot infusion, cold infusion, or a decoction that day there is no need to dry your herbs. If you plant to make a fresh tincture there is also no need to dry your herbs. Keep in mind, that if you do not make a tincture right away with your fresh herbs they may start to grow mold. For more tips and how to dry your herbs, check back for our next post or view it early by joining our Patreon.
Jillian Carnrick, founder and manager of The Dancing Herbalist, has a Masters of Science Degree in Herbal Medicine, practices as a nutritionist, and is a Certified Personal Trainer and Exercise Is Medicine Professional through the American College of Sports Medicine. The Dancing Herbalist posts on this blog every Thursday. For more of our posts, join us on Patreon. Jillian also presents regular live classes in The Dancing Herbalist’s home herbalist courses online. For more learning opportunities or work one-on-one with Jillian with her wellness and herbal consultations visit The Dancing Herbalist.com.