LEARN HERBAL MEDICINE- How to Dry, Cure, and Prepare Herbs for Storage
Written by: Zach Champ
Why is the proper storage of medicinal herbs important?
There are several reasons why you will want to properly store your medicinal herbs. Perhaps the most important is to prevent spoilage of your herbs, especially if you harvest your herbs from a garden which you spent months caring for. The last thing you want to happen is to invest all the time and hard work maintaining your crops only to have them spoil and go bad before you can use them! Proper storage of herbs will also allow you to extend the use of them over longer periods of time. If you maintain an herbal apothecary you won’t necessarily need to use all the herbal medicine you forage for right away when it’s fresh. Sometimes you will need to save certain herbs for later use or as an on-hand remedy for sudden sickness or illness.
When should I harvest herbs for drying and curing?
You should harvest your herbs shortly before they enter the reproductive flowering stage of their lifecycle. Depending on your climate, location, and the plants you are working with, this can be at different times of the year from spring to fall. Sometimes you will need to harvest a non-flowering part of the plant such as leaves, root bark, or seeds. You will need to do research for each plant to find the optimal time to harvest each of its different parts. The best time to harvest any plants will be in the morning before peak sun. Plants create essential oils that they secrete early in the day and these essential oils are responsible for the taste, aroma, and medicinal healing actions of many plants. Harvesting plants when they have higher concentrations of essential oils will result in more powerful nutritional and medicinal effects!
To learn more about harvesting and foraging for plants check out our other article in the Learn Herbal Medicine blog series at this link here.
How do you properly prepare medicinal herbs and spices for storage?
The easiest way to prepare herbs for storage is to air dry them. The first step after harvesting your desired crop is to lightly rinse and wash off your collected plant specimens to remove any dirt or bugs that may be lingering. Remove any dead or yellowing leaves from your cuttings. You will then want to air dry your herbs by bundling the cuttings at the end of the branches and hanging these to be suspended in the air. Make sure the cuttings are bundled so that they are lightly bound together and not compressed. The warmed room temperature air will flow easily through the cuttings helping promote the dehydration process.
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Drying racks or Dehydrators can be used to help dry large amounts of cuttings at once. A drying rack works very similarly to regular air drying, sometimes even incorporating passive solar heating from the energy of the sun to help further along with the procedure. Ordinarily, a Dehydrator has different layers of metal trays upon which you can place your herbs, vegetables, and fruit on. Drying racks will usually take several hours to fully dehydrate your harvested plant products, but the wait is well worth it for the reward of delicious dried fruit and vegetables which you can enjoy all year long!
Photo Courtesy Google Images
Photo Courtesy Google Images
If you don’t have a drying rack or Dehydrator, and you need to quickly dry out your herbs you can use your oven. Place the plant parts you want to dry out in a single layer on a baking pan. Turn your oven on to the lowest temperature- preferably 150°-200°. Place the baking tray in the oven and keep the oven door ajar slightly to let air ventilate while the plants dry out. Allowing ventilation will prevent your plant material from burning. You will want to keep the tray in the oven anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours depending on the specific plant or fruit being dried and the moisture content.
How do I cure and store my own medicinal herbs for long-term use and storage?
Curing is the process by which water and moisture are removed from organic material like herbs or meat through the process of osmosis. Osmosis is the movement of water particles from an area of high concentration to low concentration in an attempt to create a balanced equilibrium. Curing processes can involve the use of cooking, smoking, or adding spices and minerals like salt to promote dehydration of the cured material. Dehydration is important because the presence of water in food can promote the growth of bacteria and other microbes resulting in food spoilage. When it comes to medicinal herbs and spices you will want to cure them so they are prepared for long-term storage.
Another popular method is canning your herbs in airtight glass jars using glass mason jars. Canning is one of the most enjoyable ways of preparing herbs and vegetables and even other natural products like meat for long-term use! There is no limit to what you can achieve with canning! The process for canning will vary depending on what specifically you are preparing to store, but in general, it involves storing desired herbs or veggies in a mason jar which you fill up with water about ¾ of the way full. When canning you will often add salt to help as a preservative and to help with dehydrating the herbs or vegetables. Once the mason jar is prepared you will seal the jars with the flats and sealing ring that comes with them.
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Additionally, you can also store your medicinal herbs is by creating extracts or tinctures with alcohol, oil, or water. This is a great way to get creative and make delicious vinaigrettes and olive oil infusions for use in salads and as a marinade for meat. Many herbal oil infusions can even be used as topical remedies for common skin health issues such as healing balms and salves!
Check out our future articles on making Herbal Oil Infusions and Extracts!