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The Lost Art of Herb Drying

The Lost Art of Herb Drying

Once, herbs could be seen hanging from rafters in homes, brewing in teas on the hearth, or stored safely in cupboards for times of plague or injury. Romans took them to the battlefield, monks used them to treat the infirm, and midwives administered them to ease labor. So when did herbs become so outdated?

In the 20th century, Louis Pasteur changed medicine forever. With Pasteur’s germ theory came the incredible discoveries of antibiotics and the importance of cleaner hospitals (we can all be grateful for that!). However, many began to overlook the benefits of herbs in the home. The natural rhythm of harvesting and drying plants for medicine has become a last resort rather than a first defender.

While our ancestors trusted the healing power of plants, modern medicine has wrongly assumed that plants have little power in a vibrant and healthy home. Yet herbs have always been the medicine of the people, and plant harvests are accessible to almost everyone—even kids! Let’s bring tradition back! Let’s harvest herbs and savor this beautiful rhythm of seasonal living.

General Harvesting Tips

If harvesting a plant for tea or food, it’s crucial to avoid harmful chemicals. Harvest plants at least 1,000 feet away from roads or agricultural fields since both can have pollution. Also, avoid plants in pastures where animals live.

Along with this, it’s always good to both know what you need before you harvest and label everything carefully. It’s incredibly easy to get plants mixed up!

As for when to harvest, it’s best to pick plants in the mid-morning hours after the dew has evaporated and before the heat of the day. This ensures that the herbs maintain peak effectiveness. And make sure you have the time to prepare them before harvesting! Herbs need to be dried as quickly as possible to avoid mold.

If you choose to wash your herbs, a salad spinner works great! I typically let them soak for a few minutes and then rinse them thoroughly. Though some herbalists do not advise washing with water (there is an increased risk of mold), I’ve found no better method for removing the dust and sand of my area’s gravel road. But if dust or sand isn’t a problem, washing may not be necessary. Just remove all injured or withered leaves, and keep an eye out for insects.

With those tips in mind, let’s walk through each season of plant harvesting, looking at ideal drying techniques and common plants for each time of the year.

Spring

Embrace the beginning of the growing season! This is an excellent time to harvest leaves and some flowers. A general guideline is to pick leaves before the plant flowers or after it goes to seed. Large leaves can be dried individually, but smaller leaves may remain on the stem. Hang them in bundles of eight to 12 stems. (The thicker the stem, the fewer plants should be in each bundle.) When the leaves are brittle to the touch, rub the leaves off and store them in an air-tight container. The stems can be discarded.

In the springtime, some flowers are also ready for drying. The stage to harvest flowers varies, so some research may be required to learn at what stage the flower is ready. If it’s the bud stage, pick just before the buds open. If the flower needs to be fully open, pick it when it has fully bloomed but before it wilts.

The flowers can then be dried either individually (on a screen or newspaper) or on the stalk (dried in bundles). To decrease the drying time, strip the leaves from the stalk. Tie the stalks up with twine or string in bunches of eight to 10 plants. Too many plants in a bundle will slow the drying process, causing mold to grow. Find a dark and well-ventilated place to hang them and check on them daily.

Another option for drying herbs is a dehydrator. Simply prepare the herb or flower as normal. Set the temperature to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (or 115 degrees Fahrenheit if you live in a humid climate). Many herbalists prefer this method for drying herbs because it is more controlled with often better results. However, if you don’t own a dehydrator, don’t let that stop you from drying and using herbs! Letting herbs air-dry is still a great method.

Here are some ideal plants for spring drying: chives, curled dock, dandelion, ferns, hawthorn flowers, lamb’s quarters, plantain, pokeweed, stinging nettle, wild strawberry, trillium, violet, and yarrow.

Summer

Summer brings the heat of the year, and it is an excellent time to dry decorative flowers. Throughout the summer months, many flowers will open fully. Make sure to choose flowers that will dry well! Avoid flowers with large petals that shed (like tulips or fully blooming roses) and flowers that have a delicate structure (like Queen Anne’s lace). Strip the leaves off the stalk to lessen the drying time. Hang the flowers in bundles of eight to 10 plants in a dark and well-ventilated area. Expect the flowers to dry in about 10 days and check on them daily.

Another drying method great for the summer is to put the flowers or herbs in a brown paper sack to dry. The brown paper sack should be placed somewhere warm—like, as herbalist Maria Noel Groves suggests, the dashboard of a car. Let them sit for two to three days; when the flowers are brittle to the touch, they are fully dried.

When dried, herbs should be stored in an airtight container in a dry, dark, and cool area (this will extend the shelf life). Expect most dried flowers and herbs to last one to two years. But the more finely ground the herb, the shorter its shelf life.

Some great plants for summer drying include basil, bee balm, calendula, wild carrot, catnip, chamomile, daisy, daylily, dill, purple coneflower, elderberry, goldenrod, lavender, lemon balm, marigold, marjoram, mints (spearmint and peppermint), nasturtium, parsley, raspberry, red clover, rosemary, sage, sunflower, thyme, and willow.

Autumn

Things are beginning to slow down a bit in autumn, but there are still ways to embrace seasonal living! Roots can be harvested in the fall, and while they are not beautiful for decorations, they can be added to the family medicine chest. Roots should be thoroughly cleaned and chopped before drying. The pieces of the root may be spread on a screen or newspaper to dry in a well-ventilated area.

With that, don’t neglect the trees! Dried tree leaves make beautiful decorations for birthdays, Halloween parties, and Thanksgiving. One of my favorite uses for maple leaves is braiding them into a garland or wreath. Grapevines also make great wreaths! With many plants dried on the stalk, autumn can be a great time to go out and pick a dried wildflower bouquet.

Good plants for autumn drying include barberry, burdock, rose hips, fennel, grapevines, juniper, oak, maple leaves, partridgeberry, and wintergreen.

Winter

Believe it or not, there are still plants that can be harvested in winter! Bark, for instance, can be harvested for medicinal purposes. But because there is some variation in timing for bark harvesting, be sure to research your local trees. Typically, the best method is to saw off a branch and strip the bark. The bark can then be cut into pieces and laid out on a screen or newspaper to dry.

Winter is also a great time to break out the flowers you dried in the summer and enjoy the bounty! Liven up your home with beautiful dried-flower arrangements and crafts—it’s sure to keep the winter blues at bay.

Some plants you can dry in winter are bayberry, holly, mistletoe, and pine.

In every season, we can make use of the resources around us to enhance our own health and deepen our engagement with the natural world. So pick some herbs! Renew the age-old tradition of collecting and drying useful plants, and have some fun in the process.

Image credit: Unsplash 

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Annie Scaife
Annie Scaife
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4 Comments

  • Avatar
    Cadence McManimon
    May 8, 2024, 3:58 pm

    I love these ideas and guidelines!

    REPLY
  • Avatar
    Raquela
    May 8, 2024, 4:50 pm

    Great article!

    REPLY
  • Avatar
    Samara Hupp
    May 8, 2024, 6:07 pm

    I learned a lot reading this article! I really enjoyed the practical tips and now it makes me want to try drying some herbs this summer!

    REPLY
  • Avatar
    Lynette
    May 8, 2024, 7:09 pm

    How refreshing! Simple traditions that have sustained life for centuries have been forgotten. Your displayed joy and knowledge provide huge encouragement to step out of our craziness, for a task that not only can provide some healing, peace, satisfaction, but tools for making our lives better! Thank you for sharing!

    REPLY

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