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Gathering your own Herbs


Collecting one's own plants for use as herbal medicines is perhaps one of the most self-empowering things a person can do, as it implies that they have taken the time and effort to learn about the uses and virtues of the plant and how it might benefit them, how to identify it in its native habitat or how to cultivate it in a garden, and how to prepare it as medicine.  It also implies that a person has chosen to take responsibility for their own health and well being, rather than entirely surrender that faculty to another.


There are, of course, many instances when self-diagnosis, and self-treatment are not good choices; they can indeed be dangerous.  However, when we make use of many of the safe, nurturing herbs found in Nature (such as Burdock, Plantain, Dandelion, or Nettles) as nourishing tonics, this is not really an issue in most cases.  It is important to remember that while nothing is safe for everyone (some people are severely allergic to strawberries), there are many safe herbs outside your doorstep that can improve your health without risking it.  One simply needs to discover what they are.


There are, however, things that need to be learned about the practice of gathering plants so that you not only obtain the most potent and effective herbs possible, but also do not harm the plant populations themselves or needlessly take the life of the plants that you gather.


The first, and absolutely most important of the rules is to POSITIVELY, WITHOUT ANY DOUBT, KNOW THAT THE PLANT YOU ARE HARVESTING IS WHAT YOU THINK IT IS!!!  Never, never, never, ingest a plant of uncertain identity.  This means not only knowing what the plant you intend to gather looks like, but knowing what other plants might look like it.  What follows is a true story regarding this matter.


Two friends of mine came across what they believed were young Cattail roots at the edge of a pond.  Knowing that Cattails are a virtual natural grocery store and that all parts are edible, they both ate small portions of the root.  Within the hour they both felt very ill and spent the next several hours with severe diarrhea and vomiting.  The plant they had eaten was not Cattail, but Blue Flag (Iris).


Imagine several hours of severe vomiting and diarrhea.  Sounds unpleasant, right?  Now consider that this is really a lucky experience.  Had they confused Water Hemlock for Angelica, they would both be dead, after several hours of convulsions and agony.  So, be sure of the plants you gather.  A good field guide that lists poisonous look-alikes is a good investment, as is a field guide of poisonous plants.  I almost always watch a plant species grow for an entire year so that I know what it looks like in all its stages of growth before I will harvest it.


The next most important thing is to gather your herbs with respect to the plants and to the environments that they grow in.  Do not harvest so many plants that you threaten the continuation of that population - even if that means you can't collect as much as you think you need.  Gather roots after seeding, scatter seeds, replant crowns and learn to harvest rhizomes without pulling the growing portion of the plant from the ground.  Even better, learn to wild cultivate the plants that you use so that you not only don't hurt their populations, you help sustain them.  Join the United Plant Savers, a group dedicated to protecting threatened native medicinal plant species from habitat loss and over-collection (plants such as Golden seal, Black Cohosh and Echinacea are threatened in the wild due to their very nature as effective herbs).  Learn what plants are threatened or at risk and only use Organically Grown or Wild Cultivated varieties.  Support herbalists and herb companies that stress conservation of threatened plants.  All of these efforts and practices mean much more to the plants than throwing some tobacco on the ground when you pick them (although I do strongly encourage taking a moment before gathering any plant to offer thanks, respect, and to determine whether it "feels right" to collect it - it doesn't always).  By caring for the plant populations and the land that they grow on, we nurture them, and complete the circle of healing.


Also, it is important to know when to gather plants in order to collect them at their most potent stage of growth.  Although every plant is unique, there are general guidelines for determining this:


Greens  The leaves, stems, and above ground portion of a plant is usually most potent at or just before flowering.  They should be gathered in the morning soon after the sun has evaporated the dew away, and before the plant has spent too much time under the hot sun.  As an example, I have gathered Goldenrod just as the plant has gone to flower, collecting some tops with flower buds, and some tops with the flowers opened.


Flowers  Gather flowers at their peak of blooming, avoiding those that have begun to wilt.  They should be gathered in the morning soon after the sun has evaporated the dew away and before they have sat too long in the hot sun.  Avoid picking flowers on cloudy days, if you can.


