Herbs and Plants: a guide to harvesting and using

This came from a talk by Gwen a little while ago.

When the idea was raised to do a talk on herbs it seemed like a simple thing to cover but when I sat down to compile information it felt like sitting at the bottom of a very large mountain looking up into the mists.  Herbalism is very in-depth and involved subject which takes years and years of study – people like Culpeper and Beyeri dedicated their lives to this wonderful and endless subject.

It is my aim to do a basic introduction to the ways in which common cultivated and commonly found local wild herbs and plants can be used for healing, magical purposes and sometimes for a free tasty meal.  It is also important to realise that some herbs and plants can be dangerous and harmful to us and even commonly used plants can have parts that can be used and parts that really need to be avoided – and example of this is Lady Elder, whose flowers and berries are wonderfully tasty but whose bark is a powerful purgative  causing vomiting and diarrhea, but is useful in other ways – as steeped bark makes a fantastic natural plant dye, producing a rich greeny black.  So it is always wise to exercise common sense and caution when picking and using herbs and plants for healing, personally I always take a book with me to help with identification and if ever any doubt DON’T.

I personally try to work with as many local plants as I can, ones grown in my own garden or gardens of friends and family or ones in the wonderful local countryside.  When collecting I do try to adhere to the times the plant is at its best, but as we all lead hectic lives I have been known to dash off and grab a handful of Plantain and nettle from the local field whilst the dew is still on them, but have found that lining a kitchen roll tube with tissue and placing the herbs in the centre on top of a radiator sorts the dew out nicely, and but the time I’m organised enough they are gently dried.  It is worth mentioning though that if herbs are being used for magickal work the methods and timings of collection are best adhered to and tools consecrated to the purpose are used.

When getting plants from the wild, respect the area and plant you are harvesting, never strip a plant bare, never pull it out by the roots to get a few leaves and I always check to see that there are other plants of the same species around and its not some rare almost extinct plant.  Also be very sure that the plant you are about to pick is what you think it is, Mother Nature can be very tricky sometimes, and 2 seemingly identical plants can have very different effects when ingested.  It is best to ask permission of the plant before taking it’s bounty, and remember, respect, respect, respect!

Transporting your herbs must be done carefully to retain their valuable powers.  It’s best to take an open-topped basket or cotton bag with you and some layers of tissue so that herbs can be transported dry and safe back to home, it is pointless seeking out a special plant, than sticking it into a carrier bag in your pocket so it sweats, bruises and it unidentifiable mush by the time you get home.

Harvesting and Storing

Most plants used for cooking can be harvested at any time of day but if a herb is being harvested for medicinal use there are certain times of the day and certain weather conditions that are best for capturing the strength of the most active ingredients.  Also if herbs are being used for magikal works there are times that the plants energy is at its optimum and therefore aids the work being undertaken.  The perfect conditions for gathering leaves flowers and fruit for drying and storing is a very dry day probably around mid to late morning as any moisture on the surface from rain, mist or dew can cause the plant material to degrade quickly and can induce fungal and bacterial growth.  Harvesting should also be avoided when the sun is high and hot as the essential elements of the active ingredients can be evaporated or lose strength.

Having said all this there are times that you may stumble on a particular plant that has been eluding you and you are totally unprepared for collecting it in the perfect weather conditions, moon phases or with the correct tools and in these situations it comes down to the two choices

  1. come back when the conditions are right which I have done and then been unable to find the plant again
  2. pick it anyway and hope that the active ingredients are not too diminished (I have been in this situation and have had good results anyway)

It is best not to harvest any herbs that have been growing close to the road as the leaves take in the carbon monoxide and poisonous fumes given out by the traffic and take it down into the plant to the root where it becomes stored.  Do not pick wild herbs and plants from verges or throughfares as this contravenes several laws and also the fact that most areas like these are open to our friendly dog and cat population.

