Wednesday 3 September 2008

Honouring the Ants

In three days time I shall be journeying skywards to the hopefully sunnier climes of West Coast USA. It is nearly seven years since I last visited Oregon and thirteen years since I last set foot upon Californian soil. It will be good to be going back and smelling the eucalyptus trees again and hearing the thunder of the Pacific Ocean.

So much to do and so little time to do it! After the emotional turmoil of my parents’ frailty and trying to do something to celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary and my mother’s 80th birthday, all I could think about was processing the last of my herbs just in case something dreadful happened to them while I was away.

It struck me, as I was sitting on the patio last Saturday nursing my aching back and diligently transferring dried herbs into glass jars, that I don’t have free weekends. If I’m at home and not committed to public healing or doing some writing, I’m decanting tinctures or vinegars or sorting out dried herbs or making oils or syrups. I made a huge issue last year that it had taken me a whole day in October to process the dried calendula and all the other dried herbs, yet this year I must have dedicated at least three entire weekends to herbal products, not to mention the countless evenings after work cooking double infused oils or finishing off syrup evaporations before adding the honey or sugar.

I’m a terrible one for lists. I make notes of how many words I’ve written per story or story segment and how long it’s taken me to write them. Somehow I find it comforting to notice that a story which was only 5,000 words a few months ago has now expanded to 25,000 and if I add up other portions of each character’s tale, I might have enough for a book if I can just find the time to finish it!

I’ve started doing the same with herbs. Not content with keeping a herbal diary this year, I’ve now put together a spreadsheet to show what I’ve done with each herb. So far this year, out of 85 different plants I have dried 43, made 24 different double infused oils and one sun-infused oil, 33 different tinctures, 14 infused vinegars, 3 infused honeys, and 7 combination syrups. I haven’t made any flower essences for myself, but people who have attended workshops have made 13 different kinds of flower remedy. It’s no wonder there is no room in my larder for food, most of the shelves are completely taken over by herbal products!

If you are thinking of harvesting and storing your herbs, here are some hints and tips to help you make the most of them.

Pick your herbs after the dew has gone from them and before the midday sun has stressed them. Some herbs need to be picked before they flower e.g. lemon balm, mint, while others need to be picked when they flower e.g. boneset, motherwort. Others can be picked whenever you need them such as comfrey, marshmallow, plantain. (see tables)

Drying is possibly the easiest way to preserve herbs either to keep throughout the winter or until you decided what you would like to do with your harvest. Drying takes some thought and preparation to achieve the best results.

If you have a warm airy room away from the light, you can hang your herbs up in small bunches until they are dry and leave them as intact as you can for as long as you can. If you have a spare bedroom, both the bed and the floor space can be utilised for laying out your herbs on sheets of newspaper or an old cotton sheet. Cover them with another sheet or newspaper and leave until dry.

If you have a warm space to hang your herbs but you can’t keep out the light, put your herbs inside a paper bag and hang the bag up. If you are drying lavender or any other plant which is likely to shed seeds once dried e.g. heartsease, it is much easier to dry it inside a paper bag rather than have the seeds or heads fall off so you lose a significant part of your harvest.

If your herbs might contain moisture e.g. elderflowers, it is much better to dry them flat and separate on a sheet of paper, rather than altogether in a paper bag where mould may grow. It is heartbreaking to lose your entire harvest because it has grown mouldy.

Never be tempted to pick leaves which have even a touch of mildew on them. The mildew will grow during the drying process and your harvest will be worthless.

Some people buy a purpose built desiccators or make one. These can be used to dry fruit as well as herbs.

There will be times when the herbs you pick are wet. You will then need to decide whether you air dry them, by laying them flat somewhere or put them next to or in a heat source. Always try to use the lowest heat setting you can. You are aiming to dry the herbs, not cook them.

If you are collecting seeds, it is worth spending the extra time preparing them properly. Haws can be dried whole. Nettle seeds should be either hung up in bunches whilst still on the stems or laid flat on newspaper. Rosehips should be split in half and the seeds and pitch removed before drying. NB The insides of rosehips are irritating to the skin and used to be used as itching powder!

Both hips and haws need a heat source to dry properly unless you are living in hot country. If you have a hot water tank or a cupboard where hot water pipes run through or radiators which warm up regularly, you can place the seeds there. Leave for a month or more before you remove them to see if they are properly dry.

Roots need to be thoroughly washed (i.e. scrub with a scrubbing brush, wash, scrub and wash again) and cut into 1” sections before drying. If the root is thick, cut it in half. Roots are probably best dried in the bottom of the oven on the lowest heat setting or pilot light, ensuring air can circulate all round them. Leave the oven door slightly open during the drying to allow the moisture to escape. Dry as slowly as you can and turn everything over from time to time to ensure evenness.

To make sure your herbs keep their “strength”, they should be stored in a cool, dark place in bottles or jars with screwtop lids. Ideally brown or green glass would be the most preferable, but since most jars are clear glass, you can overcome the problems of light by placing the jar inside a paper bag once it is full. This ensures the herb stays colourful and potent for up to a year and sometimes more.

If you have picked and dried the whole aerial part of the plant, you may need to remove the leaves and/or flowers from the main stem, since this might not be as dry as the other parts. Try to keep everything as whole as you can. Once you have crushed a leaf, all its aromatic oils will be lost and so will its efficacy.

Herbs with a great deal of moisture/resin take a while to dry (at least one month). Calendula flower heads are best dried whole, but the only part which is kept are the petals. Each petal has to be plucked from the centre and then stored in a glass jar. If exposed to the light, they will lose their colour very quickly, but if encased in a paper bag, they will still be vibrantly orange twelve months later.

Nettle seeds are best removed from the stem by passing through a metal sieves. This ensures you only get the seed and not the leaves or any other dried inhabitants.

Make sure your jars are labelled and dated correctly. Despite your best intentions, you may not be able to remember which leaf or flower was which and if you don’t have the correct date on it, you will not know whether the herb is 6 months or 18 months old.

Some herbs such as lemon balm, St Johns wort and tarragon, have a very short shelf life when dried. It can be easier to store them by freezing the plants fresh from the garden rather than drying them. This also applies to cleavers, shepherds purse, chickweed and possibly heartsease. All these herbs lose vitality once they are dried and should be tinctured or infused into oil when they are fresh.

Place the fresh herb into a plastic freezer bag, remove the air and freeze until needed. If you want the herbs specifically for tea, you can chop the herbs (either by hand or in a coffee grinder), make the tea with less water than usual but do not strain out the herbal matter and then freeze the liquid in ice cube trays. This is an especially good way of making fresh mint sauce in the middle of winter!

Rotating your stock
Once you start keeping your own herbal supplies, you will need to monitor everything on a regular basis. If you use what you have harvested, the dried herbs will disappear, but if you have collected some “just in case” and you haven’t given it away to friends, family or passing salesmen, it will sit there until you decide to do something about it.

Most herbs, properly dried, will keep for at least twelve months and can be replaced by next year’s harvest. If you don’t gather that herb the next year for some reason then sometimes you can keep using the old stock, but use double quantities. Unless you have real need for a dried herb which is more than twelve months old, throw it out and compost it or give it to your local re-enactment society so they can have real herbs in their apothecary’s booth. Once a herb loses its colour or develops mould, remove it.

The wonderful thing about collecting your own herbal stock is that the herbs you need will be there when you want them. They will be better quality than those you can buy and they will be better for you because they have grown in the same environment in which you live.