Once you have your herbs harvested what do you do to keep them fresh and usable year round?
Drying your herbs is the first key step to preserving them to use later. You can choose to make a fresh plant tincture but this does need to be done right after harvesting to prevent the plant material from going bad. When drying herbs it is common to think of hanging them up in bunches to dry. This is not the ideal way to dry herbs. They can mold, easily fall and get dirty, or a number of other unfortunate circumstances due to them being hung up. It is best to dry your herbs on a screen. For leaves and flowers, be sure to remove stems before drying so that they leaves dry evenly. When drying roots and seeds, I recommend putting them on paper (paper towels or newspaper work well) on top of your screen so the small pieces do not fall through the paper yet still have good air flow on both top and bottom of your herbs.
Moisture: Enemy #1
For all dried herbs and herbal products, moisture is the number one enemy. Moisture will help mold to grow and this is the major thing that will turn a lovely herbal product into a dangerous one quickly. While not all molds are dangerous there are some that are so be sure to avoid mold in your herbs. Keep your entire work space dry and all of your spoons, jars, and other handling devices free of moisture.
This is also important when making infused oils. Any moisture in an infused oil will encourage the oil to go rancid much faster. I personally recommend wilting fresh herbs before making an infused oil and then after straining your oil, allow it to sit on a very low heat for a few hours to encourage evaporation of any remaining moisture in the oil from the fresh plants.
This is particularly important when making an infused oil but is important for general herb storage as well. When it comes to making infused oils, the temperature of the oil should not get above 110 Fahrenheit. Above this, the oil will start to degrade and could degrade enough that the oil itself could cause irritation with consistent use. Even if your herbs are just on a shelf, if the temperature of the surrounding area is on the warmer side it can cause your herbs to degrade faster. This is particularly noticeable if you store your culinary herbs next to your stove or on top of a refrigerator or microwave which will both heat up. On that note-get rid of your microwave. It is causing it’s own damage to your herbs, food, and to yourself just by it running in your environment. It still surprises me how healthier I feel since I removed a microwave from my home.
Enemy #2: Insense
Always keep incense away from your medicinal herbs. Our medicinal herbs will take things up from the air very easily, this also includes cigarette smoke and smoke from vapes. Keep your air clean if you want to keep your body clean and consider other methods of freshening your air if you need to.
Size of Herb Pieces
When drying your herbs it is important to cut your herbs small enough that they dry quickly but there are also reasons to keep them more whole. The smaller your pieces of herbs are they faster they will lost their potency. The more surface area that is exposed to the outside (smaller pieces) the more the nutrients will degrade or simply diffuse into the air over time. Join our Patreon today for a simple guide to know how long your herbs are fresh.
If you plan to use your herbs quickly, after they are dried you may choose to powder them. This is best done if you are going to use a powder to make a salve, tincture, other kind of infusion, or if you are going to make nut butter balls. If you do not plan to use your herbs quickly, you may want to dry them as larger pieces. For leaves, after they are dry they are easily crumbled up to make smaller pieces. These smaller pieces are more ideal for making extracts. Remember: the smaller the piece the more the medicine will leave the plant parts.
Store in Dark Glass Containers
As much as you can, store your herbs in dark colored, glass containers. Avoid plastic as much as you can because the plastic can leech into your herbs or herbal products and this is not good medicine. The dark colored container will help prevent light from damaging the medicinal components of your herbs and herbal products. This is why tinctures are most often sold in dark brown glass bottles. Along the same lines, whenever possible, store your herbs and herbal products away from the light. While some herbs like St. John’s Wort require light to become more medicinally active, these are rare and generally light will damage your medicine over time.
Create an Extract
Whenever possible, the best way to preserve your medicine so it lasts even longer is to create an extract. An extract is not just a tincture. An extract generally means that the medicinal components of a plant have been removed (extracted) and put into another medium, such as alcohol (a tincture), oil (infused oil), or water (with a preservative: syrup). Each of these products has a different shelf life and should be considered when making an extract.
When making a tincture, one extra tip to keep the quality of your medicine higher is to make sure that if you are using a glass jar and a metal lid be sure to put some parchment paper between the jar and your lid while it sits for a month or more. This is because of the rubber that is on the lid. Alcohol will break this rubber down and, just like your plastic containers, the rubber will get into your medicine and decrease it’s quality. This is less of an issue with making infused oils but it is also something that can be considered.
How many ‘no-nos’ do you see in this photo? Comment which what things this facility are not doing well.
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 to work one-on-one with Jillian with her wellness and herbal consultations visit The Dancing Herbalist.com.