This Herb? That Herb? Which Herb is a Good Herb?
Welcome back to part 2 of the Our Heathy Home Series. Today we are talking about where to find those herbs that you need and how to know which to pick. This Herb? That Herb? Which Herb is a good herb? Just like not all apples are the same, not all herbs are the same. There are different kinds, mass produced, organic, wildcrafted, home grown, yada yada yada. It was all gibberish to me. Thankfully it’s one of the first things we went over in our class.
Let me begin with this. You know how you can get a giant bag of herbs on those internet shopping sites for cheap money? Yeah. Let’s talk about those. It turns out that almost all commercial quality herbs that come into the United States come through just a few tonnage warehouses located on our coasts. While in storage awaiting FDA inspection they are sprayed repeatedly with insecticide to keep the insects away. That’s after being grown in other countries where they were sprayed with heavy doses of toxic sprays (which, by the way have been banned in the US because they are so toxic). Oh but that’s not all.
They are harvested all at the same time. Even if some of them aren’t at peak harvest time. They are dried in excessively high heat to speed up the drying process, breaking down some of the beneficial oils and such that make them useful in the first place. Then, by the time they make it to our ports they sit in warehouses for months on end, further losing their effectiveness.
Long story short, avoid those. They are no good.
The very best way to get great quality herbs is to grow your own or find them growing in the wild and harvest them there. (Get a field guide or two for your area. Peterson makes great ones.) If that isn’t an option for you, then use your discretion. Find a local apothecary who carries organic and/or wildcrafted herbs. Go ahead. Do an internet search. You may be surprised to find that you have one nearby. Buy from small businesses run by herbalists, and buy as local as you can. Or, if you are unable to find what you need in your own area, purchase from a high-quality seller like one of these:
Ryan Drum herbs
Native Herb & Honey Co.
No matter where you get your herbs though, you want to make sure they are of good quality. Typically if someone complains that an herbal remedy didn’t work well it is because of expired or low-quality herbs. So how can you tell if an herb is good or not? Simple. They should look, smell, and taste almost exactly as they did when they were fresh. If it was green when it was first picked, it should be green when dry. If it was a yellow flower, it should still be a yellow flower. Your herbs should not all be brown.
And they should be effective. Here are you basic guidelines for choosing this herb or that herb:
COLOR: Vivid, bright colors. Your greens should be bright green. Comfrey, mints, etc. should have the color of the plants growing in the ground. Flowers–chamomile, calendula, rose buds should all have the same colors as when they were in bloom. Even roots should retain their original colors. Golden seal should be bright green. Echinacea should be grey/brown. Yellow Dock root should be yellowish brown.
SMELL: Have you ever smelled a good valerian root? Oh, you’ll know. It smells exactly like dirty feet. VERY dirty feet. That’s how you know it’s fresh. Yeah. Not all herbs smell good. The world of natural medicine is not all lavender and peppermint, my friends. For our class we were given samples of many herbs and that Valerian stunk up my entire car. Anyway…. moving on… Your herbs should smell strongly of their natural smell. Not faded. Not moldy. Good peppermint will make your eyes water. All good herbs should have a distinctive aroma. Some will just smell like grass or leaves. That’s okay as long as it’s strong and fresh.
TASTE: Just like smell, not all herbs taste wonderful, but all herbs should taste distinctive. They should taste potent. If it tastes like old straw, it’s probably expired.
EFFECT: They should work effectively. If you make a remedy and it doesn’t work, be suspect of quality first. Don’t discount your remedy. It is likely that the herb was too old.
Herbs will rapidly lose their potency if not stored properly. Herbs don’t like heat, air, moisture, or light. They prefer to be stored in tightly sealed glass jars, dark glass if you can find them. Some folks also store them in tins, paper bags, or boxes, but those are not the best options. If you are going to store them in tins or boxes, at least line them with wax paper, I’m told. Paper bags are fine for short term storage or travel. The worst options are in plastic or plastic bags. Bad things leach out of plastic and it’s terrible for the environment. Avoid it if you can. (Having said that, if you buy in bulk, it will likely arrive in big plastic bags. Just transfer it asap.)
As pretty as they are, don’t store your herbs near your stove or on open shelving near a window. Heat and light will deteriorate them quickly. If you don’t think this is true, think about how different a recipe tastes when you use a fresh herb compared to one of those mass produced dry herbs. Right? right. Closet. Find a closet. I am keeping mine in a hutch but I am tinting the hutch windows with an indigo blue window tint. I could have used amber too, but my kitchen is blue.
Once you find your herbs and transfer them to their storage jars, you will want to label them. On the back of each of my jars is a label that contains:
Name of Herb
Date Purchased or harvested
Cautions (what shouldn’t you use this for/with)
Don’t skip this step. Ever ever. Ever.
The general rule of thumb that nobody knows where it came from because it seldom applies is (a) leaves and flowers can keep for a year and (b) roots and barks can keep for up to 2-3 years. But having said that, always use your Color, Scent, Taste, Effect tests to be sure your herbs are good. If you check some flowers after a year and they still seem to be good, they are. Don’t throw them away.
YOUR REFERENCE GUIDES
I love making lists and organizing things, so this is my 2nd favorite part. I love looking at the jars and next I love writing about and keeping track of what’s in them. For this you will need two things.
You will compile a Materia Medica Reference. (Sounds so Harry Potter, right?)
This is a reference binder with info about your herbs. Each page of your reference file should contain this info:
Herb Common Name
Herb Latin Name
Description: (Plant description)
Habitat: (Where is it found?)
Parts Used: (Leaves? Flowers? roots? Bark?)
Actions: (Sedative? Stimulant? What does it do?)
Medicinal Uses: (Headache? Stomach upset? what?)
Applications/Dosages: (decoctions? Infusion? Tincture? poultice?
Here is a photo of one of my pages. You may need to click on it to enlarge.
You will also want to keep a card file box as sort of a cross reference. Your card file box will be arranged by Medical Need. For example, you will have a file marked “Headache” or “Upset Stomach” for example. You will build this file as you go along. In each file you will include the recipe for what you used and notes on how it worked. So for example, under “Common Cold” I might have my Elderberry Elixir Recipe and notations about the results of using it.
Only after you have built up a nice Materia Medica and a Herbal Remedies Reference box will you begin to have a very good idea about which herbs to use for which illnesses. It takes time and research and practice. Consider this a life-long hobby.