To everything there is a season, and at my house it’s herb season. Mind, it’s still calf-feeding season and gardening season and a whole lot of other seasons, but herbs are most defective for medicinal use when gathered at the right time. The late spring and early summer are when I gather yarrow, horehound, mint, monkey flowers, chamomile, St. John’s Wort, mullein and elderflower. Later in the year I return to the elderberry tree for ripe berries and in the fall, it’s time to harvest willow bark. The best time to gather aerial parts varies according to the plant and which of those parts you want. With mint and horehound, the volatile oils are strongest just before the flowers appear. For yarrow, elderflower, monkey flower and chamomile, I want the flowers themselves, so I gather them in full bloom. Both flowers and leaves from the mullein are valuable, so I gather leaves just before it flowers and then make a return trip for the flowers. Here’s a bit about each.
Chamomile – German chamomile and Roman chamomile can be used pretty much interchangeably, although German tends to be a bit better for skin conditions. The tea is used to help calm anxiety and promote sleep, while it also makes a good eyewash (used cold) for conjunctivitis, or pinkeye. Externally applied, chamomile can sooth skin irritations and itching from chicken pox and eczema. If you’re allergic to ragweed, use chamomile cautiously at first, as the two are related.
Elderberry – the flowers are useful in a tea for a mouthwash or gargle for sore throats. Berries, when cooked, strained and mixed with ginger, cinnamon, cloves and honey, make a good antiviral syrup to help protect against flu and clods.
Horehound – this very bitter herb makes great cough syrup. I brew a batch each fall from dried leaves and keep it in the fridge all winter.
Mint – wild mint (this is a spearmint in my locale, not peppermint, but mints can be used interchangeably) makes a nice tea and an excellent mosquito repellant. Insects in general don’t much care for mint and ants tend to avoid it, especially peppermint – just spray it on their trails.
Monkey Flower – one of the Bach flower remedies, mimulus is used for anxiety and “nervous conditions.” The alcohol-based tincture is usually added to a tea.
Mullein – one of those herbs that seem to do almost everything, mullein is used for asthma and other lung problems, earaches, bruises, burns, hemorrhoids and gout. The leaves may used to make tea or smoked for asthma, while the essential oil can be applied to the skin when diluted in a carrier oil.
St. John’s Wort – used for depression, but I collect the flowers to make a sun-infused oil that’s good for treating skin irritations and wounds.
Yarrow – useful for fever and colds, to induce sweating and for wounds. The fresh leaves can help relieve toothache when chewed. The name Achillea millefolium comes for the Greek hero Achilles, who used it to stop bleeding in battlefield wounds and the finely divided leaves (millefolium means thousand-leaved).
I gather these, give them a 10-minute soak in salt water to get rid of bugs and then hang them to dry. Then I remove the flowers (or in the case of horehound, the leaves), put them in labeled glass jars and store in a dark place. They’ll be good for at least a year. Sometimes I turn them into tinctures later in the year when things slow down a bit.
Remember when using herbs – although most are gentle, they can have side effects. Get a good herbal or expert advice and use them correctly.