Where to find quality herbs?
Ideally, we could all go out and gather our food and medicine from pristine woods and green meadows. I’ve visited a lot of places where you can do that. I am missing having spent some of February in the mountains, dreadfully, this year.
Unfortunately, the reality of wild crafting here in Iowa is that you have to be quite careful about gathering herbs. We have very little public land in Iowa. The small managed recreational areas we do have have often spray herbicides or pesticides. Road side ditches are often reservoirs for agricultural run-off. Generally speaking native Iowans don’t get how difficult ethical wild-crafting is here, until they do it somewhere else.
My personal solution to this problem is to grow my own. Growing your own wellness garden is a fulfilling project. As a Johnson County Master Gardener, I have been helping people learn about gardening for years. Of course you can’t grow everything, but you can trade your abundance with friends from afar.
I studied ecological design at Goddard because I feel that gardens based on ecological design create pockets of wellness in the ecosystem and promote mutually beneficial relationships with other species, healing the rift between humans and nature. For me, this is an integral part of making connections.
My garden became part of that work although it was started almost immediately after I moved here. This is a collage of just a few of the plants I grow here on my .12 acre urban-ish lot I affectionately call Faoi. I am going to post my final inventory, as was published in my thesis last June, on its own page here on the blog. Hopefully, I will remember to update it. I am still in the process of adding more plants and moving the ones I have into better guilds.
If you are not inclined toward gardening, check with local herbalists and farmers when looking for supplies. Eventually though, most of us need to visit the herb shop at a local health food store, or order something online.
What do Good Herbs Look Like?
This is when you need to apply good old-fashioned organoleptics. Organoleptic evaluation of herbs refers to the evaluation of a plant sample by color, odor, size, shape, taste and special features including texture. Knowing some of that involves enough botanical training to recognize the plants, without labels. Thankfully, for the most part, we have labels to guide us in stores, but don’t forget your critical thinking cap. The coop had celery root labeled as rutabaga last Thanksgiving. (No, I am never going to forgive them for that.)
Good quality herbs aren’t too hard to pick out. They are pleasant colors, crisp greens, and dark greens- not brown. Flowers should retain a color close their original blossom. Fresh herbs also have distinctive odors; not all of which are pleasant. You will learn their smells.
They have specific tastes. In many traditional healing systems, the action an herb has in your body is classified by its taste. So if you have read about the astringency of an herb, you should notice that your mouth feels dry or tight, after you chew it. Herbs, which are classified as “sour” and don’t make you pucker might have lost their potency.
As you lexperience each new herb, you slowly become trained in organoleptic evaluation. Eventually you will be able to identify the family a new plant belongs to just by chewing on the leaf. I am a big fan of breaking off leaves of plants and handing them to students to chew on.
Putting aside simple organoleptics, another simple question to ask is “Does this herb have an effect?” I think that this should go without saying but if you are drinking a nourishing infusion for weeks, you should notice a change in your body. Sometimes it isn’t always a good change. Not all herbs are suited for all people. For example, nettles have a very drying effect on me. But I can at least tell if they are still potent by recognizing that effect on my body.
There are optional questions you may want to ask if these issues are important to you. What sort of business practices does your supplier use? Are the herbs ethically sourced? Are they organic? If they are wild-crafted in a different country, are they fair trade certified? If you buy herbal preparations, you should know this stuff, too. There are a lot of suppliers out there. I am not endorsing one over another, here.
While everything I just talked about is important, none of it matters if your retailer doesn’t store their herbs properly. Regretfully, I tend to feel that you will get better quality herbs when cutting out the middleman.
Herbs should be stored in dark glass and out-of-the light as much as possible. Most herbs in markets are stored in clear glass in the light. They have a really short shelf-life. I keep mine in a completely dark closet and I won’t use flowers or leaves if they are more than 6-9 months old regardless of what the bag says when I get it.
Finally, please keep in mind that when I am speaking of dried herbs on this blog, I am never, ever speaking of something you buy in a bottle of capsules. Those are capsules full of fillers which may or may not contain the herb on the label. I recently read a study in which a red canister of culinary garlic powder contained more allicin than the top nine garlic supplements on the market.