How to Harvest and Store Your Medicinal Herbs
Cultivating herbs for therapeutic purposes is a serious function, and you want the best possible results and quality from your crop. It’s important to know when to harvest, as well as the right way to do it.
The job doesn’t end with harvesting medicinal herbs, however; the next step of preserving them is just as critical for long-term storage. Doing it properly ensures your harvest will be safe and in mint condition for future use. These tips will help you get the most out of your precious herbs.
Best Time to Harvest
Your herbs should be harvested when they are mature and the flavour and aroma reach their peak. Correct timing depends on the part of the plant you are harvesting, and what you plan to use it for.
- When you grow herbs for seeds, you should collect them when the seed pods start to change color but before they burst.
- Herbs such as chamomile that are grown for flowers should be harvested just before they reach full bloom.
- If you grow herbs for their foliage, these should be gathered before they begin to flower. Chives, for example, are beautiful when they are in bloom, but flowering can spoil the flavour of the leaves.
Here are some guidelines for harvesting common herbs:
Plants cultivated for their roots, such as chicory and ginseng, should be collected only in the fall after the leaves have faded.
How to Harvest Medicinal Herbs
The best time to harvest any plant is early in the morning after the dew has dried up and before the sun becomes too hot. Pinch or cut the stem about 5 mm above the leaves as you do when you’re pruning it. Don’t just pull the biggest leaves off the plant, this will cause damage to the step and almost ensure they won’t regrow. Rather, snip a branch off the plant and then strip the leaves after you’ve removed it.
When you’re harvesting flowers, either cut the entire flower off the stem just below the bloom, or cut the stem with the attached flower. Both methods will enable the plant to regrow another flower quickly, but having stems on the flowers could be helpful when you’re drying them.
Storing Herbs for Later Use
There are multiple different ways to store your herbs for later use, and your choice depends on what you plan to do with them and how long you need to store them. Methods include drying, freezing or preserving, and there are various options for each.
This is one of the most widely-used methods of preserving medicinal herbs, and it works especially well for woody-stemmed plants like rosemary, oregano, and lavender. It’s simple to do, just by cutting off the stems, bundling the herbs, and hanging the bundles up to dry. Just make sure the herbs are free of moisture to prevent the growth of mould. You can also dry them using a food dehydrator to speed up the process and avoid the risk of contamination.
#2: Making Oil or Butter
Add the cut herbs to olive oil to preserve them, or make them into herb-flavoured butters. Doing this helps reduce wilting and discoloration, and retains the flavour better than other methods. Remember the herbs must be completely moisture free before you add them to oil, or you could cause bacterial contamination. For this reason, it’s best to dry them using the methods listed above before adding them to the oil or butter.
The more tender, leafy herbs such as basil and mint are best frozen to preserve their flavours and properties. You can either:
- Coat them with oil and freeze them flat in a ziplock freezer bag,
- Chop them in a blender and add oil to form a paste, then freeze it, or
- Dice them and add them to ice cube trays filled with water. This makes them easy to thaw when you need them.
You can preserve herbs using vinegar, salt or even sugar. Save bottles and corks from your kitchen to use for this purpose. Add your herbs to clean glass bottles and pour in a mild white vinegar for delicate herbs, or apple cider vinegar for more strongly-flavoured herbs. Lie herbs flat in layers in an airtight container with salt or sugar between them for savoury or sweet storage results.
Once you break out your medicinal herbs, either use them up right away or refrigerate them and use within 7 days, so they retain their quality and healing properties.