If harvesting wild plants leave a large amount of flowers, seed and root as the plant population of that area will very quickly die out if you go in mob-handed and wrench up the only two plants for miles around.  Make sure you know what you’re picking this is very important when harvesting in the wild there are many pocket spotter books available that are invaluable when identifying plants, I try to carry one with photographs rather than drawings as sometimes they can be a little misleading.

When to harvest

Most herbs are harvested in the summer either before or during flowering.  Seeds and most types of bark are collected in early autumn and roots in early autumn and spring.  The leaves of evergreens are collected throughout the year but don’t collect large amounts before or during a heavy front as this will leave the plant vulnerable.

Early Spring: Collect Dandelion roots

Late Spring: Arial parts during flowering; Lungwort, Sweet Violet, Flowers: coltsfoot, cowslip, elder

Early to Mid-Summer: Arial parts/leaves before flowering; Agrimony, Angellica, Catmint, Cleavers, Dandelion, Dill, Fennel, Feverfew, Garlic, Hysop, Ladys Mantle, Lemonbalm, Motherwort, Parsley, Peppermint, Plantain, Sage, Stinging Nettles, White horehound, Yellow Dock.  Bark while flowering: Rose.  Flowers; Borage, Camomile, Honeeysuckle, Linden, Pot Marigold, St Johns Wort

Mid to Late Summer: Arial parts whilst flowering; Californian Poppy, Heartsease, Marjoram, Marshmallow, Meadowsweet, Mugwort, Shepherds Purse, Skullcap Thyme, Vervain, Wild Lettuce, Wood Bettony, Wormwood, Yarrow.  Flowers: Hops, Lavender, Mullain.     Leaves After Flowering: Borage, Colsfoot, Cowslip, Fenugreek, Lungwort, Sweet Violet.

Autumn: Roots/ bulbs when leaves have wilted: Angellica, Black Cohosh, Burdock, Comfrey, Cowslip, Elecanpane, Garlic, Goldenseal, Lovage, marshmallow, Soapwort, Valerian.  Seeds/ fruit: Celery, Elder, Howthrorn, Dill, Fennel, Lovage

Drying and Storing the plant

Herbs are best dried in a warm well ventilated room out of direct sunlight as this can cause the effectiveness and the flavour of the herb to be diminished.  Flowers can be laid on a cloth or tissue and turned regularly until they are brittle and crumbly.  Berries can either be hung up to dry in bunches or strung on cotton but please put something under them to catch the stray lose ones as it’s surprising how many bits of hawthorn, rowan and rosehip can escape and roll around in the bottom of airing cupboards and closets for years.  Roots must be cleaned of all soil and debris and cut into storable sizes and left to dry as for flowers and leaves on a tissue or cloth in a warm dry place and turned often.

In homes nowadays it is rare to have an airing cupboard or even a warm dry place where stuff can be left o dry undisturbed, so there are other methods that can be employed but it really is trial and error and I recommend that you try then out on perhaps the more available plants such as dandelion rather than using the plant that you have a limited supply of , one that you have been searching for weeks and that you only collected half a dozen leaves from for specific use then blitzed in the oven until they became ash rendering them completely useless and a waste of a precious commodity.

So to other methods, the oven is one of the best ways if left on a cool setting and checked frequently until plant matter is crumbly and there are even ways that herbs can be dried in the microwave between layers of tissue and checked frequently, but I’m not a fan of this method as the thought of microwaves buzzing round my herbs does not thrill me.

You can also purchase herb drying units which consist of several layers that the herbs are placed on and the lid placed on top making it airtight and the dehumidifier switched on, these are very effective ways of desiccating herbs and plant material unfortunately these can work out very expensive to buy and rather cumbersome to store, but a fab piece of kit.

