Midsummer announces the arrival of an abundance of plant medicine for the herb gardener and wildcrafter to harvest and preserve. While many herbs can be dried and stored for later use in teas and remedies, some plants are best preserved fresh. St. John’s Wort, lemon balm, violet leaf, mullein flowers, and milky oats make powerful remedies when they are harvested at the peak of their potency and processed into tinctures, infused oils, and/or glycerites when still fresh to extract their pharmacologically active constituents as well as their vital energy.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
The bright yellow five-petaled flowers of St. John’s wort are arranged in a flat-topped cluster at the top of a branching stem. Tips for a positive ID: if you hold a leaf up to the light, you can see tiny dots that appear to be perforations but are actually a translucent layer of oil glands; and the flowers are covered with tiny black dots that release a red oil, staining your fingers as you harvest. This red pigment is hypericin, one of the bioactive constituents in St. John’s wort, which is preserved in fresh extracts or oil infusions of the plant but not in the dried plant. While hypericin isn’t the only active constituent in St. John’s wort, Tillotson (2001) suggests that the hypericin content (and associated red color) can be used to evaluate the strength of St. John’s Wort preparations.
St. John’s Wort is a relaxing nervine well-known for its ability to relieve anxiety and tension and uplift the spirit. It has been researched extensively as an antidepressant, and is prescribed throughout the world for mild to moderate depression. St. John’s wort can also help those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) due to lower sunlight exposure in the winter months. Its anti-inflammatory, vulnerary, astringent, and antimicrobial actions make it a powerful healer for wounds, bruises, burns, sprains, and muscle pain. Learn more about St. John's wort here.
How to: Harvest the upper 2-3 inches of fresh flowers and leaves from the plant. Follow instructions to make an infused oil or fill jar 2/3 full with St. John’s wort tops, cover with vodka (at least 80 proof), and let macerate for at least 4 weeks before straining.
Milky Oats (Avena sativa)
Oat grows to four feet tall with narrow, lance-shaped, flat, rough green leaves on a smooth stem. The flower consists of two-flowered spikelets that hang downward and develop into two husk-wrapped grains. Milky oats are the oat grains harvested when they are in their milky stage, during which the oat grains release a white, milky sap when squeezed. This stage, which lasts approximately one week, occurs after the oat begins flowering and before the seed hardens and becomes the oat grain. Once the seed heads appear and become plump, squeeze the tops daily to make sure you don’t miss the milky stage. Harvesting the tops is easy and fun – just pinch the stem between two fingers, slide up the stem, and the grains will pop off one at a time. Milky oats can then be dried for teas, but can also be tinctured fresh in alcohol to preserve its bioactive components.
The rich Vitamin B, calcium, and magnesium content in oats help soothe and strengthen nerves. As a tincture, milky oats are helpful for nervous system conditions such as exhaustion, depression, insomnia, anxiety, or sexual debility. This preparation can be especially supportive in more acute cases when the symptoms are more severe, or in cases of drug and alcohol withdrawal (Bennett, 2014). Read more about milky oats here.
How to: Fill jar 2/3 full with fresh milky oats, cover with vodka (at least 80 proof), and let macerate for at least 4 weeks before straining.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
This lemon-scented mint family plant grows enthusiastically in the garden, producing lush growth throughout the summer. Harvesting the upper several inches of the stem and leaves by pinching it back just above a set of leaves keeps lemon balm from flowering so it will keep producing foliage. While dried lemon balm makes lovely herbal preparations, the fresh leaves have a lighter, brighter, and even more refreshing energy. A cup of lemon balm tea prepared with freshly harvested lemon balm is a favorite in our house, and adding a handful of lemon balm to a pitcher of water chilling in the fridge makes a wonderfully refreshing and cooling summer beverage. The essence of fresh lemon balm can also be captured in a glycerite for later use to flavor and sweeten fizzy water, teas, or tinctures.
Lemon balm has a wonderfully uplifting energy. As a trophorestorative (Hoffman, 2003), it tonifies and repairs the nervous system over time. It soothes anxiety, depression, and nervousness and brings with it a sense of lightness and joy. Its gentle nature also relaxes tension.
Combining lemon balm glycerite with St. John’s wort tincture makes a delightful, uplifting blend. Lemon balm’s carminative action helps relieve digestive upset stemming from anxiety or depression (Hoffman, 2003). Learn more about lemon balm here.
How to: Harvest the upper several inches of leaves from plant prior to flowering, pinching off right above a set of leaves. Follow instructions here to prepare a glycerite.
Mullein Flowers (Verbascum thapsus)
Mullein grows along roadsides and embankments and prefers sunny, open spots on disturbed soil. It’s a biennial plant, producing a rosette of fuzzy leaves in its first year and the distinctive tall stalk covered in yellow flowers in its second year.
While the saponins and mucilage in mullein leaves indicate it for the respiratory system as an expectorant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-spasmodic for bronchitis and coughs, mullein flowers are also prized as an herbal remedy. An oil infusion of the wilted flowers soothes earaches and is a common folk remedy for ear infections. Mullein oil is often combined with antimicrobial garlic oil, producing a very useful remedy for earaches and ear infections.
How to: Harvest flowers and let wilt for several hours to reduce moisture content. Follow instructions to make an infused oil.
Violet (Viola odorata)
While spring is an ideal time to harvest violet leaves, the plant puts out new leaves throughout the summer as well. Harvest the small, tender leaves of the fresh growth for eating fresh in salads, drinking as an infusion, and for making an infused oil.
Violet is cooling and moistening so is an ideal ally in the hot, dry summer weather or for hot and dry ailments. Internally, violet leaf’s expectorant, demulcent, and anti-inflammatory (Hoffman, 2003) qualities are used for respiratory conditions including dry, inflamed coughs. Externally, an oil infusion of violet leaf is used to cool and reduce swelling for inflamed skin conditions.
Massaging the breasts with violet leaf oil is also a folk remedy for inflammation of the lymphatic tissue in breasts, helping to move lymph and clear toxins. Violet is a very sweet and loving plant, and this physical act of self care conveys kindness and much needed support to not only the breasts but also our hearts. Read about additional benefits of violets.
How to: Harvest young violet leaves and a few flowers. Chop leaves into smaller pieces and let wilt a bit to reduce moisture content. Follow instructions to make an infused oil.
Learn more about the actions, energetics, and benefits of these plants and many more in the Herbal Academy of New England’s plant monograph database, part of The Herbarium membership website.
The Herbarium. (2015).
Bennett, Robin Rose. (2014). The Gift of Healing Herbs. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Hoffman, David (2003). Medical Herbalism. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Tillotson, Alan Keith. (2001). The One Earth Herbal Sourcebook. New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Group.
Jane Metzger is the Assistant Director at the Herbal Academy of New England, home of the online Introductory Herbal Course and Intermediate Herbal Course. HANE recently released its affordable membership program, fittingly called The Herbarium, featuring one of the most complete plant monograph databases to date. Learn more about all of HANE's herbalism classes and offerings.
Images provided and copyright by Jane Metzger and the Herbal Academy of New England.
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