Updated: Jul 29, 2021
Harvest time is in full swing for herbalists and many people will ask us about the way in which they should harvest the plants they hope to use for making food and medicine. So we thought we would give you a quick crash course this month on best practices for herbal harvesting.
Herbs should be harvested in clean, unpolluted areas away from roadsides, sprayed farm fields, toxic dump sites or other suspect activity. Harvest in places where there is an abundance of the plant you are gathering. A general rule of thumb is to only gather 1/3 or less of the same species in any given area to ensure sustainable harvest sites. Also make sure to check if a plant is on the environmental watch or Provincial restriction list. This will indicate whether you can actually pick this plant in your area. This can be found on most Provincial government websites.
Harvesting medicinal herbs is best done in the morning just after the dew has dried or any time on dry cloudy days.
Harvesting by the moon—many herbalists believe that the plant medicines are strongest when harvested in harmony with the cycles of the moon. Traditionally, the underground parts of the plant are harvested at the dark of the moon, and the above ground parts during the waxing or full moon.
Thunderstorms—another auspicious time to gather herbs is just before a thunderstorm when the plants become very vibrant and electrified or charged, hence especially potent at that time. Pay attention to the plants next time you experience a thunderstorm building up.
Roots: are gathered in spring and fall. This is when the ‘energy’ and nutrients of the plant is concentrated in the roots and they are considered most potent.
Leaves: are best gathered before the plant makes its flower. Plants concentrate much of their vitality into flowering and seed production, so leaves are considered less potent at that time.
Flowers: harvest just before fully opened as they begin to wilt and lose their vitality soon after picking once fully bloomed. Some recipes call for flower buds. These are best picked when swollen but little or no flower colour is visible yet.
Seeds/Berries: harvest seeds on dry days when seeds are fully ripened. It can be tricky to get the timing right as many are designed to disperse themselves at the most optimum harvesting time. Watch seeds carefully and be ready when they are. Berries are best harvested after a light frost.
Bark: harvest bark when the sap is running, spring or fall. Be careful to only harvest from one side of the tree or shrub otherwise you may kill the plant if you remove too much protective bark.
Harvesting herbs is really very simple, much like harvesting food from your garden. Tools you may need are a shovel for roots, scissors or a sharp pocketknife for tough-stemmed plants, and a pruning saw to cut branches for barks. Allow yourself time after a harvesting expedition to process the herbs before they wilt or lose vitality.
Roots: need to be washed carefully (a vegetable brush works best) and then cut into small pieces and spread on trays or screens to dry. A food processor works great to chop most roots. Some people dry their roots whole, but once dry they can be very difficult to chop up to use for teas and other formulas later. Pre-cut roots are very handy and easy to use.
Leaves and flowers: plants can be bundled together and hung to dry or spread loosely on screens or newspapers. Another method is to put them in brown paper bags and hang them on a clothesline in the shade. This only works on dry, low humidity days.
Barks: peel the bark off the branches in thin strips with a very sharp knife. Then cut the strips into smaller pieces with sturdy scissors. The inner bark is what you are after but it is okay to leave the outer bark on, too. Spread on screens to dry.
Seeds/Berries: you can dry these by hanging them (still on the plant stem) in a paper bag. Tie at the top and cut a few air slits near the top for ventilation. Hang in a dry, shady area. The seeds/berries will fall into the bag as they dry.
Herbs should always be dried out of the direct sun. Low oven drying is generally not recommended but occasionally is necessary in humid weather. Many herbs contain precious volatile oils that easily evaporate with high heat.
Dried herbs should be stored out of the light. Herbs have a limited shelf life so try to harvest only what you think you will use. Leaves and flowers keep 1-2 years if cared for properly. Roots, barks and seeds keep up to 3 years, sometimes longer.
Always be sure you have positively identified the plants before you harvest them. Label all your herbs carefully with name of plant, date of harvest and any other information you might need.