Whatever your reason, you've decided to take spade in hand and grow your own medicinal herbs.
You're certainly in for some fun. But before you become the Martha Stewart of botanicals, make sure you've researched and learned about the herbs you're growing -- and taking.
Is Geography on Your Side?
First, choose herbs that will grow in your climate. "Most seed companies will be able to tell you what can grow where," says Cris Bosted, R.N., L.M.P., a garden manager and third-year student at Bastyr University. Catalogs will usually tell you how much light and moisture a plant needs.
Seeds grown in your area are the most likely to agree with your climate and soil, so look for local sources. Bosted recommends organic ones, too, on the principle that you're better off not drinking pesticides, hormones, and other additives along with your tea. "The closer you get to being toxin-free, the better and the more comfortable you'll be putting that product in your body," she says.
Harvest time depends on which part of the plant you're using. Kara Dinda, Education Director at the American Botanical Council, recommends harvesting the leaves and stems before the plant blooms. "The medicinal constituents tend to be higher at that point," she says. "As soon as a plant begins to produce flowers, most of its energy goes to flower production."
With few exceptions, flowers can be harvested in full bloom and fruits should be picked when ripened, she says. Collect seeds in the early fall -- before they shatter when the pod cracks open.
Collect roots in the fall or winter, when the aboveground parts of the plant have died and the plant's energies are concentrated below. With many of the plants, such as echinacea, you can dig up the root ball, break it up, harvest what you need, and replant the rest.
Drying and Storage
To dry the herbs, use racks made with fine mesh cloth. (Avoid metal and plastic, as they can affect the herbs' flavor.) Place them in a dark, dry place. Leaves and flowers can be put on the drying racks as they are, says Bosted. Roots first should be cut into smaller pieces -- from one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch -- so they'll be easier to use. Leaves will require a few days to dry, flowers about two weeks, and roots up to a month. You can also use a food dehydrator.
Be sure your herbs are completely dry before putting them away or they'll end up molding. Store your herbs in dark glass bottles. (Herbs will pick up the taste of plastic ones, and clear bottles will let too much light in, which will alter the herbs.) Store the bottles in a dark, dry place.
If you've dried more herbs than you're going to use, you can put your leftovers in the freezer right after drying. "What you're doing is preventing the oxidation process, which breaks down the chemicals and the plant," says Bosted. Those bottles should keep for two years. Otherwise, keep your home-dried herbs for a year and then toss them out.
For medicinal purposes, dried herbs are usually preferable to fresh ones, because they contain more concentrated amounts of active ingredients. There are exceptions, though. Garlic is better fresh because it contains unstable compounds that deteriorate when dried, says Dinda. Also, much of the research concerning echinacea has focused on the juice of the fresh-pressed herb. If that's how you want to take your echinacea, you'll have to use the plants when they're freshly picked.
Stinging nettle contains compounds that break down when dried, so Dinda recommends preserving this herb by freezing it instead. One herb you won't be able to prepare by yourself is ginkgo biloba. The product in the stores is a very concentrated extract with certain chemicals removed, something you won't be able to do at home.
If you decide to pick herbs out in the wild, take no more than 10% of what you see of any given herb, Dinda suggests. That leaves the remaining 90% to regenerate and ensures that others can share your pleasure.