The groovy witches kitchen bit

There are many ways to prepare fresh and dried herbs for using in remedies

Teas: One of the easiest ways is in the form of an herbal infusion or tea, this involves steeping a teaspoon of dried or two teaspoons of fresh herbs per cup of boiling water and left for between 5-15 mins until the herbs have imported their active ingredients.  Some herb teas are pleasant and refreshing but others are best sweetened and flavoured with honey or liquorice root, aniseed or angelica.  This infusion is then strained and either drunk immediately or let cool and drunk chilled.  Teas can be stored in the fridge for up to 24 hours and an average dosage is 3-4 cups a day

Decoctions: there are a useful way to handle woodier harder plant materials such as roots, seeds and bark.  The herb should be added to a pan of cold water (not aluminium as this can reduce the effectiveness of the herb) a good guide is 30g of dried or 60g of fresh to about 750ml of cold water.  The mix should then be slowly brought to the boil then simmered until it is reduced by a 3rd.  This liquid is then strained and either drunk straight away or stored in the fridge for up to 24hours.  The dosage is the same as herbal tea 3-4 times a day

Maceration: To macerate a herb it is left in cold water or cold milk for 12 hours in the same quantity used for an infusion or tea, covered and then strained and taken in the same way as decoctions and infusions

Tinctures: Tinctures can be stored in brown glass bottles for up to a year as they involve the use of alcohol.  If brown glass cannot be found I have used clear and wrapped coloured tissue or paper around them to exclude the light as this can deteriorate the tincture.  The alcohol used should be higher than 35% and I have had very good results from supermarket brand vodka but have also used rum and brandy.  The quantities used are 100g dried or 200g fresh herb to about 500ml of alcohol.  The herbs and alcohol should be placed in an airtight jam jar in a warm place and should be shaken once a day, after 2 weeks the mixture should be strained through cloth of a jelly bag squeezing as much out of the herbs as possible then decanted into dark bottles and stored.  The normal dosage for this remedy is usually a 5ml teaspoon 3 times a day.  It is worth noting that if giving to children or people unable to take alcohol, pu the 5ml of tincture in a glass pour on a little boiling water and allowed to cool for a few minutes by which time the alcohol will have evaporated.

Syrups: Syrups are generally used for treating ailments of the respiratory system and there are few things nicer that a rich rosehip syrup when you have a hacking cough and feel run down.  Syrups are made with sugar but even better made with local honey but this can work out quite costly if making large batches so I have used raw cane sugar or half sugar, half honey to good results. One method for syrup is to add 500ml of an herbal infusion or decoction to 500g of honey and stir until the mixture is syrupy.  Another method is to use tinctures by dissolving 500g honey to 250ml water and heating until the liquid is syrupy then let it cool and add 1 part tincture to 3 parts syrup.  Syrups are best stored in small glass bottles as once opened they deteriorate quickly growing a unplesant mouldy topping.  It is worth noting that syrups ferment and should not be stored in screw-toppped bottles as after 6 months they can explode quite spectacularly.  When bottling syrups for short-term storage pour the hot liquid into hot sterilised bottles and seal with a cork and allow to cool naturally.  The dosage for a standard syrup is one of two teaspoons 3 times a day.  IMPORTANT: SYRUPS ARE NOT SUITABLE FOR DIABETICS

Lozenges: these are useful for sore throats coughs and colds but a really pleasant way of taking herbs as medicine.  A mucilage is required for this and one of the best ones os marshmallow root or a gum such as tragacanth or acacia which are available from herbal suppliers.  Soak the root or gum in water for 24 hours stirring from time to time.  Boil 500ml of water and stir in mucilage, beat well with a wooden spoon until it is an even consistency then strain through a muslin.  Mix in enough ground or powered herbs to make a paste and ass a little unrefined sugar if required.  Roll the paste out onto a board dusted with icing sugar or cornflower and roll to about 1/2 inch think.  Leave to cool and cut into shapes.  Leave to dry out and become hard then store in an airtight jar.  Lozenges will store for several months, although they rarely last more than a few days as they are rather nice especially rose, sage or aniseed.

