Using the Winter stores- Drying herbs for Winter use
With many plants having a relatively short growing season it is important that we find ways to preserve the harvest so that we can benefit from their properties throughout the year. This would have been especially important for our ancestors for whom refrigeration and modern preservation methods were not available.
There is a wide range of methods to preserve, enhance and utilise the properties of wild plants, regardless of whether their intended use is medicinal,edible or both. We have covered some of these techniques such as infusing and making flavoured syrups and preserving by fermentation in previous blogs. In this blog we will look at drying as a very simple way of preserving wild plants.
Dried herbs ready for storage, Clockwise from top left:
Mugwort, Yarrow flowers, Tansy, Garden sage, Coltsfoot, Marjoram
When starting to learn about utilising wild plants it can seem as if there is a confusing and intimidating array of uses and properties relating to each new plant we come across. So much so that we feel swamped and less likely to learn their full potential and fascinating stories; drying allows us to slow the process down.
When thinking Bushcraft it is always worth reminding ourselves that where possible, keep it simple! This can definitely apply to preserving wild plant as we have some very simple options available to us through which we can increase the length of time plants can be used.
This is undoubtedly the simplest of ways to preserve your harvest of wild herbs so that they last you throughout the year. There are, however, some simple rules that need to be followed to guarantee success.
The simplest of simple ways to dry herbs is to hang them up in bunches. All we have to do is make sure that the herbs are tied in small bundles that are not too dense and stored in a warm and well ventilated place out of direct sunlight. The airing cupboard fits the bill here perfectly, but for those with wood-burning stoves, the mantel piece with a few additional hooks can serve as a traditional alternative.
Instead of hanging your herbs up in bunches there is the option to lay them out on sheets of paper or cloth screens (avoid newspaper as the ink can be toxic). This is often how I dry herbs: using cooling racks on shelving next to the chimney breast. For those with a little more time to invest, purpose built drying racks of linen cloth stretched over a wooden frame can be easily and cheaply constructed.
Once completely dry- that is, crisp and crumbly- your herbs are ready for storage. Discard any coarse stalks and store flowers and leaves in brown paper bags or air-tight containers. I find used jam jars are the most convenient way to do this. Clear containers need to be kept out of direct sun slight so that leaves are not discoloured by the sun. After about 12 months herbs will start to lose their strength but this funnily enough coincides with the next growing season so we can harvest some more!
Utilising dried herbs:
Dried herbs can be utilised in much the same manner as freshly picked one. There is the obvious use as herbal teas where we are able to extract the water soluble properties. On top of teas, both decoctions and infusions can be made from your dried herbs giving you options as how to use them.
Take the reading further:
Don’t forget that we have a huge list of blogs on Wild Plants and their uses. Here are a some on two of the dried herbs in my photos.
If we have a mild-start to spring it might not be long until we see the first ‘Sons’ appearing.
A plant with a long history of medicinal and culinary uses, Tansy is a plant worth knowing about.
Seal, J. B. & Seal, M. 2008. Hedgerow Medicine, Merlin Unwin Books, Ludlow.