How Long Do Dried Herbs, Ointments, Syrups and Tinctures Last?
The power of herbs amazes us, and their healing, medicinal, living spirit, you only wish it could last forever! Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed tried-and-true way for an herb power to stay eternally potent. However, there are ways to extend an herbs power for longer periods of time, such as infusing them into different solvents: such as oil, honey, alcohol, or glycerin and storing them safely. Here is a useful guide to give you the information you need on the shelf lives of dried herbs, oils, salves, syrups, and alcohol-based tinctures.
Dry Your Herbs!
If you want to make your herbs last, you have to dry them. Water is the enemy of increasing the shelf life of your herbs. Truly dried herbs have no water left inside of them as any water left in your herbs will increase the chance of microbial growth and will spoil your precious plants. To dry your herbs, I highly recommend using a food dehydrator. If you do not have a food dehydrator, you can always put your herbs in an open oven on low heat, less than 180 degrees Fahrenheit for 2-4 hours, depending on what herb you are drying.
The hot sun also works well, as long as the humidity outside is low. What I like to do is tie my gathered herbs in the string and hang them from a dark place in my closet until they are all dry. Once the herbs are dried, try to keep them in a whole form. If you powder your herbs, they will last less time. The more whole and intact the herb is, the longer its powers will last. Typically this is the chart for how long whole herbs last.
|Whole Leaves and Flowers||1-2 years|
|Whole Seeds and Bark||2-3 years|
|Whole Roots||3 years|
|Whole Fruits/Berries||1 year|
If you are planning on making a salve, tincture, ointment, or syrup: drying your herbs is the first step! All herbs are different, so check the shelf life of the individual herb you are curious about.
Infusing your dried herbs in oil allows you to make a variety of different creations like salves or herbal cooking oils. Oils do happen to go rancid because they oxidize. Oxidation cannot be stopped but there are ways to prevent it, like storing your herbs properly in dark jars and in a cool place away from any source of heat. Typically, herbal oils have a shelf life of 6 months up to three years depending on what type of oil you use. The type of oil you use does impact the shelf life. For example, extra virgin olive oil will last 2-3 years, as avocado oil will only last one year. Here are more examples:
Preserving fruits or herbs in sugar is a tried and true way that inhibits bacterial growth and a yummy way to heal yourself (especially children!). Chemically, sugar preservation works by sugar drawing the water out of food so that microorganisms cannot survive. In order to make a syrup, you must make an herbal decoction first. Decoctions are when the hard parts of plants such as berries, bark, seeds, roots, or mushrooms are boiled into water. Once you strain herbs, you add your solvent (honey or sugar).
The more sugar or honey is used, the better the preservation and the longer the shelf life of your syrup will be. Also, if you add brandy or any type of alcohol to the syrup, it will last longer. Honey-based syrups can last up to three months and sugar-based up to six months. Store in a dark bottle, and seal tightly. All syrups must be refrigerated!
Salves are herbal oils mixed with beeswax that typically last up to one year. Although many salves will work after one year, their effectiveness will fade. The longevity depends on what oil is used, how the salve is stored, and how carefully it is used. A quick tip is to add rosemary oil extract or an antioxidant like Vitamin E to make your salve last longer.
In addition, please wash your hands with soap and water (and dry them very well) before using your salve. This will prevent intruding bacteria from invading and ruining your salve. Jars and metal tins both will preserve your salve equally, but please avoid storing your salve in a plastic container.
Alcohol-based tinctures have a long shelf life, being most potent at two to five years. The higher percentage of alcohol (should always be at least 25%), the longer the shelf life will be. In addition, the more you filter our plant sediment from your tincture increases its longevity. Refrigeration is not necessary as the tincture should be stored at room temperature.
Store in a dark bottle, keeping the tincture out of direct sunlight and away from sources of heat like the microwave, stove, oven, or your favorite smelling candle. Herbal glycerites are shelf-stable, do not require refrigeration, and have a shelf-life of one year when they contain at least 55% glycerin.
As you prepare your herbal creations, you must have a clean environment and sanitized workspace to avoid contamination and bacterial growth. Make sure to sterilize your canning jars, glass jars, tins, or tincture bottles before adding your finished product. Overheating oils, syrups, or honey can increase the risk of oxidation and can even burn your recipe! It is helpful to use a candy thermometer when cooking your mixtures to avoid this. In addition, be careful to sanitize your tools (dropper, spoon, q-tip) that you use to apply or ingest your herb as this could contaminate your preparation.
Try not to touch your mouth with the dropper, as that is a sure place bacteria lives and it will transfer into your tincture Regardless, the bottom line is the more time passes, the less potent your herbal preparation will be. Storing your creation in a dark container in a cool place is a sure way to make your preparation last longer. Please check the smell, texture, color, or taste if you ever have any doubts about whether your product is still usable. If in doubt, throw it out!
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