Capsules and powders: To powder herbs take quantities of herb in a pestle and mortar and grind until powdered.  Gel capsules can be bought from an herbal supplier and ground powdered herbs can be poured into these and the two halves of the capsule pushed together and taken as a tablet.

Infused Oils: are one of the easiest things to make, cold oil infusions are as simple as placing dried or fresh herbs in a jar of oil and storing for about 3 weeks, straining then when the oil is clear of herbs the process is repeated again and strained after 3 weeks, bottled and then is ready to use.  Hot infused oil is a little more involved but produces a quicker result.  Place 250g of dried or 500g fresh herbs into 500ml of olive oil in a bowl over a pan of boiling water (Bain marie) for 3 hours, strain and pour into clean bottles when this has cooled it is ready to use.

Ointments: To produce an ointment the main ingredient is a fat that is melted in a bowl over a pan of simmering water ad fresh or dried herbs are added and heated for about 2 hours, the liquid is then strained and poured into dark jars( empty film roll cases work well too) and when set can be stored up to 3 months

  1. 1) 500g petrolium jelly or soft paraffin wax to 60g dried or 120g fresh herbs
  2. 2) 140g coconut oil, 120g beexwax to 60g dried or 120g fresh herbs
  3. 3)500ml olive oil, 120g beeswax to 120g dried or 240g fresh herbs

Many other oils can be used and the quantities varied to produce softer or firmer ointments, but that’s where the fun lies in discovering your own special recipe.

Creams: involve the addition of water and are lighter in texture and blend into the skin but as a little trickier to produce as the fats and water have to blend forming an emulsion.  To make a cream melt 150g soft paraffin wax or beeswax in a bowl over simmering water and add to it 70g glycerin and 80ml of water and stir continuously, add 30g dried or 60g fresh herbs and leave ove rthe heat for 3 hours, cool strain and jar.

Bath bombs: these and sachets are a fab way to ease aches and pains, soothe skin ease tensions and prepare for rituals and magickal work.  A basic recipe for a fizzy bath bomb is as follows:

1/4 cup baking soda

3tbsp citric acid

3tbsp cornflour

3tbsp herbs

5-6tbsp of almond oil or similar

Mix all the dry ingredients together well in a bowl, add oil slowly mixing in a little bit at a time until the mixture is crumbly but will hold together when pressed.  Form into shapes or balls and place on a baking tray and bake at 100 degrees centigrade for an hour or until they feel hard and firm.  Allow to cool and store in a dry place (I used a tupperware) then chuck one in the bath when you need to.  If you are comfortable with aromatherapy oils these can be added to the almond oil to enhance the efficiency of your bath bomb.

Bath Sachets

These ar a really instant ‘I need it now’ kind of bath treat.  Take a square of cloth (a flannel will do, or an old teatowel cut up into squares).  In the centre put about half a cup of oats, a splash of olive oil or honey and a handful of the herb of your choice and a little powdered milk if you have it, if not, no problem.  Bring the corners up and tie with some string and chuck in your running bath.  The sachet can be used as a wash sponge too as when squeezed it releases even more of its lovely goodness onto your skin as well as in the water.  These are nice items to make as gifts wrapped in pretty fabrics and ribbons.  It’s best not to include oil or honey if storing or giving as a gift as it can get messy.

Teas, tinctures and infused oils can also be used as a bath time treat as well as using specific ones to treat different problems.  I often use honey in baths as well as it has wonderful healing properties and leaves dry, sore or irritated skin soft and calm.

