Some Tips on Herb Gathering

(reposted from earlier in 2010):

With Midsummer fast approaching, I am reminded that this is the traditional time for most herb gathering. Witches tend to believe that herbs gathered on the Summer Solstice have the most magickal power. I am sure that the practical reason for this is that the herbs are at the fullness of their growth right now, and therefore contain the best possible combination of their healing properties. It has been warm for long enough now that most of the plants are fully developed, but the heat and dryness has not leached those healing properties and natural juices from them.

Like anything in nature, this isn’t a firm rule. I am refering only to the majority of plants, especially anything where the leaf is the relevant part, or the flower and the flower is in full bloom. Plants I have been gathering include sage, chamomile, rose petals, marigolds, red raspberry leaves, plantain, and most culinary herbs (like the oregano and basil I have growing in my garden.) If the plant typically blooms earlier and it’s the flower you want (like, perhaps, violets,) you will obviously have to gather the flowers at the time in which they bloom! Some herbs, like the feverfew and the mullein, have not reached their full growth yet and so I should wait until they do. The lavender flowers have yet to bloom, so I must wait for those, but I have gathered some leaf to use in sage bundles. Gather fresh flowers by “deadheading” the plant before the flower is actually withered; it may make your plant look less pretty, but withered and wilted flowers have less of their herbal healing properties.

Roots, on the other hand, are best gathered in the spring and fall, when the plant has either yet to expend its energy creating big leaves and stalks, or when the plant has given up on that effort and is now concentrating on making strong roots to survive the winter. So dandelion roots, for example, are best acquired when you can see the distinct leaves in your lawn, but before the flower blooms (which actually is a good excuse to go weeding, when you think about it.) This is also true of plants in which you want the rhizomes (like oregon grape.)

Occasionally, certain plants get a sudden “boost” of healing properties and/or flavour when the first frost comes. Rosehips and grapes are common examples of this, but wormwood, mugwort and mullein are also so affected (which is probably why they are associated with Crone goddesses and Samhain.)

In the case of some plants, it’s the buds you want, like balm of gilead, so you must gather those when the buds are out but before they open. And from some you want seeds, fruits or nuts; late summer to early fall is the obvious best time to find those. Make sure you gather them before they fall from the tree to ensure a minimum of mold and rot.

Some plants you can continue to gather in the winter, like any evergreen leaf, and anything in which you want the sap (the maple tree is perhaps the most obvious, but you can also gather bits of pine sap to make incense.) Also, many mosses and parasitic plants continue to grow throughout the year (like Irish moss, Old Man’s Beard, and the famous mistletoe.)

Wood can be harvested almost any time of year, but please try to avoid it in the spring when the sap is flowing, because you may harm or even kill the tree. Some Witches will tell you never to cut a tree, but only take any deadfall or already cut pieces. I don’t think this is entirely practical; obviously avoid harm whenever possible, but some projects require wood to be green and then dry in order to work. Just don’t destroy the tree and take the wood respectfully and with an eye to not harming the tree, and if a dead stick will do, don’t take a live one.

Always gather plants at the fullness of their growth, before withering and decay has set in. Gather plants, especially ones taken for magick, with mindfulness and purity of intent. Do not decimate a whole sagebush to make sage bundles; this would be very disrespectful and likely offend the spirit of the plant, making it ineffective for its intention of clearing energy. Don’t rip up the whole chamomile plant if you can avoid it, just pull off some flowers. Ask the plant’s permission and whenever possible, leave an offering. (Some people have very strong ideas of what constitutes a proper offering. Something intended to lend a plant spiritual energy, that is not toxic to it, is generally appropriate in my opinion. I often leave pure water, or milk and honey for the fey spirits of a tree.) Also, do not gather plants in the rain or excessive damp because it encourages mold growth, or in the excessive heat because it withers the plant and leeches its healing properties.

Many Witches use a dedicated tool – often a white-handled knife, or white-handled knife with a curved blade – called a bolline to gather herbs. In some traditions, these knives are made entirely of wood to avoid offending a plant’s faerie spirit and not harm the spiritual energy of the plant. I find that sometimes you need a metal blade to cut through things like huge mullein stalks or dig up burdock roots! But select your bolline according to your preference and consecrate it to the task of sacred harvesting. I have a larger bolline that was handmade by my friend that is shaped roughly like a small khopesh with a bear’s jawbone as its hilt, and what I call my “working bolline,” which is a small white-handled jackknife with a curved blade that I keep in my purse for those spontaneous wildcrafting moments.

Herbs intended to be used fresh should be used immediately. Herbs intended for drying can be hung upside down in a place that is not directly exposed to the sun (which, again, will leech healing properties) or damp (which will cause mold.) You can also cut them up and put them in a food dehydrator or maybe even a sun-drying rack (generally a better option for small flowers like chamomile and lavender, or fruits and their peels, which are thick and damp and usually mold and rot before drying if you just leave them to their own devices.)

Herbs intended for tinctures are actually best dried and then placed in the alcohol, because drying concentrates the active ingredients, but oil infusions are better with fresh herbs because oil has a more difficult time taking the healing properties from a plant. Make sure you cover the plant completely with oil or alcohol to prevent mold from taking hold. You can even freeze fresh herbs in freeaer bags and they will maintain most of their healing and flavouring properties for up to about six months.

Always store your dried herbs, tinctures, oil infusions, ointments, and so forth in a cool and dry place out of direct sunlight. This includes your kitchen spices! Also, replace them whenever possible each year. They will lose their healing properties (and flavour) with each passing year. Keep them in a closed and sealed container to prevent infestation by insects or rodents.

Last, but not least, remember that anything left on the field or in your herb garden after Samhain traditionally belongs to the Fair Folk, and I certainly would not incur their wrath by stealing their share! So make sure all your harvesting, except what winter gathering you intend to do in wild places, is completed by then.

Happy gathering!

Blessed be,


~ by Sable Aradia on January 23, 2011.

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