Pun intended. No matter what you call it, there are many plants are ready to be gathered in the next couple weeks. Here are some things to keep in mind as you "collect" herbs (yep, yet another term for "harvest", "gather", or "pick").
Positive Plant Identification
Know for sure, with total certainty, 100% positively positive that the plant you are gathering is indeed the plant you think you are gathering. A fellow herbalist recently told me about an excited herbal beginner bringing her an armful of what she thought was elderberry flowers which were actually flowering hemlock, which is highly poisonous. Be very, very sure that you are gathering the correct plant.
Different Plants, Different Parts
Know which part of the plant is used for making medicine. Different parts of plants have been historically used for making herbal remedies. Here are a few examples of each.
- Flowers or opening buds: calendula, red clover
- Flowering tops (top 6-8 inches), including stems and leaves with the flowers, preferably early in their flowering stage: hyssop, American skullcap, yarrow
- Leaves: sage, tulsi, lavender
- Seeds/seed pods: walnut, nigella, wild carrot, fenugreek
- Roots: burdock, ashwagandha, elecampane, red sages
- Whole plant with each different part gathered at its peak time: California poppy, echinacea
- Different parts of the plant tinctured separately and used with different effects: dandelion, mullein, stinging nettle
Gather at Plant's "Peak"
Different parts of each plant are harvested at different times, depending on when the plant's energy is strongest in that part.
- Barks: in late winter/early spring when sap is running, before the energy is needed for supporting the aerial parts. (Oak - before mid-March to avoid spreading oak wilt).
- Leaves: before flowering the energy of the plant is centered in the leaves.
- Flowers: vibrant blossoms or buds that are about to bloom.
- Seeds, seed pods: typically when they are mature and dry. That said, some are harvested before that stage, such as wild carrot and walnut hull. Know your plants.
- Roots: in the fall after a hard freeze so energy has been pushed into the roots or in early spring before above-ground growth begins.
*Keep in mind, these are all general statements. Some barks, such as wild cherry bark with its cyanogenic glycosides, are best gathered in the summer while the tree is fruiting to cut down on that energy in the bark, making it safer for use. Know. Your. Plants.
Optimal Collecting Times
- When possible, I try to gather aerial parts mid-morning, after dew has evaporated but before the stress of summer heat. I know that's easier on me and figure the plants probably yield the best medicine then, too.
- If it has rained, wait at least 24 hours. I typically wait 2-3 days, depending on the weather. Rain dilutes the medicinal properties of the plant, particularly those that are found on its surface for resisting disease or fungus and providing protection against being eaten by critters. I like to let these constituents build up again after a rain.
Wildcrafting (gathering plants that are not cultivated, but growing wild)
- Leave the area as undisturbed as possible. Do not damage other plants or disrupt the earth if possible. Fill in any holes you might make.
- Always leave the largest and smallest plants of the community. Take only from the middle growth.
- Collect the plant in a way that lets it propagate. If it grows from seed, leave flowers that can go to seed. Rhizome growers benefit from just thinning out the plant intermittently. When collecting roots, take just what you need and leave the rest in the ground so they can keep growing.
- Avoid areas that have been sprayed with insecticides or herbicides, are along roadways or railroad tracks, or might be contaminated with "livestock run-off".
General Gathering/Harvesting/Picking/Collecting Tips
- Know which species are at-risk and avoid wildcrafting those. Perhaps grow them in your garden. Or come and gather those in the You Pick Medicinal Herbs Garden!
- Collect only what you need. Bring a jar along to avoid over-collecting.
- Mood matters - Sounds hokey, but many herbalists, me included, think that the effectiveness of a herbal remedy is affected by the mood of the person collecting it. Some energetically sensitive folks are actually able to tell what mood you were in (angry, content, sad, happy, tired etc) when they use a tincture. Do with that what you want...