Roots  Roots should either be dug in the fall after the plant has seeded or in early spring just as new growth begins.  They should be gathered early in the morning, and before the sun has been overhead too long.  If the foliage of the plant has already begun to die back (Solomon's Seal truns a straw yellow, for example), you can gather throughout the day.  If you can, replant crowns and be sure to leave a sufficient number of plants to continue the population.  If gathering rhizomes, don't dig up the plant, but trace down the stem and find the rhizome in the dirt.  Cut the rear portion of the rhizome a couple of inches away from the stem and pull it up without removing the growing part of the plant from the ground.  This allows the plant to be harvested without much trauma, and is preferable to replanting crowns.


Seeds  Gather seeds when ripe.  For some plants, such as Nettles, cut the tops of the plants off and hang them upside-down to dry.  When dry, shake seeds loose over a clean surface and collect the seeds from there - this will save considerable effort (and, if you are gathering Nettle seeds, an inevitable sting or two. . .). 


Bark  Bark should be gathered in early spring, as this is when the sap starts to flow up from the roots, or in the fall, as the sap is returning to the roots.  Never strip bark in a circle around a tree, as this will prevent the flow of nutrients from the roots to the branches and kill the tree.  Use vertical strip, or prune branches.  Sometimes thinning a crowded population will improve the growth of the other trees; if so, take the whole tree.  It is generally the inner bark that is used in herbal medicine.


Avoid gathering near roads (at least 50 feet), power lines, areas that may have been exposed to fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides or other insidious forms of chemical pollution.  Plants growing around the foundations of old houses, especially those high in minerals, may take up any lead in the soil from old paint jobs.  Obviously, don't gather plants that look sickly, or from an area that doesn't radiate healthy growth.  If you are unsure as to whether it is okay to gather plants from an area, ask for permission from the owner.


After gathering the plants, the next step is called "Garbling".  What this means is to go through what you've gathered, washing dirt off roots and picking out wilted leaves, woody stems, stray grasses and other plants that came along with what you picked.  Garbling can be a tedious experience, but it is really quite delightful, and allows you to get to know the plant you've collected even better.  And it's a fun word to use . . . someone may call and say "What are you doing?", and you can reply, "Well, I just sat down to garble my Spatterdock. . ."  Definitely an interesting way to start a conversation.


Once you've sifted through your herbs, you can either hang them up to dry (in which case, don't strip leaves off the stem while garbling), cut them into smaller pieces to dry (many roots may require this), or chop them up to tincture.  If drying, find a place out of the sunlight with plenty of air and ventilation.  I bundle up herbs and hang them in a closet, or dry them on top of a cupboard near the ceiling, checking on them and turning them so they don't mold.  Above the refridgerator is an excellent location, as the warm air from the fridge is constantly passing over them.  As long as you have gentle heat and air circulation, you shouldn't have to worry too much about mold.  Another option is to dry herbs on a screen or wooden dish rack, which will assure adequate ventilation.


Only when the plants are completely dry should they be put into clean glass jars.  Mason jars are ideal containers.  Though many books say to use amber glass to protect the herbs from light, a Mason jar kept in a dark place works just as well, and costs less.  Also, the boxes make ideal storage containers.


Most herbs, dried and stored properly, will retain their potency for at least a year; roots and barks generally for two.  It is a good idea to date your herbs so you know when you need to replace what.  Some herbs are said to either lose the virtues entirely or greatly diminish in potency upon drying, and these should be tinctured fresh if possible.


Using medicines collected and created by your own hands is an experience entirely unlike using store bought medicines, and, I am convinced, the result is a much more potent remedy because of the personal relationship that is developed while making it.  This is, of course, an entirely subjective experience and could not be proven "scientifically" (in fact, it could probably be disproven - "scientifically"), but based on my experience it is indisputable. 

Also gained is a personal connection to the land that you olive upon, and sustenance.  Reestablishing this relationship is as, if not more, beneficial than the virtues of the actual herbs; for in it lies the healing of our souls... and I doubt you could find a better way to spend the day...

jim mcdonald

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