Why You Should Care About Where Your Herbs Come From
As a budding herbalist, one of the first things I was taught was to “know your source.” It’s crucial to know where your herbs come from, which includes understanding how they are cared for and harvested. If you’re new to the world of herbalism, you may not realize that, for a multitude of reasons, there is not an endless supply of herbs. That’s why we, as herbalists and consumers, must educate ourselves — pushing for sustainable growing and harvesting methods and purchasing herbs and herbal products from reputable sources.
The herbs that you use will be going in or on your body, so you want them to be good for you and good for the planet. Whether you are making your own herbal products or buying them, using high-quality herbs is key from the start.
Where do you begin? Here are some ways you can learn more about sourcing your herbs . . .
Research how herbs are grown
Build a relationship with the plants that you use. Some, like Catnip and Angelica, can be difficult to germinate. Some resist commercial cultivation, like Osha, so they must be wildcrafted (collected from their natural habitat). If you’re using a root like Echinacea, it may need two or more years to grow before it’s ready to harvest, meaning it requires more time, energy and care over its life cycle. Other herbs, like Culver’s Root, need to be aged for a time after they are harvested. Yet other plants (such as Goldenseal) grow in a limited habitat or ecosystem, making organic and cultivated sources the best option.
Certain plants are prone to overharvesting, such as American Ginseng and Wild Yam. Others, like Black Cohosh, may be listed on the United Plant Savers At-Risk or To-Watch lists.
Familiarize yourself with the plant’s parts
In herbalism, a specific part (or sometimes multiple parts) are used, so it’s important to know which ones to use and what they should look like. It’s also worth noting that there are appropriate times to harvest each part so that the plant’s energy is in the part that is being harvested. For example, roots are best harvested in the fall and spring, when the plant is dying back or just emerging from the soil. In the summer, the plant’s energy shifts to leaf, flower and seed production, making the warmer months a more appropriate time to harvest these aerial (above-ground) parts. Sometimes, based on a plant’s specific phytochemical properties, fresh herbs are preferred over dried, or vice versa.
Be wary of low prices
Like most goods, herbs are sold at market price, meaning prices fluctuate, but herbs of similar quality should be similarly priced. If someone is offering cheap herbs and the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Another way to look at it is: You get what you pay for. Cheap herbs may be low-quality, old (so they’ll have a faded color, taste or scent) or even adulterated with another plant or plant part. Paying more for your herbs helps to preserve sustainability throughout the supply chain, ensuring not just quality herb material, but fair compensation for growers and wildcrafters, too.
Find out where certain herbs prefer to live
It’s important to remember that herbs thrive in specific climates. Educate yourself about the growing environment of each plant you use, so you can ask your supplier specific questions regarding how they harvest or grow the plant. If a plant is known to grow in higher elevations in the mountains, is that where your supplier is getting it? Or, are they simulating those same conditions while growing it on a farm in another region? The herb may come from a limited or endangered habitat, making it rare. If this is the case, as with Palo Santo or White Sage, ask questions about how this plant is responsibly obtained for commercial resale or use a different plant.
Get to know your supplier
Before buying herbs, especially in larger quantities, check out what information their website offers and reach out to ask any questions you might have. Be thorough, and don’t be afraid to ask for more information!
Consider asking: How does your supplier confirm identity of an herb? Do they conduct microbiological testing? What are their methods for keeping herbs or products shelf-stable?
Vote with your dollars
As with any purchase you make, you have the right to ask about the supplier’s values and employment practices. Are their workers paid a fair wage? What about the company’s overarching practices? Is their packaging eco-friendly, recyclable or reusable? Do they regularly donate to or support nonprofits or schools? Are they members or supporters of industry-leading organizations, such as the American Herbalists Guild, American Botanical Council, American Herbal Pharmacopeia or the American Herbal Products Association?
Meet the people who grow and collect your plants
Herbs don’t just come from the grocery store — they come from the Earth. Growers and wildcrafters are harvesting herbs and caring for each plant before it gets to you.
Confirm your supplier’s policies on harvesting or growing. If your supplier has a farm, what are their growing practices? Do they use conventional methods, including herbicides and synthetic fertilizers? Are they using regenerative, organic agricultural methods and cultivating good soil health? The overall goal should be to use sustainable farming practices that preserve biological diversity and regenerate ecosystems. Ideally, organic herb farming is the first choice, where the plants are grown without the use of synthetic chemicals. Growers may also cultivate herbs without chemicals. In this case, they may not be Certified Organic but still choose not to use harmful chemicals like pesticides, fungicides or miticides. They may also test for the presence of those chemicals to ensure a quality finished product. If these choices aren’t clearly marked on the packaging or website, reach out and ask — or find one that is clearly marked.
Properly store and care for your herbs
Herbs and herbal products are perishable and should be treated as such. In most cases, they should be tightly closed and stored in a cool, dry, dark place away from air, water, light and heat to retain their quality. This goes for dried herbs as well as tinctures. Some other preparations may require refrigeration, so it’s important to read the label and store it as instructed on the packaging.
While this list of sourcing considerations may seem daunting, it gets easier the more familiar you are with herbs and herbal products. Know that when you buy herbs or herbal products from a reputable company or person who sources and processes herbs responsibly, you’re doing more than just buying a product. You’re investing in your health and wellness, as well as that of the planet.
About the Author
Lina Watanabe is an herbalist at Herb Pharm. Herb Pharm makes high-quality liquid herbal products for the whole family. Founded in 1979, their products are made of plants and ethical choices, so they’re kind to both the body and the Earth.