I’m not a certified herbalist, but I’ve been working with herbs for more than 20 years, longer if you count my herbal experiments as a teenager, and my affinity for wildflowers when I was a child. We all have some experience with herbs and herbalism—but most of us don’t realize it.
Herbs were the first medicine, and I firmly believe herbalism is a knowledge we all need to regain, to reacquaint ourselves with. An herbal reskilling is happening all around us. But where to begin?
How to get your supply?
This is often overlooked—by herbalists and herb suppliers. Personally, I like using dry herbs. Fresh herbs have their use, but they need to be used quickly or they lose potency and very rapidly break down. Fresh does have its uses—for more advanced preparations like hydrosols. For a basic introduction to using herbs, dried is the way to go.
Dried whole herbs, when stored properly, can keep for 6 months or more. Dried seeds and roots can be kept almost indefinitely—when stored properly. It’s also helpful to know to NEVER purchase powdered or pre-ground herbs, roots, nuts, or seeds. They will either lose potency or go rancid anywhere from 1-6 months or sooner, regardless of how they’re stored. The only exception I’ve found to this rule is chili powder. If stored properly—in an airtight container away from all light and moisture, I’ve had some high quality, organic chili powder that’s kept fairly potent for several years. Granted it’s not as powerful as it was on the first day that I opened the bag, but it’s kept up remarkably well. But, like I said it’s the one exception that I’ve found to the rule.
Regardless of your stance on the environment or your financial means, when purchasing herbs, go organic. If you can’t, then make sure that the herbs have tested free of pesticide residue. Many small growers can’t afford the organic certification, but are essentially organic. Personally, I use Mountain Rose Herbs. They have some of the best product on the market, sell mostly organic and sustainably harvested stock, and ALL their inventory has tested free of pesticides, regardless of the organic certification. Plus, they have a zero-waste policy, use only renewable sources, and do a lot of conservation. On top of that, they offer amazing discounts when you buy in pound amounts. Believe me, a pound of lavender goes quicker than you’d expect. Or, if you don’t intend on making large amounts of anything—or don’t want pounds of herbs lying around—start your own herbal co-op. Get a few friends together and buy in bulk. Have an herbal meet-up to divvy up the order. It might sound like a bother when you can buy in smaller amounts—but the savings are worth it, both in terms of MRH’s discounts, but on basic shipping and handling charges.
Another thing about MRH, they sell only freshly packed herbs that have been stored at optimum temperatures—away from light and moisture. So, when you buy from them, you know you have some of the highest quality and most consistent quality available period.
Where to store ‘em once you’ve got ‘em?
When dealing with dried herbs, as many of us do, herbs should NEVER be stored in clear containers. When you walk into an herbs shop that’s packed floor to ceiling with those wondrous glass apothecary jars or mason jars, run away. It’s not necessary to scream, but those herbs are dead and defunct. Those are basically zombie herbs. Sunlight and artificial light break down the potency of herbs, seeds, and roots. The more delicate the item, the quicker the breakdown. So, do yourself a favor and do NOT purchase any herbs in any store that uses clear jars to sell their herbs. It might look really cool at first glance, but those herbs are truly deceased and utterly useless in herbal preparations of any kind.
If, however, the clear glass is for display only and they actually get the herbs from a backroom, that’s a bit better. But, I’d ask to see how the herbs are stored to make sure there’s no light reaching the herbs in long-term storage. And, even beyond that, I’d ask to be present when my herbs were being bagged up. I’m finicky that way—ever since I was hoodwinked when buying some patchouli some years ago. Before I knew what I do now, I paid for what I thought was a quarter-ounce of patchouli. When I got home, I discovered the bait and switch. I had a bag of autumn leaves—sold to me for the cost of a POUND of patchouli at Mountain Rose Herbs
Also, most herb shops, unless they grow what they sell, purchase from Mountain Rose Herbs themselves—who offer the best wholesale herb prices I’ve yet seen. No I’m not a MRH rep either. But, I was in 2 different herb shops, around the time of the patchouli/autumn leaf scandal, and not only did each shop store their herbs in clear jars—but I saw evidence of MRH wholesale packaging lying around the store. In one shop, in the village that shall remain nameless, I saw several rubber tubs as a store clerk was restocking the shelves. The tubs were open—and every single bag of herbs inside those tubs had MRH labels. The store owner was incensed that the door was unlocked during their inventory restock—and was even more upset that I was familiar with the source of their herbs. Another store I visited had the MRH bags behind the counter and took a more lackadaisical approach to keeping their supplier anonymous. I had, at that point, stumbled on MRH once, but admittedly their prices for ounces—not by the pound—threw me off a little. At the time, I only thought about the immediate herbal needs and I didn’t think about getting stock to have on hand for future uses. I recognized the logo, however, and went home after the seeing it in the second shop, and placed my first order with them.
