By Larry Plesent
It is safe, free, fun and easy to dry your own herbs for those long winter nights to come. All you need is a ball of string and sturdy scissors or small pruners. Here’s how to do it.
Start with clean, green, fresh, healthy plants grown away from pesticide and herbicide spraying. Discard yellowed, dead, moldy, or insect-ridden parts or plants. Cut stems near the ground leaving a two inch handle to tie your string to for hanging them. Harvest plants in bright sunlight while they are still photosynthesizing. Try to time things so you are harvesting on a sunny day after a light rain the day or night before to clean off the plants.
Herbs dry best upside down in a bundle. How big a bundle? That depends on the plant. What you don’t want is a big mass of green leaves bunched together tightly so no air can get through. You want the plants to dry out completely, and to do it fast enough so that mold and mildew never get a chance to get hold.
Plants with an umbrella shape have lots of room for air flow so you can bunch them up in larger bundles. Even up the ends of the stems. Cut off excess stems leaving about two inches below the leaves. Wrap a single strand around the stem twice and pull the ends tight. Tie with a figure eight or a granny knot.
Make smaller bundles of the denser leafy plants so air can circulate through them as they dry.
Dusty plants can be rinsed in cold water before bundling. Shake and snap off as much water as possible before hanging them in front of moving air, fan or air conditioner.
Hang your bundles from nails, screws, or to a string tied between two strong points that allows the free flow of air around and behind the drying herbs. I have been known to dry herbs on the porch, in the living room and in the kitchen. Avoid placing fresh drying herbs in moist areas like the bathroom or basement. Some plant material will inevitably fall on the floor so lay down a sheet or cloth below your herbs if you have wall to wall carpeting or don’t want to deal with a messy area under them.
You should harvest herbs and flowers when they are full of life, before they go to seed. Try to get them in early flower or just before. Some of my favorite drying herbs include mint family members like catnip, apple mint, horehound, peppermint and spearmint. I tie them in little bundles, and, within a couple of weeks, I have a yummy refreshing tea that may help with the occasional stomach ache too.
You can dry wormwood in early flower with nettles, fresh ginger and chaga mushroom (found on birch trees) to make the herbal bitters described in www.cancereraser.org. Check it out if you or someone you love is dealing with cancer.
I also like drying roses, hydrangeas (the petals can get loose so be prepared with a cloth below them) and lavender flowers for potpourri. Stir in a little essential oil blend for some extra strength.
Pick St. John’s Wort when the yellow flowers appear. The tea is used for mild seasonal depression. Effectiveness drops off after six weeks of use so save it for when you really need it. Steep fresh St. John’s Wort or calendula flowers in olive oil for a month to make an inflammation destroying topical healing oil.
Red raspberry leaves make a soothing pregnancy tea. Begin taking it in the second trimester for best results.
A good test for when an herb has dried enough is to break a stem near the bottom. If it snaps with a clean sound and breaks off easily the herb is dry enough for jarring. Remove herbs from stems by grasping the tops with one hand and sliding the other hand down the stem towards the bottom, sloughing off the leaves, flowers and small sticks in one move. Most plants come cleaner working top to bottom. Place your plant material into a clean brown paper bag for another 2 to 3 days to finish drying them. Store in glass jars with tight fitting lids. Label with the plant’s common and Latin name and the date you packed it into jars. Canning jars or recycled mayo type screw lid jars work best.
There are many good herbal guides out there and only one that should be avoided; Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. Written in 1653, Culpeper’s book utilizes the principle of like heals like. A brown oval leaf looks somewhat liver-like, so it must be good for your liver. Wormwood looks like worms or snakes growing out from a central stem; hence it must be good for internal parasites. Thistle has a purple flower (the color representing the head); so it must be good for brain issues. And so forth. Culpeper did more damage to the reputation of herbal medicine than any individual or institution in history, inadvertently promoting the ascension of modern medicine over plant based nature medicine techniques.
Green plants arose about 450 million years ago. Plants are chemical factories, and they have been producing molecules that discourage cancer, viral, fungal and bacterial growth every day of their 450-million-year history. As humans we can harvest and concentrate those molecules to make our own healing medicines. Plant medicines work precisely because we humans are part of the same ecosystem as those plants and share extensive DNA with them. Many modern medicines are in fact useful plant molecules that we have learned to synthesize and later patent and press into a brightly colored tablet.
Disease is part of life, and life has been curing itself for at least half a billion years. I believe that for every disease on earth, there is a plant-based cure in the same ecosystem that contains the disease. Shamans may shake their rattles, speak in dead languages, insert IVs and consider themselves the experts in their field; but it is nature that truly holds the answers we seek.
We live in a time when people seem to believe we are separate from or independent of the ecosystem that begat us. One might argue that such a notion is at the root of three centuries of bad decision making now culminating in the long term alteration of our world. Quite possibly, it has even been sowing the seeds of our own extinction. Will we humans recall and live in the knowledge of our Earth Wisdom in time? Possibly. The future is now in our collective hands.
Larry Plesent is a writer, philosopher, part-time farmer and soap maker living and working in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Learn more at www.vermontsoap.com.