Friday, August 09, 2019

WILDCRAFTING AND PROCESSING HERBS


by Sandy Michelsen
Previously published in The Essential Herbal Magazine

Living in Northwestern Montana, we have a very challenging growing season.  We have about a two-week window for collecting individual herbs when they are ready for harvesting.  As you begin wildcrafting, you need to know when things bloom or when berries are ripe in your area.  Write on your calendar when the herbs are ready so that next year you will know when to start looking.

You need to familiarize yourself with the identification and uses of herbs to be found in your area.   The very best way to learn about herbs is to go out with someone who can teach you  - eyes and hands on.   
 
 If no one is available, go to your local library and check out the herb identification books.  When you find one (or two or three) you really like, buy your own copy and take it with you everywhere you go.  Read every thing you can.  If you can go on line, you can learn the medicinal properties and pull up real images of individual herbs. I cannot emphasize enough how important proper identification is.  There are some very toxic and deadly plants that look similar to other plants.  Use caution until you know exactly what you are doing.

When you begin harvesting, make sure you are a significant distance from any roadways or sprayed crops and fields, polluted water, etc.  This will prevent contamination from exhaust, oil, herbicides, pesticides or other toxins.

To start, look for herbs that are easily identified and abundant in your area.  Some good examples of these could be dandelion, plantain, chickweed or mullein.  The whole dandelion can be used.  The roots are good for liver detoxing.  Plantain is good for mosquito bites.  Chickweed is a very mild ingredient used in salves, especially for children.  Mullein grows everywhere and has several medicinal uses including for earaches.   
These herbs are common, and you can probably find them in your own back yard or an empty field.  Familiarize yourself with these easy ones.  Learn what part of the plant is used  - flowers, leaves, berries, the whole plant, bark or roots.  Whatever herbs you gather, they need to be processed in some way as soon as possible to preserve medicinal quality.  Your can make tincture with the fresh herb or you can dry them to save for future use.  Make sure you label and date everything on bottles and even when they are on the drying rack. Drying herbs is fairly easy, but it can be time consuming to process all your herbs.  Once they are picked, they need to be quickly handled in different ways.  Flowers or other leafy herbs can be hung upside down or spread out on screens.  Roots on the other hand need to be washed and cut into small pieces before drying.  If you don't do this, you will end up with a bunch of unusable, rock hard roots.

Do not dry herbs in direct sunlight, it will destroy the medicinal properties.  Old window screens work great and you can stack them several layers high with space separating between them.  Excellent circulation is essential.  Drying is easier in areas with less humidity.  Just keep checking them and turning them.  You might even need to use a dehydrator.  Just make sure they are totally dry before putting them in sealed containers.  If they are not bone dry, they will mold and your hard work will be lost.  To keep your dried herbs, glass jars are the best.   However, plastic ziploc bags are also commonly used for storage.  Don't pick more than you can process in a day.  If you plan to make salves you can infuse the fresh herbs into olive oil or any oil of your choice – don't forget to label and date the jars.

There are several ways to make a medicinal tincture. 
This tincture uses 150 proof Everclear, so there is 75% alcohol and 25% water. 

A basic recipe is to fill a quart jar about 1/3 full of dry or 2/3rds full of fresh herbs.  To that, add 40% grain alcohol (Everclear) and 60% water.  Let it cure for at least three weeks. (Some people make tinctures on the New Moon and strain off and bottle them on the Full Moon.)  Put the lid on the jar – label and date it.  Store the jar in a cool/dry place, shaking daily, for at least three weeks and up to six months.  After you remove the herb from the alcohol/water you have a tincture which will last indefinitely.

If you are worried about alcohol, put your dose of tincture in hot water as if making making a tea.  The alcohol will evaporate. Editor's note:  This is not sufficient for those who must avoid all alcohol.

Other tincture can be made with glycerin or vinegar and recipes can be found by doing some research in books or on the Internet.

There is much to learn about wildcrafting.  It takes time and effort and research, but you will have given yourself a tremendous gift once you can confidently identify each herb.  With this knowledge you can teach others and pass it down to your children and grandchildren.

Much of what you need is in your “own backyard” and the closer to home it is harvested the better it is for you.

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