But, you should know, each shop inflated the prices by more than 100%. The first shop was selling Rose petals for $49 a pound, but $5 per ounce. The second shop sold what they called an ounce of rose petals for $7. All their supposedly 1-ounce baggies were exactly the same size, regardless of content. One ounce of rose petals takes up a lot more space than you’d think—but would need a much larger bag than the 2 inch by 3 inch bag that shop claimed contained 1 ounce of rose petals. Either way, you can buy a whole POUND of red roses at Mountain Rose herbs for less than $15. And that price goes down if you purchase other things in bulk as well.
When you store herbs at home, store them in a closed cabinet or even a Rubbermaid tub. I use an old filing cabinet and a few tubs. Make sure the area is dry and that the herbs will NOT be exposed to any light at any time. Make sure all the containers are airtight. MRH sells their herbs in ziplock bags. The herbs must be airtight to deter critters. But, in all my years, aside from finding a moth in a bag of chipotle chili powder (it was a small bag, away from my herb stock, and hadn’t been closed properly by someone in my household who shall remain nameless), I have never found critters in my herbs. Any folks I know that have found critters in their herbs purchased those herbs from suppliers that didn’t store the herbs properly or from shady suppliers online. One NYC herb shop that I won’t be naming, closed down in recent years because of slow business. Their business became slow because, as I heard from locals who used the shop, they sold critter-infested herbs. More than a handful of folks told me about opening their sage or patchouli to find it crawling with unmentionables. A fellow pagan tried calling to complain and the shopowner told her to pop her patchouli in the freezer to kill the critters. There was a “hey, it happens” attitude.
But, hey, it doesn’t happen if you store your herbs properly and get them from a supplier who stores them the right way too. Proper storage shows the value the herbs—and, from a supplier, value for you, their consumer.
But, that unscrupulous who-cares shopowner was right. The freezer is an option. So, if you do have a storage mishap and find critters, pop the bag—or jar—into the freezer overnight, and see what you can salvage. If you can’t salvage the herbs for medicinal or culinary use because who wants dead critter bodies in their rosemary-lavender challah, you can probably salvage the herbs to use for incense, for household cleaning purposes, or to throw at the noisy neighborhood children. Buggy patchouli is a great child repellent, didn’t you know?
Preparing Herbs for Use
Before talking about what herbs I’d recommend that you get, with storage goes preparing the herbs for use. Many recipes call for nothing more complicated than making an herbal infusion or decoction—basically a tea of the herb, root, or whatnot. You’ll need the ability to strain the herbs out of the tea. Usually a fine sieve or strainer will work, but when dealing with flowers—like chamomile—you’ll need fine cheesecloth or muslin. I also got in the habit of using an extra large tea sock—my word for a tea strainer I found online that looks like a muslin sock attached to a rim you place on your teacup. MRH sells them in small and extra large. I use the largest one to speed up the straining and make sure I don’t have to double strain something.
If using cloth you have at home to strain, you can use an old tshirt, but make sure it’s CLEAN, that it’s white or an unbleached cotton, and that it’s totally free of lint. You can also use some simple cotton table linens, but again make sure they’re free of all lint.
Sometimes you need to break down the herb into a powder or a coarse grind. In order to do this, it’s essential to have a few things on hand. First, get a good quality coffee grinder. One of those electric jobs that grind the coffee beans into a coarse, medium, or fine grind. They shouldn’t cost more than $10-15. I’ve gotten them for about that in wholesale stores or odd-lot shops. You want one that has as many metal parts as possible—because plastic cracks, particularly when handling tougher roots, seeds, and barks. You also want one that has a removable bowl—the area that you put the herb into. If you get as finicky as I do, you might get yourself 2 of these. I reserve one for what I call light herbs or spices—leaves, flowers, seeds, roots, or barks that won’t leave a residue inside the grinder. And one for heavier spices seeds, roots, or barks that will leave a residue. A quick example—cinnamon, cumin, and chili all are heavier spices that leave a residue—or a flavor behind, regardless of how well you clean the bowl. This happens even more in plastic grinders, and a bit less in stainless steel ones.
The second item you’ll need is a mortar and pestle. Get a good quality one that won’t break. And, good quality doesn’t mean expensive. Years ago, my mom got me an expensive marble one. It cracked in half in less than a year of hard use. I got another pricey wooden one, on a gift certificate from a friend, and even though I’ve had it for almost 10 years, it has a massive crack in the wood that I know will ‘go’ any day now. The best one I’ve ever gotten was an el cheapo, less than $10 wooden one I bought in a Botanica off Union square more than a decade ago. It’s never had any issues, and I use it for very hard resins and seeds.
The third is a Suribachi, which is a Japanese mortar and pestle that has a ribbed interior. It’s a glazed pottery and is designed to handle tougher seeds, barks, and nuts. It’s not strictly necessary, but I like using it when I’d prefer to do all my grinding by hand instead of by the electric grinder. You could certainly get another heavier grinder, made of heavy stone. I usually grind by hand when I’m making a ritual blend, or a culinary blend where I want the energy and intent to go into the herbs. It’s also a more tactile, almost meditative experience. My dream is to get one of those heavy, indiginous style grinders of granite or heavy stone, like you see in South American and Indian traditional cooking. I haven’t found one that I like, or when I do find them online, they’re a small fortune to ship. Such is life.