Drying & Storing Herbs For Potency & Longevity
Drying & Storing Herbs
To maintain the potency of an herb it should be harvested, dried and stored appropriately. For information on harvesting medicinal herbs, see the Harvesting/Wildcrafting article. Here we will discuss drying and storing herbs only. For specific information on harvesting roots go to the Harvesting of Medicinal Roots article.
Choosing A Place to Dry Herbs
Herbs are best dried in a dark, dry area, free from insects and rodents, with heat and good airflow. The plants should be hung loosely to promote airflow around them or placed on screens or netting. The heat must not scorch the plants but must dry them quickly enough to maintain their vibrancy. The higher the humidity in the air, the more important it is to have a fan or another source of air flow. The more moisture in the air, the more chance the herbs may grow mold on them. Air flow from wind or a fan can decrease the chance of mold forming.
Indoor Herb Drying
Attics make a nice summer drying location. I have also used SW facing bedrooms with screened and open windows for airflow. If you don’t have a space such as these to dry herbs, your car could become a drying area. You can hang a string across the back of the car from the clothing hooks above the doors. Leave the windows down for circulation if it is not humid outside. Either park in partial shade or put up some sort of sun barrier to keep the direct sunlight from damaging your herbs or overheating them. If you have to drive somewhere, be sure to remove the herbs or leave space for you to see out the windows. Additionally, be careful about driving around with strong smelling plants. some plants high in volatile oils can effect your driving. I once drove home from the mountains with box loads of Valerian in my car and could not stay awake. I had to pull over at a rest stop to snooze. Both my passenger and I were overcome by a sudden feeling of sleepiness and it was not until we both awoke from a nap that we realized how odd it was and that it had to be the Valerian in the back of the car. We drove the rest of the way home with all the windows down and we were able to stay awake.
In the winter I dry roots by my wood stove or use a food dryer.
Outdoor Herb Drying
Be careful to protect them from light, insects and night moisture if drying the plants outside. I have a breezeway area that I hang some herbs in to dry. They are protected here from moisture by having a roof over them and it is in a breezy area so they dry quicker with the air movement. Putting them in an area with a roof over them is helpful to keep the dew off off in the morning as well as protecting them from rain. Even the canopy of a tree can help with this. If you just lay them out on a sheet under the sky and you have dew in the AM, they will be wet and you may end up with moldy herbs in the end. If you have heavy fog in the area, even a roofed area may not be protective enough.
Drying On A Large Scale
Most of what I am sharing with you is how to dry herbs on a small scale in your home or for a small business. This all changes when you dry herbs on a large scale. Note all the Chamomile flowers drying in the photo. When you get this many, you simply need to get creative in a home environment. Here sheets are being used. My great grandmother used sheets to dry all herb herbs under a shady tree. However, sheets hold moisture in and they are not a good idea. (In a moist climate sheets under a tree have to come inside at night or dew will be on your dried herb in the morning.) In the situation in the photo, the flowers can only be laid out one flower deep, and they have to be moved around a bit to allow air to get to all sides. This is not an ideal situation. It is much better to have some type of screen material under the flowers that will allow air flow. A fan would be necessary in this room.
Drying Different Anatomical Parts of the Herbs
Aerial Herb Parts
When you collect the aerial parts still on the stem of the plant, you can dry the plant in small bunches. Simply make small bunches that allow good air circulation to all the plants. I usually tie them up with string but you can use rubber bands, twist ties, wire or whatever you have as long as it is clean. Hang them out of direct sunlight in a warm room with good air circulation as mentioned above.
When you collect roots, you first need to clean them up. Wash off the soil with cool water and remove rocks and other debris on them. Generally, they will need to be cut into smaller pieces to dry well. How small you need to cut them depends on a few factors. If the root is easy to crush or cut up after drying I only need to cut it small enough to dry quickly. However, if a root is stone hard once it dries, I have to cut it to the size I need while it is still fresh. The ultimate use of the root is another factor in how small I cut the roots. Lastly, how difficult it is to dry is another factor. A nutritious root like Comfrey tends to grow mold on it if it is not cut thinly or small and dried quickly. With Valerian root, I just chunk up the upper part and don't worry about the small roots. They are thin and dry quickly in my food dryer or by my wood stove.
