We’re in the height of summer here in the northern hemisphere. Many medicine makers (including me) are heading out to harvest in the evenings after a full day of work/school/childcare. We race against sunset to gather our precious plant medicines while they are in season, and bring home baskets or bags full of beautiful medicine.
Some readers of this blog have suggested that it would be useful to do a post about how to take care of your plant medicines once you have harvested them.
In my opinion, when we take medicines from the Earth, even following proper protocol (tobacco, other offerings according to your tradition, getting the plant’s consent), the medicines we harvest are still a gift. And it is important for us to honor that gift by taking care of it.
It’s heartbreaking to me when carefully gathered medicines rot in a plastic bag because they weren’t processed in time. Or medicines that were packed together so tightly, that they grew mold and became unusable. I’ve done this a few times. It feels so terrible to know that you’ve dishonored a gift, and wasted medicine. Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson by now, and I can avoid repeating it again.
So taking care of your medicines quickly is crucial — and there’s no way around this step. When you’re planning your plant harvest, for the day, make sure you budget time at the end to process what you brought in that day. Some plants start to go bad fast once they’re picked, and you don’t want to lose them.
I was discussing this today with my Anishinaabe plant medicine woman friend. She said, “The work of bringing in our plant medicines is 1 part going out to harvest, and 2 parts processing and taking care of the medicine. It’s a lot of work going out and get our plant medicines — and once I’ve done all of that work, then I have twice the amount of work, to process and take care of them!”
I couldn’t agree with her more — and I can’t even count the nights I’ve been up well past midnight, working to process the plants I harvested that day. Here are some Nettles and Cleavers, about to be washed and processed:
Now, I’ll walk you through the steps I take in processing plants.
The first step when I bring a medicine home (except mushrooms): Wash it in cold water. Depending on the size of the harvest, I might use anything from a small basin to a full bathtub. Washing removes the things we don’t want in our medicines: dust, dirt, bugs, and some contaminants that we can’t see.
I don’t use soap. But depending on the medicine and the location I harvested from, I might put a plant through several changes of water. Some plants, you can leave to soak in the water for awhile to clean them off. Others start making the wash water into tea pretty fast (for example, marigold species) or react with it to form a gel (for example, mallows), so you can’t leave them in too long without losing their potency. (Cold water is definitely essential — hot or warm water will turn your fresh harvest into tea pretty quickly.)
Ideally, if I have enough water and time, I wash only 1 species of plant at a time. Some can react to each other, or contaminate the others with their scent/flavor.
I remove plants from the water bath in groups that are small enough to bundle together. I grab each bundle by the end, shake it off vigorously, and then lay it on a clean towel to dry off a bit.
After that, unless you’re making a fresh-plant tincture/oxymel, we’re on to the drying stage.
Here are the different drying methods I have tried:
1. Air dry on a counter/shelf/table
2. Hanging plants in bundles on the walls
3. Paper bag or Cardboard box
5. Inside a hot car
Let’s discuss each of these.
1. Air dry on a counter/shelf/table:
Definitely the easiest method. However, there’s a high risk of contamination: dust, pet hair, mice, insects etc. If you have a relatively secure location, too high up for pet hair to land in, and it’s a very short drying period, you might be able to get away with this — but it’s not my favorite.
2. Hanging plants in bundles on the walls:
This method is the most aesthetically pleasing. Who doesn’t love the look, feel, and smells of your fresh harvest hanging up around you on the walls of your home, after a productive summer of harvesting?
However, this method comes with serious down sides: it’s labor intensive (bundling, tying, hanging, etc), it can gather dust, and you need to be vigilant about not leaving it up too long, because your plants can easily spoil this way, through bleaching or oxidation, and get ruined.
3. Paper bag or Cardboard box:
This is definitely my favorite method. It was passed down to me by mom. You don’t get the pretty hanging plants from the previous picture (which I did because I ran out of boxes and bags), or the Instagram-ready aesthetic — but your harvest is well-protected. The paper of the cardboard or bag pulls the moisture out of your plants, helping them to dry. Best of all, you don’t have to be as vigilant about keeping track of the time as methods 1, 2, and 4 — if you forget about your plants in a paper bag or box for a few months, they’ll still be ok when you come back.
This is the most expensive method — both because you need a dehydrator, and because of the power costs from running it. It’s labor intensive because you have to cut things up small enough to fit in the dehydrator. I use mine only for really wet things (like chokecherry patties) that won’t dry well by other methods. If you have hot summers where you live, this is probably unnecessary for most plants. Perhaps for people in really damp climates, this would be a good method to dry your medicine quickly before it molds, but I don’t have any personal experience with this. I also know people who are in a rush to put their medicines away after harvest, and use a dehydrator to speed up the processing time.
5. Inside a hot car:
The tried and true powwow-trail plant preservation method!
While some people talk about drying things out on your dashboard or back window, I do not recommend this in most climates. It gets way too hot — you’ll dry out your plants quickly, yes, but before you know it, they’ll get scorched, diminishing their medicinal properties. The sun will also bleach them out too fast. (Have you ever smudged with sage from somebody’s car dashboard, bleached yellow-brown from too many miles in the sun? To me, it smells like I’m basically smudging with dust at that point!)
If you’re going to leave plants in a hot car to dry, I recommend a gentler drying method: leave them somewhere that will get less direct, intense sunlight, such as the backseat. Also, check on them frequently — it’s very easy to leave your plants in there too long, and fry them to death.
So, it turns out that there’s a lot to say about drying plants. So the rest of what I was going to write, on how to dry and store them, will have to wait for another day. Stay tuned for part 2 of this post, coming soon. Happy harvesting!