It’s easy to dry and store your own herbs if you know a few simple tricks and basic principles to keep them vital. Whether you are collecting plants in your garden, at the farmer’s market, or ethically harvesting out in the wild, you can have beautiful, high quality herbs at hand for your favorite teas and potion making.

Why do herbs need to be dried?
There is a lot you can do with fresh herbs, but sometimes it’s worth the effort to dry them:

  • when you want year-round herbs for teas, cooking or skin care. Most herbs are available only for a season , so drying is a great way to store them for use year round.   Rose is a great example – I love to use dried petals in my tea blends, face creams, baths, or dusted over desserts.  I harvest them all summer so I can have a supply of dried petals year round. Also, even if an herb is abundant all year (like rosemary), having it dried and easy to access in the kitchen will make it easier to use.
  • when dried herbs work better for potion making. Lots of herbs can be used fresh for making potions, but in some cases, dried is preferred.   For example, when infusing a very moist plant – like comfrey – in oil, the high moisture content can cause the oil to spoil pretty quickly.  Or, when tincturing a highly resinous plant like cannabis or grindelia, reducing the moisture content in the plant first can help the alcohol extraction, especially if you don’t have access to 95% alcohol.

 

Choosing the drying method

Fresh nettle drying in the ‘bundle & hang’ method

There are many ways to dry herbs – different methods are better for certain plants and certain climates.  Regardless of the method, if you follow the four principles below, you can create high quality dried herbs at home:

  • Keep herbs out of direct sunlight
  • Allow for air circulation
  • Keep herbs out of high humidity
  • Protect them from heavy falls of pollen or dust

 

 

Here are some basic drying methods to consider:

Bundle & Hang: This method is both practical and beautiful for plants with long, erect stems, and it works great for most plants in mint family (lavender, oregano), also plants like nettle and artemisia (see photo above). When you bundle them, keep in mind the four principles above – don’t pack them too tight and be mindful to keep them of direct sun.

The Brown Bag: Simple and effective for very erect plants, just place them loosely in the bag like flowers in vase.  This is my favorite way to dry oat straw – it is so abundant in the spring and early summer, I can easily gather a few loosely filled grocery bags and let them dry in the shade of my porch so I can use it for tea year round.

Screen/Basket: Set up a screen or loosely woven basket where it has some air circulation underneath, and lay your herbs on top.  This is a great method for flower heads, like calendula, where you can add more flowers every few days as they pop up in the garden.  This is also the way I like to dry roots, cut into roughly equal thickness so they dry at about the same time (also note: some roots may be too hard to cut up when they are dry, so cutting them while fresh is important!).  If you are drying a lot of herbs, you can get a shelved (and collapsible!) hanging screen dryer from a good garden supply store.

Dehydrator: I only recommend this method when you are trying to dry herbs in a humid environment.  It is really easy to over-dry herbs this way, especially delicate flowers.  Use the lowest temperature possible – even the light heat of a dehydrator can result in crispy herbs that have lost their color and vitality.

 

Storing dry herbs

The first and most important step: make sure your herbs are fully dry before storing them!  Any moisture left inside can result in the heartbreak of a moldy stash.  When leaves, roots and petals are fully dry, they should not bend, they should break into pieces.  If in doubt, let herbs dry for a longer period of time –  transfer them loosely into a brown bag a little longer before storing.

For long term storage, exposure to air and light will break down your well-cared for herbs.  it’s best to store your plants

  • in air-tight containers, glass jars are ideal
  • protected from regular exposure to light
  • protected from temperature extremes

How long do dried herbs last?
There is no simple answer! The vitality of dried herbs over time can vary widely.  The delicate chamomile flower will break down much more quickly than a sturdy marshmallow root.

This is where your senses can joyfully come in – get familiar with the color, smell and taste of your freshly dried herbs, and you can monitor their vitality over time.  When herbs really begin lose their taste, color and smell, it’s probably time to put them in the compost pile.  For example, after a year or so in storage, my dry calendula flowers start to lose the vibrant orange color, and then I know it is time to toss them in the compost, especially if I have a new crop coming up in the garden.  However, my dried lavender flowers hold good color, a strong scent and flavor for over two years, so I keep them for a much longer time.

This freshly dried chocolate mint (left) has nearly the same color, smell, and taste as the fresh plant (right)

Also, keep in mind that the herbs you dry at home are going to be incredibly more fresh and vital than most herbs you can buy on the global marketplace – most take many months (or years!) to even get into the stores.  Know that some loss of herbal color, scent and taste is okay, depending on how you plan to use them.  For example, open up a teabag of chamomile and check it out – the flowers will look pretty brown and stale, yet they can still make a soothing cup of tea or a compress to help tame inflamed skin.


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