Medicinal herbs, leaves, flowers, seeds, bark, and roots can all be used to treat any ailment. The active ingredients in herbs are volatile oils (essential oils) and other chemical constituents. As powerful as these constituents are, they are easily destroyed by light, air, and heat.
To get and maintain the best quality of herbs, full of medicinal essential oils, it’s necessary to take care from the initial sourcing of the herb and how they are harvested, to how they are prepared, stored, and used. Proper actions in all of these stages will maintain the potency of the herbs for long-term storage.
Mistake #1-Buying Dried Herbs From The Grocery Store
If you buy dried herbs from the grocery store, you might not get the best herbs for medicinal use. Store-bought herbs are usually already crushed up, meaning some of their potency has diminished, and they are probably not grown organically.
The best herbs are the ones you grow yourself as you can ensure their freshness, keep them whole, and grow them organically.
Mistake #2-Harvesting Herbs At The Wrong Time
The best time to harvest your herbs is in the morning after the dew has dried up and the sun hasn’t had a chance to heat them. This time of day ensures the highest concentration of volatile oils in the plant.
As soon as the herbs are mature enough, you can begin and continue harvesting right up to the point of flowering. Remember not to cut more than a third of the plant to ensure continued growth.
Mistake #3- Not Washing Herbs Before Drying
All cut herbs need to be washed before drying. Dirt and bacteria will decay the herbs, making them unsuitable for storage or medicinal use. Wash them in cold running water to get rid of the dirt, shake out any excess water and pat dry before attempting to dry them. Here’s how to get your own independent source of water.
Mistake #4- Not Drying Herbs Thoroughly Before Storing
Herbs need to be thoroughly dried before storing, or mold will develop and ruin your whole batch. Incorrect drying will also deplete the medicinal value of your herbs. There are a number of ways to dry herbs, depending on your preferences or situation.
To air dry herbs successfully, the temperature needs to be above 85°F with humidity below 60%. The stems can be bound together in little bunches and hung upside down in any dry, warm, well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight. Hanging the herbs upside down ensures all the essential oils are concentrated and preserved within the leaves. Keeping the herbs out of direct sunlight will also preserve their medicinal value.
Alternatively, herbs can be spread in a single layer on a screen. Drying takes about 1-2 weeks. It’s important not to over dry the herbs as their valuable properties will be lost. Herbs are ready for storage when they crumble (not shatter) easily in your hands.
If the correct temperature and humidity levels cannot be achieved where you are, it’s possible to use a food dehydrator instead. Herbs should be spread thinly over the dehydrator trays. Consult the instruction manual for the precise temperatures and times for different herbs which will be between 95-115°F. Herbs are dried within 1-4 hours, depending on the type of herb. Keep checking the trays and take out any leaves that are ready.
Ovens can also be used but at very low temperatures of 105-120°F for a few hours.
Spread the leaves again in a single layer on a cookie sheet or parchment paper, turning the sprigs regularly and taking out any that are dry.
Microwave ovens will dry herbs very quickly and need to be checked every 20-30 seconds until the ideal dryness is achieved. Use microwaves with ratings of 1,000 watts or less.
Place single layers of leaves between 2 paper towels and turn frequently when checking for dryness.
Mistake #5-Not Pasteurizing Dried Herbs
In order to be completely confident that there are no live insects or eggs in the herbs that could spoil your batch, it’s necessary to pasteurize them in an oven or a freezer.
Place them in an oven at 160°F for 30 minutes or 175°F for 15 minutes. Alternatively, the dried herbs can be put in the freezer for at least 48 hours.
Mistake #6-Crushing The Herbs Before Storing
Herbs will keep their medicinal properties better if they are stored whole and not crushed. Crushing the leaves results in a greater surface area, promoting a faster loss of the volatile oils, and hence, their healing properties. So, after stripping the dry leaves off the stems, the leaves should be kept whole. When you are ready to use them, you can crush them as you like.
Mistake #7 – Improper Preparation
The shelf life of dried herbs can be extended by infusing them in oil, honey, alcohol, vinegar, or vegetable glycerin. These concoctions need to be prepared in a hygienic way to prevent contamination with bacteria. All jars, bottles, tins, and zip-lock bags need to be sterilized before use.
It’s also important not to overheat oils, syrups, or honey as they may get oxidized, rendering them unfit for consumption. It’s always best to use a candy thermometer to avoid this from happening.
Mistake #8-Not Adding Preservatives
When making salves, it is necessary to add some natural preservatives such as rosemary oil extract or Vitamin E to help the salve keep for longer. Syrups keep better when sugar or honey is used as well as an addition of alcohol. Syrups also need to be kept in a dark bottle in a refrigerator. Tinctures need at least 25% alcohol or more for a long shelf life. Infusions using glycerin should contain at least 55% glycerin to enable storage at room temperature.
Mistake #9-Incorrect Storage Conditions
All your dried herbs, infusions, and salves should ideally be stored in dark-colored glass bottles or metal containers as long as the lids are tight-fitting. This is because light will cause the volatile oils to evaporate and deteriorate quickly.
Alternatively, clear glass containers can be stored in a cardboard box to block out the light. Avoid plastic containers as chemicals can leach into the herbs over time. They also need to be stored in a dry, cool place away from heat or light sources.
Mistake #10-Lack of Cleanliness When Using
Care needs to be taken when using infusions and salves so that they don’t become contaminated with bacteria. All droppers, spoons, etc. should be sanitized before use. Don’t let a dropper touch your mouth when administering as many germs are found in the mouth. You also need to wash your hands thoroughly before applying a salve to prevent bacteria from contaminating the salve and reducing its shelf life.
The Bottom Line
All herbs will lose their potency over time, so it’s vital to slow that process as much as possible by taking certain precautions along the way. The advice above will help you to preserve your herbs and preparations for longer whilst also keeping their medicinal properties intact.
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