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How to harvest medicinal herbs (without killing the plant!)

passionflower 'Passiflora incarnata' plant

In order to get the most out of your perennial herbs it is important to harvest them accurately. This ensures their health and longevity, as if you harvest plants incorrectly it can stress and kill them. Here are our key tips to ensure both you and your plants continue to flourish. 

Do your research

Make sure that you have accurately identified the plant. There are a lot of ‘look a-like’ plants in nature, so ensure you have the correct Genus and species. There can be fatal consequences for harvesting the wrong plant.

Establish the part that you require from the plant

Some medicinal plants have the most potent medicine in the root systems, and some in the arial parts. Identify which part of the plant you are intending to use and how you intend to use it prior to harvesting.

AERIAL HERBS:

This refers to all plants who hold their most potent plant medicine in the above ground part of the plant, in the leaves, bark and flowers. Plants such as Hibiscus, Passionflower, Lemon Balm, Tulsi and Mullein are all aerial herbs.

With some of these plants all aerial parts are useful, with others only the leaves or flowers are used. This is where your previous plant research comes in useful as you should already know which parts of the plant you use for medicine.

You should also have done your research on the best time to harvest this particular plant for maximum medicinal benefit. For most aerial plants, as a general rule, in summer, harvest leaves before the plant goes into flower. For harvesting flowers, it is when the flower is in full bloom.

Be aware that if you are harvesting flowers will impact fruit and future seeds that you would obtain, for example, if you harvest the flowers of passionflower you don’t get a fruiting body and therefore no seeds to propagate next year.

Passiflora incarnata in bloom:

passionflower growing on a fence

Also, when harvesting flowers it is important to be considerate of other creatures that require the pollen from that flower such as bees and insects. Entire ecosystems can be sustained by flowers from a particular plant and as such it is important to only take a share.

HARVESTING AERIAL HERBS:

To harvest these plants and ensure that they continue to live, flourish and provide an ongoing supply of beautiful plant medicine we consider:

Timing

Harvest from the plant in the morning after the dew has been evaporated by the sun. 

Only take healthy plant matter

Ensure that the part that you are removing from the plant appears to be healthy and free of pest and disease to ensure you have the most potent plant medicine.

Use clean and sharp tools

If you use tools to harvest ensure that they have been cleaned since last use to reduce the risk of spreading pest and disease.

Never ever take more than one quarter of the plant

If you remove too many leaves or branches it may stress and kill the plant. For example, with Mullein, you would select only a few leaves from different locations around the rosette of the plant, or else it may go into shock and die.

Give back to the plant

Ensure that if you are taking, you are being reciprocal. Give something back to the plant, some micronutrients in the form of a seaweed tonic, a drink of water, or mulch.

After harvest

Take the harvested plant matter inside to dry in the shade on a rack with a fan or air flow. It will likely mould if there is not sufficient airflow or if it is still moist. We don’t leave plant matter to dry in the sun as this can cause the medicine to be degraded.

 If you intend to use the fresh plant matter you can lightly dry it for an hour or so to remove residual moisture. Do this in a cool place out of direct sunlight and then use in a fresh herbal tea or tincture.

If you are drying the herb place it under a fan for a week or two. You will know when it is completely dry as it will have a dry cracking consistency when touched. We don't encourage using heat to dry your plants unless it is unavoidable. Drying using heat can reduce the quality and medicinal properties of the plant matter.

Store in an airtight container in a cool dark place, out of direct sunlight.

 

HARVESTING ROOT HERBS:

Plants such as Echinacea, Valerian, Ashwagandah and Licorace hold their most potent medicine in their root systems. Generally these plants are cultivated specifically for a harvest in their second or third year. The older they are generally the larger the root system and the more potent the plant medicine. Plants older than 3-4 years are not usually worked with as the root system will be woody and hard to process.

Root plants are generally killed at harvest time as the entire root system is removed and utilised. To continue the lifecycle of these plants one would harvest their seeds before harvesting them and ensure they lived on by propagating their seeds or doing a root division (such as a Comfrey plant).
These plants are harvested in winter, when they are not actively growing and have ‘drawn back’ into their roots. Echinacea dies off over winter and that is when the root system is harvested.
Echinacea plants

 

CAN YOU HARVEST ROOT HERBS WITHOUT KILLING THE PLANT?

Yes, it can be done. It is possible to remove only one small part of a root system of a plant and to allow the plant to continue growing. In order to do this you would dig away from the trunk of the herb and disturb the root system as little as possible.

Estimate the size of the root system

 A good way to judge the size of the root system is to think, as above, so below and dig at the outermost layer of where the aerial part of the plant is.

Dig using a tool

Root plants are often much deeper than you would originally guess and you may need to use a mattock in one swift motion to get a deep enough and clean enough dig. Don’t use a knife, or a small hand trowel as you will only get the very shallow root and you will likely be there for an extended period of time digging around.

Remove and replenish

Once you find a lateral root of sufficient size to use, remove it from the root system. You then replenish the plant with compost, seaweed solution and give it a water to reduce root shock.

After Harvest with root plants:
Clean and pat dry your roots with a cloth. We recommend processing roots whilst they are still fresh and malleable. Chop the roots into your desired size, generally about the size of a 5cm piece. Then dry using a fan. Root herbs take longer to dry, it is important to keep the air flow to them to discourage moulding. Once completely dry store in a cool dark place.

 

To purchase organically grown Mullein seeds and grow your own Respiratory Tea click the link:

https://hq4shia5xdd4hezh-62292721873.shopifypreview.com/collections/seeds/products/mullein-seeds

Think it may be easier to just buy your herbal tea? Shop our Organic, Australian grown range:

https://hq4shia5xdd4hezh-62292721873.shopifypreview.com/collections/medicinal-teas

 

We hope that you have found this guide helpful,
Kind regards,
Elle xxx
Australian Medicinal Herbs
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