Useful herbs to grow at home:

These plants make a useful basis for a healing garden, they are widely available from garden centres, cuttings from friends or grown from seed although some need to be kept in check as they can run a little wild.  I have included some suggested uses for each of these plants and their magical associations where possible, but it is good to research each plant, as I have only touched upon the very basics of each one.  I also have found that whilst compiling my suggested basic healing garden plants I ended up with a list of 50 of the bare essentials!!! So I have really cut down. (EDITORS NOTE: IF YOU ARE IN ANY DOUBT ABOUT USING ANY OF THESE, THEN DON’T.  IT’S SAFER FOR YOU.  IF YOU HAVE A MEDICAL COMPLAINT AND ARE UNDER THE CARE OF A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL, OR TAKING REGULAR MEDICATION, THEN CONSULT WITH THEM BEFORE TAKING ANY OF THESE, THEY COULD CREATE UNANTICIPATED SIDE EFFECTS.  DO NOT SIMPLY STOP TAKING YOUR REGULAR MEDICATION TO REPLACE IT WITH ANY OF THESE.  NEITHER THE AUTHOR NOR THE EDITORS ARE MEDICALLY QUALIFIED AND WOULD REALLY RATHER YOU CONSULTED WITH SOMEONE WHO IS)

Basil

Although not native to this isle, it is a very easy windowsill herb to grow and seeds are widely available in many different varieties and is a wonderful culinary herb, used in sauces, salads and breads.  It is regarded as a magical herb associated with the rites of initiations with gaining courage in difficult times and it helps bring compassion.  basil can be used directly on bites and scratches.  It can be taken as an infusion to calm a nervous stomach, ease tension and ease the aches and pains of rheumatism.  harvest leaves before the flowers appear.

Magical properties: harmony, honesty, divination, purification, protection, wealth.

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Chamomile

A frondy fern like perennial plant with apple scented white flowers with yellow centres.  FLowers are used to make infusions to encourage sleep and aid digestion.  it is a powerful antiseptic and has anti-inflammatory properties and an infusion can be used to bathe sore skin or as a mouthwash for inflamed gums and ulcers.

Magical properties: meditation, luck, money, love, purification, sleep.

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Dandelion

The humble dandelion is known to us all, some of us love them and some people spend a life trying to weed them out of their lawns.  Dandelion leaves are a culinary delight and can be a peppery addition to a salad, the leaves can be harvested throughout the spring, summer and autumn and used fresh or dried, but the root is best dug up in the autumn of the second year to get its optimum strength.  The leaves can be made into infusions for treating constipation or gout, as a leaf compress to draw boils and acne treatment.

Magical properties: Divination, wishing, calling spirits

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Fennel

A tall, frondy delicate plant that can look stunning at the back of herb beds, the flowers are umbiform and creamy white in appearance.  Their seeds and leaves are used.  Seeds are steeped in boiling water, allowed to cool and then drunk to help digestion and aid colic.  It must be said the large quantities can bring on convulsions, but a few seeds in a tumbler is ok.

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Lavender

There are few people who do not recognise or grow a clump of lavender.  The parts used are the flowers.  These are best gathered just before the flowers open as this retains their potency.  Lavender can be used in tinctures, lotions and ointments as it has gentle calmative effects.

Magical properties: Chastity, love, peace, happiness, longevity, sleep, protection

Lemon balm

Lemon balm can grow virtually anywhere in the garden and is just as happy in a tub as it is in the ground.  But beware it can get a little rampant.  It grows into a compact bush of green/gold leaves that are oval, slightly wrinkled and toothed.  It has pale yellow to white flowers in the summer.  An infusion made from lemon balm eases headaches and calms tension, it is a restorative and anti-depressant it aids memory and when rubbed on skin or made into a strong infusion makes a great insect repellant

Magical properties: Esbat rituals, love, healing

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Marigold

Annual plant with soft green leaves and bright orange daisy like flowers from early summer to late autumn.  The petals can be used fresh or dried easily.  These should be harvested as the petals open.  marigold petals can be used in weak infusions to treat conjunctivitis and in creams and ointments for most skin complaints.

Magical properties: protection, prophetic dreams, legal matters, psychic powers.

