Harvesting Nature’s Bounty for Your Pet – Gathering and Preparing Herbs
Herbs and plant extracts have been used for their healing and culinary properties for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians, the ancient cultures of the Far East and the Romans used herbs in cooking and in medicines, both for themselves and the animals in their care, and throughout the ages there has been much documentation of the herbal treatments used on domesticated animals.
Folklore tells of the generations of families and farmers who relied heavily on foraging for herbs in the hedgerows, meadows, forests and wilderness areas to feed their livestock, dogs and horses. Many people observed their animals self-selecting local plant material and it became second nature for humans and animals to share alike in the goodness of these healing plants – a vital resource for keeping the body healthy.
No one could afford to lose a working animal and with no professional veterinary advice available until a few hundred years ago, many a lay person used his or her own simple herb and culinary recipes to resolve a problem. Over millennia, and for millions of people, foraging for herbs and plant material became a way of supplementing the diet.
EXPLORING NATURE’S MEDICINE CABINET
I have identified at least 30 herbs growing within a 6.5-km (4-mile) radius of my home in Sussex, England, in the heart of the South Downs National Park. I feel very blessed that I share my home with such a great variety of culinary and healing plants, which include nettle, mint and wild garlic.
I harvest these plants at certain times of the year – mainly late spring, summer and autumn. June, July and August are the busiest months for harvesting catnip, calendula (marigold), yarrow, chamomile, rose petals, cleavers, lavender, red and white clover, lemon balm, chickweed, sage and chamomile, among others. All of these herbs play a very useful role in the food recipes and topical remedies I make for myself and my pets.
Late summer and early autumn herald a new burst of colour, as rich ruby red and deep purple berries such as rosehips, elderberries and blackberries make themselves available. These are packed full of beta-carotene, vitamins and trace minerals that take care of wild animals during the long winter months when they find it hard to forage for food. Autumn is a great time for them to stock up on vital nutrients when times are hard.
I never have any particular expectation of which herbs I am going to source on my foraging trips, and I am always pleasantly surprised by a new find. Every single outing is like finding a treasure chest full of gold, except in this case it is an array of healing, nutritious herbs. Most days I take my dogs for a walk in the meadows near my house. It is a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time with them and to observe them delicately picking off the fresh young shoots of grass, packed with chlorophyll – an important trace mineral for animals. Over the years I have identified most of the herbs growing in these meadows, and I have a rough idea of where and when they will appear.
Take note of where herbs and plants grow in your area. Carry a small notepad with you when foraging for herbs and jot down the location, date and plant species.
However, sometimes nature has a funny way of catching us out. One day I spotted a small clump of chickweed in a new location. A delicate, tiny white flower had caught my eye – it was nestled in a damp, shallow ditch among a carpet of grasses. I took note and marked it on my Ordnance Survey map. The next day I returned and harvested a small amount of it. I was delighted that the chickweed had taken root and found a new home.
I always wear trousers on my foraging trips – in case I find myself in the thick of a hedge or in knee-high grass: thorny stems are unforgiving! Most harvesting takes place on warm, sunny days, so a wide-brimmed hat is a must to protect my skin from the glare of the sun. I carry a pair of scissors, secateurs, and a trowel in a hip/bum bag or a small haversack, along with a notepad and pen and a couple of small brown paper bags to keep herbs dry and clean. (I try not to use plastic bags, as plants tend to sweat in them.)
I recommend carrying a small herbal reference book, with colour pictures of leaves and flowers, so you can identify plant species easily and quickly. Do not forget to pack a bottle of water, too, to stay hydrated: you may find yourself in the middle of nowhere, a long way from a shop.
Some flower heads look very similar to each other in colour, shape, location and flowering times. Always look at the shape and colour of the leaves and stems to identify accurately plants you are unsure about.
Be mindful when harvesting herbs. Only take what you need and never uproot an entire family of plants. If the remedy does not require the roots of the plant, carefully dig down and around the main tubers and gently prise away an offshoot of the rooted plant. Carefully replace any remaining soil.
If the herb you are using requires the aerial parts of the plant (those that grow above ground) take cuttings from about 5cm (2in) above the ground. When you are harvesting berries it is important to pick them when they are ripe and luscious.
When harvesting fruits and berries gently squeeze a berry/fruit between your thumb and forefinger – if it feels slightly soft, has a vivid colour and you can taste the flavour without bitterness – PICK! I never harvest fruits or berries without tasting them first, and interestingly you rarely see animals eating unripe berries and fruits either. Like us they appreciate the natural sweet flavours, colours and energy values as a food reserve to help them survive.
