“Sourcing Herbs” from The Herbal Handbook
Categories: Ecology & Sustainability Food & Nutrition Health & Healing
by Pip Waller
The following chapter is from The Herbal Handbook for Home & Health by Pip Waller. The book includes 501 recipes for healthy living, covering everything from green cleaning to herbal medicine to natural beauty products to food and drink (alcoholic and nonalcoholic). It’s also fresh off the press this week!
Sourcing herbs needs a little thought. Whether you choose to pick herbs in the wild, grow your own, or buy them, you will need a certain amount of background knowledge. The following pages are dedicated to providing a few guidelines, and the Herb Directory on pages 222–243 can also be used as a starting point to help identify and source plants.
Even if you begin by buying all your ingredients, I hope that as your confidence grows you will be inspired to take a step further and discover living plants in nature. Native wisdom from all over the world states that local herbs are many times more effective than those grown at a distance. It is known that plants adapt their chemistry to their environment.
The feeling of connection that a human can have with the plant world is irreplaceable in its health-giving and balancing propensity. When you get to know living plants, you will begin to see friends everywhere you go.
PICKING HERBS IN THE WILD
Foraging, or wildcrafting, is increasingly popular, and you need not live in the woods to do it. It’s amazing how many useful herbs grow in the nooks and crannies of a city. When gathering from the wild, there are a few important considerations.
First, treat the environment with respect and don’t overforage. A good guideline is to always take a little under half of what is there—and if the plant is endangered, don’t take any at all. If you are gathering the root of a plant, or a whole plant (as opposed to just some flowers, leaves, stems, or bark), then plant some seeds or a new plant. With some plants, you can divide the roots and replant half again.
Second, check for contamination. In farming areas, avoid land that has been crop sprayed, especially recently. In cities, find out the previous use of waste land, making sure it wasn’t used for toxic chemical production, dumping, or such like. It’s also important to be careful that you are not trespassing on private land, and to check local laws about gathering plants.
Plant identification is an invaluable skill, and there are excellent books with clear photographs to help the lone learner. If you take this route, you must be extremely careful not to use the wrong plant: if you’re not sure, leave it alone. While few plants are seriously poisonous, some can harm and even kill you if taken by mistake. There are useful resources online about foraging; I have included some at the back of this book.
Before I pick, I follow the native tradition of asking the plant’s permission in my heart (respecting a “no” if I feel I hear one), and offering gratitude and something in return. In North America, the traditional offering is tobacco; in Europe, it is oats or barley. Even if this seems strange to you, I encourage you to try it. You may be surprised at the warmth it will bring you. The earth is a living treasury, and the more you recognize its offerings, the richer your life will be.
Plants, generally, are easy to please—they like enough (but not too much) light, water, and food, and the right kind of soil. They also respond to love; talking to your plants and caring or them actually makes them grow more abundantly. This attitude can be even more important than the quality of the earth in which they are grown, as shown by the famous ecocommunity of Findhorn, near Forres in Scotland, who have grown impossibly enormous vegetables on soil that was little more than dirt-covered rock.
You can grow some herbs anywhere. They are ideal for urban settings and don’t require a lot of space; many thrive in a windowbox or containers as well as planted in the ground. A lot of herbs—“herbs” being the general word for describing plants used in medicine, or to give flavor and texture in cooking—are especially easy to grow.
Many plants love some attention. The more you pick the flowers of the marigold, for example, the more it will flower. And most plants prefer a sheltered spot and the company of other plants. Check for any individual requirements of the herbs you grow, and grow them simply, using organic or bio methods, for maximum benefit.
Start growing whatever you feel like, and whatever you can easily find. You can sow seeds—try marigold (Calendula officinalis), nasturtium, and Californian poppy as a few easy starters. Or buy small plants to start you off, such as oregano or marjoram, or thyme. I grow a stevia plant (a great natural sweetener) on my bathroom windowsill, where it keeps coming year after year; I keep cutting the stems to use in recipes, and more grow back. Every couple of years I repot it carefully to give it some fresh soil. I tried to grow this plant in the kitchen for a while, but the steaminess in the bathroom seems to suit her more.
Make inquiries locally to see what grows well in your area, and just try growing it. Make friends with local gardeners—they will give you tips, and probably some plants to start you off. Try planting things inside or out: if they are happy, continue as you are; if not, try something else. You will probably be pleasantly occupied and satisfied with your homegrown results.
Harvest plants on a sunny day, picking leaves and flowers around midmorning when the dew has dried. Remember to take a small pocketknife. Keep an eye on the plants you want so that you can pick them at their peak. Choose the healthiest plants or parts of plants. If you plan to use them fresh in a recipe, try to pick and use immediately.
DRYING & STORING HERBS
Wash plants, if necessary, then remove and compost unhealthy or unnecessary parts. Gather the aerial parts (those above ground) into a bundle and tie up at the bottom of the stems, or put them into a paper bag. Hang the bundle or bag in a warm, wellventilated place, indoors or out. Herbs take up to several days to dry depending on conditions.
All parts of plants can be spread out in single layers on trays to dry in a warm, well-ventilated place. Use mesh trays or trays lined with clean dish towels or paper. Turn the plant matter daily to encourage even drying. Roots can be left whole or coarsely chopped (it’s easier to cut them fresh). Flowers and leaves are easier to remove from stems when dry. You can also dry plant material in a dehumidifier.
Aim to dry the plant material enough to stop it turning moldy, without taking all the life away. Store your dried plants in paper bags sealed from the air, or in airtight jars, and keep away from direct sunlight. If dried well, herbs will keep with full properties for at least a year. After this, they will not be as beneficial.
What cannot be grown or foraged can be bought, choosing organically grown ingredients as much as possible. Be responsible when buying wildcrafted herbs, and make sure they were properly picked with sustainability in mind. Reputable suppliers of herbs can be found easily online, and you may be lucky and have a good herbal shop near enough to visit. Find a local herbal practitioner and ask his or her advice about local suppliers. This also puts you in touch with a qualified professional to consult when you need to.
When you are buying herbs in a relatively raw state—for example, dried to use in a recipe—you will easily be able to tell the quality by looking, smelling, and tasting a little.
Some of the recipes in this book include ingredients you will need to buy. All of these are readily available.
Tags: Gardening Herbalism Pip Waller