Herb Quality

When people talk to me about herbs I get a few common herbal questions regularly. I tend to ask them in return about the quality of the herbs they’re using. I usually get a confused look in response. The quality of herbs you’re using is often overlooked but incredibly important. 

Picture of four yellow plates covered in fresh spearmint cuttings lined above three more plates holding small red rose flowerheads.
Freshly harvested homegrown spearmint and roses.

What do I mean by herb quality? Medicinally potent, properly harvested, processed and stored herbs that are preferably not older than a year. The length of time a properly stored herb or spice is stored affects the potency. 

Things That Affect Quality 

Long-term storage in a warehouse without climate control can negatively affect herbs. Harvesting at the wrong time of year affects the strength of the medicine. Improper processing, such as inadequate drying before packaging, can lead to mold growth. This is why there are Good Manufacturing Practices and other consumer protection laws.

Picture of Rimakej showing off her backpack with tall leeks sticking out of the zipper opening, while standing next to a small cart with various vegetables and roots on it and a chalkboard sign with the words, "Fresh Organic Veg," written in colorful chalk on it.
Loading up our “leeky” backpack with fresh organic veg grown locally at Schumacher College, including medicinal horseradish roots! If you can’t grow it yourself, find close-by good sources to avoid longer storage times in non-ideal conditions due to product shipment.

Quality Control

As an Herbalist I focus on easy to grow herbs, because I like to know the history of the herbs I’m using. When I grow my own I can control the quality because I am harvesting, drying, processing and storing my herbs. 

As a “whole herb” type of herbalist, growing my own gives me the flexibility to use different parts of the plant that may not be commonly available. Ie: You can buy fresh or dried ginger and turmeric roots almost anywhere, but I have yet to find the leaves of either. 

Picture of a thriving patch of flowering goldenrod with it's many long bright yellow flowerheads.
Homegrown goldenrod. The flowers and leaves can be dried and used medicinally as a tea.

I store my homegrown herbs as whole as possible to retain their potency. They’re in glass containers away from any heat sources and sunlight. Each container is labeled and dated so I can keep track of how quickly I use them. I try to keep the containers small to minimize air space in them. If I have a large amount, I will fill another smaller jar for frequent use.  

If you’re eyeing your spice rack by now and wondering if your herbs are still potent, there’s an easy way to tell.

Trust Your Senses

Look at it. The dried herb should be close to the same color as it would be if the plant was still alive. If green herbs like basil, thyme, and rosemary are tan, compost them. (Of course if you grow a purple basil variety or a variegated thyme, adjust your expectations accordingly.)

Use your nose. The herb should have a strong smell when you open the storage container. If you open cayenne powder and have to stick your nose into the container to get a hint of it, relocate it to the compost. 

Picture of Cristophe's left hand holding a bunch of lavender cuttings with many little purple lavender flowers in front of the lavender bush they were harvested from.
Lavender has a beautiful aromatic scent that becomes even stronger once dried. The loss of this scent over time can be a good indicator of the decrease in its medicinal potency level.

Take a small taste. The herb should have a strong taste. Note: I didn’t say pleasant! Some herbs can be intensely bitter or unbearably hot. If you have to use half a jar to get any flavor, it’s time to put them in the compost bin.

You can use the visual principle to determine the potency and quality of many dried herbs you purchase in stores. I highly suggest making this potency checklist a routine habit when cooking.

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