Roots can be dried on screens, in baskets, or any method that allows airflow around them. Since you are harvesting roots in the winter, if you have a wood stove going, they provide great heat for drying the herbs. A small fan can also be used that will not only help dry the roots but will send the wood stove heat and the great smell of the herbs throughout the room.
Seeds are usually dried on the plant and do not need much drying after harvest. They are simply harvested at maturity on a day when they are not moist. If you live in a humid environment like mine you will have to let them sit out in a dry, warm area for a week minimum to dry a bit extra. If in doubt, simply let them dry a week or so to be sure they will not grow mold on them.
When drying flowers they are usually dried on a screen or basket. Make sure there is only one layer of them and that the air can get around most of the flowers so they will dry quickly.
When drying fruits such as Hawthorne, I have an extra step I take. I harvest them after the first frost to kill any bug eggs as the bugs love Hawthorne. Next, I dry the small fruit on a screen. I will additionally put them in the freezer for a week. Make sure the dry fruit is in an air tight container. This will kill off any bug eggs that might still be viable in the fruit. This is a method used by organic growers often. When you purchase such items from a conventional grower they may have used an insecticide to do the same thing. So be aware to always buy organic or carefully wildcrafted if you do not grow or wildcraft your own.
Long Term Storage
Once the herbs are dried, store them in a cool, dry, dark location in airtight containers. If the storage area has light, the containers must be opaque. Ultra-violet light, air and heat are the agents that degrade the herbs. I tend to use a lot of canning jars in sizes of 16 oz, 32 oz, 64 oz and 1 gallon. Any air tight, preferably glass container will work.
Vacuum sealers will give you added shelf life. Most of the vacuum sealers on the market will not only draw air out of plastic bags but also out of canning jars. Any jar that takes a “large mouthed” canning lid can be used with these vacuum sealers. Check your vacuum sealer’s directions to see if yours will do this.
Label the containers with the name and the date harvested. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you will recognize all your herbs later as you may not. This is especially true if you are new to collecting herbs.
How To Store Different Parts of Herbs
These can be stored on their stalks or if the stalk is not necessary, the leafy parts can be removed from the stalks and this will save on storage space. Try not to break the leaves up much as they will last in storage longer if they are not broken up.
Roots will last longer if stored in their whole form.You may have had to cut them up small if they are a root that is terribly hard when dried. That is okay. These really hard, dense roots will keep okay even after cutting them up small. Their density will protect them from degradation. However, I suggest checking on them in a year to make sure they are still useful.
Seeds are easy. They are usually stored whole. It is usually best to take them out of the pods if you dried them in the pods. Taking them out of the pods makes sure there are no bugs hiding inside the pod. Additionally, some pods will draw moisture into the pod and cause the seed to mold. It also takes more storage space to store the seed inside a pod.
Flowers are usually best kept in their whole form and broken up when you go to use them. They are easily damaged, so handle them carefully.
Depending on the size of the fruit, you will have dried it whole or cut it up into smaller pieces. What ever size it has been dried in will be find for storage. Do not cut them smaller until you plan to use the fruits. Some fruits will be so hard when you go to make a tea or tincture out of them that you will need to let them soak in the menstruum or tea water before breaking them up.
How Long Do The Herbs Last?
When stored carefully flowers and leaves maintain their medicinal properties for about one year. Many roots will last 2 years. Bark may last from 2-3 years. Seeds are best used within one year. This is just a general rule of thumb. How well you dried and stored your herb will change the length of time it will still be vibrant and useful. You will need to use your own senses to decide when an herb is no longer potent. If you dry the herb perfectly and store it in an air tight container with no moisture, no light and at 40-50 degrees all year long you will exceed these storage times by leaps and bounds.
How Do you Know if the Herb is Still Potent?
The best method for most folk herbalists to use in deciding the potency of an herb is the organoleptic method. This is the art of using natural senses to discern the quality of a particular herb. Quality can be ascertained through aroma, sight and tactile sensations. Each herb should have a strong odor and vibrant coloration unique to itself. This is something you learn over time. It helps to spend some time with a seasoned herbalist to learn this technique quicker.
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