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Wandering fields, forests and footpaths as romantic, hut there are several important

■ Identification Identifying plants is a difficult skill, and even trained experts can make mistakes. Always carry a plant guide as a reference, and check both the photographs and the w ritten description against each herb. If you are doubtful of a plant's identity, don'l pick it. Prevent different plants from becoming jumbled or difficult to identify later by tying the samples into bundles and labeling them as you harvest. Make sure you collect the correct medicinal part of the plant, loo.

■ Pollution Many plants that seem to be growing in the clean, green countryside are actually exposed to large quantities of pollution, which can accumulate in their tissues and be j)assed on to those who consume them. Be aware that, in farming districts, agricultural chemicals are often sprayed on crops, and may drift to adjacent areas. Plants grow ing by the side of busy roads are constantly exposed lo exhaust fumes. Even a patch of healthy-looking herbs that you discover in a country lane may have been sprayed with weedkiller just moments before you arrived. Wherever possible, gather information about any chemicals used in the area before you start collecting herbs, and always wash them thoroughly before using them.

■ Legalities In some countries, il is illegal to collect plants without first seeking permission from the landowner. You'll also be in trouble if you harvest herbs in a national park, or if you gather plants that are endangered.

you collect wild herbs sounds rather issues lo be aware of before you slarl.

■ Ecology Over-harvesting of wild crops of some medicinal herbs has resulted in ihem becoming endangered. The classic example is the North American herb golden seal, which has a deserved reputation as a potent antimicrobial remedy. Unfortunately, golden seal is a diificuli plant to cultivate, but is one of the most popular medicinal herbs in America. Over many years, this has led to an extremely lucrative market for wild-harvested (or wildcrafted ) golden seal root, and consequently the plant is far less prevalent now ihan it was in days gone by-. Its trade is now strictly controlled. You can play your part in protecting our herbal heritage by finding oui which, if any, plants are endangered in your own local area, and leaving them behind. Even when plants are plentiful, it's good practice to harvest only what you can use immediately, and to leave at least a third of each plani behind to regenerate.

Harvest sweet-smelling elder flowers in spring, before the buds are fully open.

Seeds

When collecting seeds, the timing is vital. Harvest them in late summer in the short period between the ripening of the seed pod and the point when it bursts open to disperse the seeds into the air.

Keep a close eye on the plant, and when you judge that the seed pod is starting to ripen (its color will start changing from green to brown), cut the seed pods from the plant, taking plenty of the stem at the same time.

Gather the stems in a loose bunch, place the ends with the seed pods on them inside a brown paper bag, and use string to tie the opening of the bag around the stems. Hang the bag containing the herb in a warm, airy spot (see page 763). As the seed pods ripen over the following week or two, the seeds will be released into the bag for you to collect. When the stems are dry, scrape any seeds still attached to the seed pods into the paper bag.

If you're going to use the seeds for planting, you can keep them in the same bag, as long as you tape it shut and clearly label the bag with the plant name and the date on which it was harvested. If you're using seeds for culinary or medicinal purposes, they will have a stronger flavor if you store them in glass, but again, make sure you label each one appropriately. Avoid storing seeds in plastic bags, because they allow moisture to build up and can cause mold to develop.

Roots and rhizomes

Harvesting roots and rhizomes in autumn or winter maximizes the plant's ability to regenerate itself. Choose a time when the parts of the plant above the ground are starting to die back. That will also make it easier to identify them.

Using a gardening fork, dig out the whole plant and its roots. Carefully separate the portion of the root that you want to use, and replant the rest immediately.

Gently brush as much dirt as possible from the root. To clean more substantial

An Omani man taps a boswellia tree for the resin, better known as frankincense.

roots and rhizomes, such as ginger and horseradish, scrub them with a vegetable brush; however, gently rinse finer and more delicate samples, such as valerian, under running water. Don't soak them, or they'll take up water and lose flavor, and perhaps develop rot.

Once the roots are clean, cut them into small pieces and dry them in the oven at a very low heat (120° to 140°F) (50° to 60°C). You may need to keep the oven door ajar to prevent the temperature from rising too much. Turn the root pieces regularly to ensure they dry out evenly; you'll know they're ready when they become brittle.

Allow the roots to cool before storing them in a dark glass jar.

Bark

It's easy to kill or injure a tree when collecting its bark, so in many cases it's better to use commercially harvested varieties of these herbs. If you do decide to collect bark yourself, choose a damp day, and use clean, sharp tools to remove it from the tree in vertical strips at least a metre above the ground. Never take a horizontal band of bark from trees or collect bark from saplings, or they will die.

Clean the bark to remove any dirt, and then flatten it out as much as you can before leaving it in a warm, airy place to dry for a few weeks.

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Continue reading here: Freezing herbs

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