At the end of August the beginning of autumn can be felt in the Northeast. The first trees are starting to turn and show their fiery fall colors. But there are still many medicinal herbs that are just now ready to be harvested and can become part of your green medicine cabinet such as boneset and echinacea.
Echinacea is an excellent immune system stimulant and has strong antiviral properties. Boneset helps to reduce a fever and soothes the lungs. You can harvest the young blossoms and upper leaves of both plants and combine them in a powerful cold and flu remedy for the coming winter months.
Pick a nice and sunny day for your leaf and blossom harvest. Most plants are best harvested late morning, after the morning dew has dried and before the afternoon heat is stressing and wilting the plant.
Wear comfortable clothing in muted colors not to scare birds or other wildlife. If you are planning to visit a thick and high growing field make sure to wear long pants, a long sleeved shirt, and closed, soft soled shoes. Bring your harvesting tools, such a sharp clean pair of shears (Felco makes good shears for left and right handed people) and a small pocket knife. Bring a basket or a paper bag large enough to place, not stuff, your plants in. Avoid plastic bags as they encourage fermentation and spoiling of the plants on a hot day.
Medicinal and culinary herbs loose their potency and medicinal properties after a year of storage. So when you go out to wild harvest, take only enough to make medicine for one year. You don't need much. Nature will provide a new and fresh harvest again a year later. In Native American traditions, an essential rule of harvesting is to only take what you truly need and ask for permission before taking anything at all.
Harvest abundance only from a large growing patch. Do not harvest single standing plants that are not part of a plant community. Never disturb or harvest an endangered or threatened species. Plant them instead and help to insure their future existence.
When you arrive at the harvesting site, take a deep breath and relax. Leave your worries of the day behind you. Work with plants in a calm and peaceful state of mind. Focus on the plant you are harvesting and the medicine you will make from it.
Look around. How many plants are there? Is there enough to harvest any? Never take more than 10 percent or 20 percent from a site. Ideally, it should look like you did not take anything at all and your impact should be negligible. If there is not enough to harvest that day, just enjoy the plants that are growing, show your respect and gratitude, and leave.
If you are wild crafting on a hillside, harvest only around the bottom of the hill. Leave the plants on the top untouched as they will keep spreading their seeds to the lower tiers. If you encounter a large and abundant site, harvest mostly from the central portion rather than from the edges. Let the plants at the peripherals spread their seeds and roots and expand the growing space of the species.
If you would like to enjoy a plant meditation before you start harvesting, choose a large and healthy looking specimen, the elder of the plant community, and take the time to simply sit with the plant for a while. Just be there with her. Does the plant look and feel vibrant and healthy to you or is it beaten by pests and stressed by lack of water? The plant that will become your healing medicine should be healthy and full of life giving energy itself. Notice the color and texture, the energetic expression, the scent and maybe the taste of the plant. Tune into the vibration of the plant and enjoy its presence. Close your eyes if you like. What does it feel like to be in the realm of this plant spirit? Do any images, sounds, or feelings arise? Don't expect anything. Don't judge. Keep your heart and mind open and simply observe.
If you like, you can make an offering to the plant, such as a little bit of dried tobacco leaf or pluck one of your hairs. Place it at the bottom of the plant. Introduce yourself, either in spoken word or in your mind, and let the plant know what you are planning to use its medicine for. You can think of the person you are harvesting the plant for or the illness you would like to cure with it. Ask the plant if it is a good time to harvest and if she will grant you permission to take what you need. – Yes, you are talking to a plant right now. And when you are willing to give in and open up to the experience, you will receive an answer to your question. – If nothing happens, be patient. Sit with it a little longer. The response might be an image, a color, a sound, a song or a thought that will feel, sound, or look like a “yes”. If you don't get any response at all, regard it as a “no”. Respect and be grateful for whatever answer was given. Thank the plant for communicating with you and either enjoy your harvest or simply enjoy the site and then leave without taking anything that day. Come back and ask again on another day venture to another site.
Process your plants immediately when you arrive back home. Harvesting with permission from the plant makes your medicine that much more potent and powerful as the spirit of the plant becomes part of your remedy.
For your boneset-echinacea cold and flu remedy, cut the fresh plants into smaller pieces and place them in a clean canning jar. You need just a few plants of each. Fill the jar all the way tightly to the top with plant material and then fill the container with 100 proof vodka (which has 50 percent alcohol content). Close the lid tightly, write a label, and let the jar sit for 6 weeks, shaking occasionally to invigorate the extraction process. Strain the tincture and store in brown glass dropper bottles away from heat and direct sunlight.
Hopefully your immune system will be strong enough to help you make it through the winter without getting sick at all. But if you do get a cold, flu, or a stubborn cough, you can take 50-100 drops of your your own homemade green medicine every 3-4 hours until the symptoms subside. The joyful memory of your harvesting experience and the connection you made with the plants that day will play no small part in your healing process.
Susanna Raven is an herbalist and owner of Raven Crest Botanicals, a medicinal herb farm in upstate NY. Check out our Facebook page, also.