Preserving the Plants: Ramblings & Rants on Storage, Processing & Expiration Dates
You know those hard and fast timelines for storage of tinctures and dried plants included in most herbal books? Well, they suck. Or rather, many of them are terribly inaccurate. But wait, that doesn’t mean your dried herbs are immortal, or that the stuff in the shiny foil bags from herb stores is even worth opening. Here’s a few guidelines and tips for processing and storing your precious medicinals.
I just stuck my face in a bag full of White Sage wildcrafted about seven years ago, and wow, it smells nearly just like the other bag I have that was harvested six months ago. I’ve also got some Wild Mugwort from about four years ago. Made into a tea, it’s still tongue twistingly bitter and pretty damn aromatic too. I even have Rose buds and petals purchased from a high quality grower about two and a half years ago that still make fabulous tea, tincture and vinegar.
But then, I also have a bag of Motherwort bought from a large but respected herbal wholesaler only four months ago that has completely lost it’s kick. I mean, I could be drinking musty grass for all the effect and taste its got. We won’t even talk about that bag of Yarrow flowers from a similar wholesaler that arrived no less than yellow and while it still had some smell, the smell was ALL wrong and weird. I couldn’t even use it, but I did give it a proper composting burial and then go pick some wild Winter Yarrow leaves that were far better despite being harvested during an off-season. Nor should I mention commercial Raspberry leaves. Poor things, I’m not even sure they grow on Raspberry plants.
So what gives? Well, one of the main points here is that hand picked plants have some amazing advantages over industrially harvested or even “organic” herb crops. On a purely practical note, the more you crush the plant the quicker it fades into colorless plant matter anonymity. So avoid “cut and sifted” herbs whenever possible. Go for whole leaf, whole root, whole plant. Some roots, like Redroot, can turn to a impenetrable rock if not broken down at least a little bit, but get to know your plants and go for the least processes form that’s still usable.
If you have to buy your herbs, it’s really nice to go with a place small enough that they can tell you when and where and how that plant was harvested. Even better, they can tell you how this batch tastes, what its growing conditions were like during the growing season and how cute its seedlings were. Generally, if the growers have this kind of relationship with their plants, the herbs you purchase will be vibrant, fresh and still retain a great deal of the essential spirit energy of the living being. With some practice you’ll be able to nearly immediately tell how strong the plant is, if its essential energy is still intact and a very good idea of what its medicine is all about.
You might initially think that buying directly from a small grower would be super pricey. Certainly it can be, but 1) the quality of the herb often outweighs the cost difference, especially when you might have had to use three times as much of the cheaper stuff to match the effect of the high quality herbs and 2) you’ll be amazed that quite often there’s really NOT that much of a price difference. Not to mention the degree to which you can often trade and barter with mom and pop suppliers when you get to know them. These places can be hard to find, but luck for us, jim has a whole list of them (organized by region, no less) right here
If you harvest the plants yourself be sure to process them as quickly as possible. So don’t leave that plastic bag of fresh Birch leaves or Dandelion roots sitting in your car for two weeks, eh? In fact, don’t put the herbs in the plastic bag to begin with, it’ll hold heat and initiate fermentation and cellular breakdown way quicker than a nice open weave basket or even a decent paper bag. When you get back from the garden or field, take care of the plants right away. Bundle them up, tincture them, or spread them out to dry. The longer fresh green things sit all squished together the quicker they turn black and rot. I know because I’ve done this far too many times. Nice compost, lousy medicine.
If you dry them, try to dry them quickly, especially if you live in a humid climate. I’m very blessed to be in the hot and dry SW where even the slimiest, wettest herbs dry to a nice crisp in a few days. For those of you who have wet, heavy summers you might want to invest a sturdy drying rack and a fan with a low setting. Keeping the air moving can help prevent molding and chronically damp plants.