The beauty of working with herbs is that you do not need to invest in expensive equipment. Below I have listed the items I use on a daily basis:
- Earthenware and Pyrex glass mixing bowls – 2 and 4 litre (3½ and 7 pint) capacity
- Glass jars with screw-on lids – 225g and 450g (8oz and 1lb) capacity
- Glass measuring jug – 1 litre (1¾ pint) capacity
- Stainless-steel saucepans – 18cm/7in (2 litre/3½ pint capacity) and 20cm/8in (3 litre/5¼ pint capacity)
- Stainless-steel straining funnels (in an assortment of sizes)
- Stainless-steel sieves (in an assortment of sizes)
- Brown glass bottles – in an assortment of sizes, from 50ml (2 fl oz), 100ml (3½ fl oz) and 200ml (7 fl oz) up to 500ml (18 fl oz)
- Three-tier stainless-steel cooling rack (on which to dry herbs)
- A plastic tray measuring 600 × 400 × 120mm (24 × 16 × 5in) with small holes in it – for harvesting herbs
- A blender with a glass measuring jug is essential. I strongly advise against using plastic measuring jugs, as some of the herbs are quite pungent and their odour may stay on the plastic and taint recipes.
- A large pestle and mortar – I have a granite one because it is robust and deep enough for mixing an assortment of herbs together
- Weighing scales – digital or manual. When buying scales, look for one with a large basin – at least 5kg (10lb) capacity – in which to place herbs for weighing.
Other useful equipment includes pure cotton muslin, labels and a notebook for recipes. When you need to clean glass bottles or jam jars for reuse, a nylon brush cleaner is invaluable for reaching inside difficult areas – these are available in a variety of sizes from any good cook shop or wine-making store. Save glass jam jars and their lids.
When to harvest
I harvest herbs after midday, as this allows any dew or dampness to be absorbed by the plant. Also, if the sun is out more rays are absorbed and goodness captured. Use a good pair of scissors and a flat tray with holes in the bottom (see above) to keep air circulating to the plants; do not overload the tray. If you are harvesting a plant like calendula, pick the very best flower heads; when picking mint take the whole stem, leaving approximately 5cm (2in) at the base so as to cultivate another crop later on in the harvest. Keep herbs separate from each other.
USING FRESH AND DRIED HERBS
As much as I love working with fresh herbs in the summer months it becomes a problem when working out of season. Many fresh herbs are at their best only in the summer and so a very good way of preserving them for the rest of the year is to dry them.
This is achieved by selecting and picking the very best herbs on a warm day – preferably when there have been at least five days of sunshine beforehand. I have lost an entire crop in the past due to damp conditions, with mildew forming on the plants. Do not leave herbs outside to perish in the cold.
There are two methods for drying herbs, depending on which part of the plant is being used. Calendula (marigold) and other flower heads can be spread out evenly on a tray with holes in it, creating a single layer. A three-tier stainless steel cooling rack does the trick; use the second and third tier as the first is too close to the base and air cannot circulate properly, leaving the flower heads damp.
Do not cover the herbs with another layer, as this will prevent them from drying properly. Place the stainless-steel cooling rack in an airing cupboard, or in a room which is not damp, and leave to dry for up to two weeks.
Another way of drying, suitable for long-stemmed herbs, is to tie a small bunch of the same herb together – i.e. nettles – and hang them up in an airing cupboard or tie them to a clothes horse in a dry room. Try to keep them out of direct sunlight. Make a note of the date you prepared the bunches for drying – in the past I have left herbs to dry and forgotten about them, only to find that damp conditions and sunlight have ruined them.
Storing dried herbs
When the herbs are crispy dry it is time to store them. When storing herbs find a suitable dry place, away from direct sunlight, where you can keep them all together. I used to have dried herbs all over my house and inevitably I forgot where some of the key ingredients for my remedies were located! I am now in the fortunate position of having my own apothecary, where all my dried herbs are stored.
With long-stemmed herbs such as mint and nettle you can discard any tough stalks – have a clean tray ready to catch the leaves as you strip the plant. When you have a sufficient quantity of dried leaves, scrunch them up in your hands, especially larger leaves, so they take less space. Dried flower heads such as marigolds do not need to be stripped.
Always label your herbs: note the name of the herb, the parts used, the date of harvest, the year and the weight.
Dried herbs can be stored in brown paper bags or in airtight glass jars (preferably dark in colour, to prevent the herbs from fading in the light). I do not recommend plastic tubs or plastic bags. Weigh the dried herb before storing. Dried flower heads and leaves can be stored for up to a year, while roots and barks will last for up to 18 months.
When using dried herbs in any of the recipes in this book remember that much of the moisture will have evaporated during the drying process and so they will be lighter in weight than fresh herbage.