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Aerial Herbs A-L

‘Aerial herb’ indicates the parts of a herb that grow above ground – from which the majority of indigenous herbal medicines are derived. In many cases you will find texts that conflict in their recommendations for either the leaf, or alternatively the whole aerial herb (complete with stems). Commercial suppliers have a preference for the latter (and will often supply the whole aerial herb even when described as leaf). There are also modern recommendations to use only the flowering tops, or more commonly to harvest leaves and flowering tops together, discarding the stems. 

Harvesting & Preparation

In commerce there are purely pragmatic reasons to harvest just before the herb comes into flower. For small-scale production it’s usually recommended instead to harvest in full flower, partly as this usually yields the best quality in terms of biochemistry, and partly because flowering is the point at which the herb is likely to prove most manifestly energetic.

Most herbs are herbaceous (they die back in autumn and grow up again from dormant roots in the spring). In the main, these are harvested as the whole aerial herb from clean growth. Basal growth is likely to suffer from soil-splash, may have been blemished by soil-dwelling organisms, but in particular often exhibits ‘yellowed-off’ leaves, due to overshading by upper growth, particularly where herbs are growing tightly spaced. When you cut a herbaceous herb in this fashion, it’s recommended to ‘tidy up’ later by pruning back nearer to ground level, otherwise you may find dead stems intruding into a later harvest. Given that you are also putting the plant to unaccustomed extra effort, it’s advisable to treat it to a liquid feed at this point.

Non-herbaceous herbs such as Sage, Rosemary & White Horehound produce woody growth – harvest only the soft growth from the previous year, and leave about a third of it behind for good measure, otherwise the cut stems may die back or the whole plant may be killed. Trees and shrubs are usually more tolerant of pruning.

Whether herbaceous or not, there are only a very few examples (e.g. Thuja and Raspberry leaf) where the herbal material is stripped directly from the plant. The more normal procedure is to cut off the stems or branches, take them away to a convenient work station, and there complete any necessary stripping as part of the comminution process. When (as is common) only the leaves and flowering tops are needed, there is a trick to grasping the stems one at a time just below the upper soft growth, and stripping firmly downwards with the other hand to remove the leaves, then plucking off the soft (flowering) tip, in one smooth action.

Generally further comminution, if required at all, is easy in the case of aerial herbs as they usually present quite soft and un-resistant material. Take the opportunity to complete as much as possible whilst still outdoors, by bunching the material between the fists and twisting off small plugs, or by snipping bunches into short sections with secateurs. Alternatively, the use of a cog-drive garden shredder will really come into it’s own here, making short work of comminution, with the advantage that it both chops and crushes leafy material. Only where very fine comminution is required will you have to withdraw to the kitchen for final food-processing or vigorous work on the chopping board.

Agrimony, Agrimonia eupatoria – 1:3 25%, 7-10 days

The whole aerial herb from clean growth is gathered in summer, early in flowering, (Agrimony repeat-flowers, and it’s best to harvest before seeds have set from the earliest flowers). If this is done, new growth will form and it’s usually possible to get two ‘cuts’ from Agrimony in a good summer. The stems are quite fibrous so are best secateured to 3-4 cm sections, or shredded.

Alecost, Tanacetum balsamita – 1:3 45%, 10-14 days

The leaves of Alecost, or Costmary, can be gathered at any time during summer as soon as they have matured to a blueish tinge. Two or even three harvests are possible. It’s best to pluck the leaves by hand one by one, avoiding any that are blemished, of which there’s likely to be many, particularly if growth has become crowded. Flowering tops when present can also be incorporated. Little or no comminution is required. It’s recommended to prune out any fibrous flower stems at the end of the season.

It’s a sign of the tunnel vision of ‘scientific’ herbal medicine that the close relative, Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), has attracted so much attention as a remedy for migraines, whilst Alecost, almost completely unresearched, is far more likely to achieve a cure – and is unsurpassed for treating hormonal headaches.

Artichoke, Cynara scolymus – 1:3 25%, 10-14 days

The leaves of the Globe Artichoke can be harvested at any time in the summer, but if you also prize the huge flower-bud itself as a vegetable it’s best to take the leaves just before the globe(s) start to open, for fear of arresting development. Snip the leaves off near to the stem, taking no more than half of them if you want this to remain a robust perennial. The leaves are soft and easy to comminute coarsely.

One can also use the globe itself as medicine (chop it finely and use the same formula as the leaf), or incorporate it with the leaf, as you prefer. The Globe Artichoke should not be confused with the Jerusalem Artichoke, Helianthus tuberosa, used as a root vegetable and entirely unrelated.

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