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Nettle

It would be wrong to do any talk on herbs without mentioning the humble nettle, available most of the year round in most places from yards and gardens to hedgerows and woods the nettle will survive anywhere.  It’s tall spires of hairy toothed leaves emit a nasty sting when touched.  We have all at one time or another searched frantically for a Dock leaf to alleviate the stinging, but at least now you know if a Dock cannot be found a handful of Plantain leaves will do the job just as well.  Nettle is a very iron rich plant and can be used in infusions, tinctures, ointments, soups, stews and beers.  The roots are used in decoctions and powder capsules.  The leaves are best collected when young and bright green and before the plant flowers as the darker leaves contain build ups of uric acid crystals.  the roots are best collected in autumn.  Nettle leaf ointment stops bleeding from wounds and calms eczema.  Nettle tea is really good for cleansing the liver and kidneys as it has wonderful detoxifying properties, it mixes well with lemon balm and honey and is also a good pick me up for women suffering from heavy periods as it helps combat anemia it is also a gentle laxative, and makes a very good overall pick you up tonic as nettles have large quantities of vitamin C.  Nettle ointment is also used to ease the discomfort of arthritis.

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Peppermint

When growing peppermint or any of the mint family it is probably best to limit the space it has to spread as it is a pretty invasive plant that will quickly take over a plot.  I have found that sinking a fair sized pot into the ground then planting gives the impression of a rambling mint patch but without the fear of takeover.  Any mint is best harvested before it flowers as this is when the energy of the plant is at its best.   The leaves can be used fresh or dried.  Peppermint is a calmative, it is antiseptic, anti-inflamatory, anti bacterial and as a cooling massage cream for tired overworked joints, peppermint and thyme treat a hangover when used as a tea, a mouthwash infusion helps combat halitosis and a tea made with peppermint and lemon balm calms indigestion.  IMPORTANT CAN CAUSE IRRITATION TO SOME PEOPLE AND IS BEST NOT USED BY THE UNDER 5’S AND WITH CAUTION FOR 5-12’S AND NOT USED AT ALL WHEN BREAST FEEDING AS IT CAN REDUCE MILK FLOW.

Magical properties: love, lust, psychic awareness, energy

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Rosemary

This easy to grow plant is instantly recognisable with its woody branches covered with hard narrow dark-green leaves that are shiny above and a soft green-grey on the underside.  It flowers in early summer with whorls of tiny blue flowers.  When made into infused oils it can be used to soothe arthritic joints.  Infusions can also be used for bringing out bruising.  A useful culinary herb and is good for using in skin treating ointments.

Magical properties: protection, love, lust, exorcism, protection, youth, strega magic, mental powers

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Sage

There are many varieties of sage but the commonest one in a garden is purple sage.  It is an evergreen herb that flowers pink or purple in June through to August.  Sage leaves can be harvested throughout the year but it is at its optimum strength just before it flowers.  The leave can be made into infusions to treat colds and sore throats, sage tea can coder vinegar makes a very effective gargle to alleviate the symptoms of tonsilitis, laryngitis and sore throats, this is also good for a mouthwash for sore gums and mouth ulcers.   Each type of sage has its own specific property such as Clary Sage which is well-known for its uplifting property and white sage (which is difficult to grow in this country) for its fumitory and cleansing properties.  IMPORTANT; IT IS BEST TO AVOID MEDICINAL USES OF SAGE IF YOU ARE PREGNANT OR EPILEPTIC, BUT SMALL AMOUNTS IN COOKING ARE SAFE.

Magical properties: wisdom, animal guides, wishes, immortality

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Thyme

Thyme is a small bushy tiny leaved low growing plant with a distinctive smell.  it has tiny pink flowers in June.  The best time to harvest is mid to late summer.  Thyme is one of the best antiseptics in the herbal world.  It is used in tinctures to treat coughs and sore throats and makes a very good gargle when infused with honey to clam sore throats and sore gums.  Infused thyme oil can be used as a bath additive to clam rheumatic joints and as an ointment for scratches and cuts.

Magical properties: Health, purification, courage

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