Now that they’re dried, don’t let them hang from the rafters for months. Yes, they look lovely there, but they’ll likely turn brown if you leave them for very long. This is the bad herbal habit I’m most likely to be guilty of. I gather, process and dry in a very timely manner and then they sit there, gathering dust and waiting for me to find time to break them down and store them. If you suspect you’ll have a hard time with this, prioritize your drying racks. Certain plants will need much more immediate attention. The Bee Balm somehow survives being left in the sun, hanging out in the corner for three months or being crowded into a small paper bag with surprising panache and fragrance — but try doing the same thing to fresh Grindelia buds or Elder flowers, NOT a pretty picture. If you triage your drying plants you’ll most likely end up with a much higher survival rate. Flowers and really wet plants need the most attention and quickest storage as a rule, and super fragrant herbs tend to do good outside of their containers, though mineral heavy plants like Nettles and Horsetail also fare quite well.
In order to expediate the process from drying to storing, try to keep processing tools nearby. Clippers, gloves, one big bowl, glass containers, a sharpie and some labels are a nice start. Otherwise you’ll just have a million excuses of why you just can’t process plants right now whenever you seen the mountain of Globemallow in the middle of your bedroom. Or at least, that’s what happens to me.
Storage containers are another concern. Yeah, you may get your plants shipped to you sealed in foil or ziplock bags but that doesn’t mean they should live there forever. Large glass containers stored in a dark place are ideal, so keep a lookout for abandoned pickle containers at your local yard sales. You can also sometimes get a bargain on gallon canning jars at dollar stores and other such unsavory places. If however, you can’t manage to obtain or afford enough glass then food grade plastic buckets are another feasible, if not aesthetically pleasing, choice. Though paper bags a traditional way of storing herbs, I do think that many plants will lose their power more quickly if not stored in a fairly airtight container. Whatever you do, keep them out of the sun and keep them cool, even a paper bag in the closet is far better then being left exposed to sun through a window or heat from a nearby stove. There was a good discussion about all this over at the Herbwifery forum that’s worth checking out.
So how long do the plants last if you do all this right? We’ll here’s a nice quote from Henriette that I think sums it up quite nicely:
Flowers’n'leaf, herb and suchlike usually keep for at least 3 years, possibly more. Roots keep for at least 5 years, possibly more. Lichens keep forever. I don’t have that much bark, but what I have has kept nicely.
I store all my herbs in tight glass jars in a dark cupboard, in room temperature (which doesn’t change much).
The “1 year max” rule for flowers and leaf: pffft. Those authors don’t have a clue. Or perhaps they kept their stuff in plastic bags on an open shelf or something. Or possibly they didn’t pick their own herbs.
This seems correct from my experience thus far but as always, it all depends on varying factors such as climate, plant and individual process. But whatever you do, don’t just toss out a perfectly fragrant bag of Catnip just ‘cuz some book says you should. Have a sniff or a nibble and see what you think.
Sames goes for tinctures, I don’t know how many times I’ve been told, taught or read that tinctures only last a year, or two years, or whatever. Now of course it all depends (again) on the stability of the plant, and percentage of alcohol used and just what you’ve done to that tincture bottle (leaving it on the dashboard while you were in the store, opening the bottle ten times every day etc). I have met plenty of five year old tinctures that are still perfect in every discernible respect, even those made with fresh plants and brandy. In fact, I have yet to have a tincture go off or lose its potency. When I’ve been doing this for thirty years, I’ll probably have a better statistic for you.
What does happen occasionally is that certain tinctures (like Rose) will eat your canning jar lids and turn the tincture black. Gross looking but you can usually save the tincture by using a plastic lid or even putting a layer of plastic wrap between the lid and the jar. Some tinctures regularly eat rubber dropper bottle tops too. I tend to keep those tinctures in small plastic capped bottles and use a separate dropper to dispense them. And as pretty as tinctures are stored in wide mouthed jelly jars, I tend to believe that keeping your tinctures in very small necked containers will extend their lives. Ya’ll got any input on that?
So while it’s ideal on many levels to gather each of your herbs seasonally it’s also good to know that it’s possible to store and preserve your medicines for a good long time. This is especially nice when you can only gather or obtain certain special herbs once in a great while.