How to Tell Quality of the Herb
A common question we receive is how long do our products last, and how can I tell? We offer some insights on how to tell when our products have expired on our FAQ page, but the point of this article is to breakdown what we look for in our ingredients.
Do you want to make a new recipe on your own? Did you hear about a herb that sounds interesting and you would like to try it? Have you ever wandered down an aisle of a store and saw loose leaf tea on the shelf, or found a little shop selling herbs in great big gallon jars? How can you tell if the jars of leaves and roots on your own shelf are still powerful and safe to use?
We buy only vibrant, fresh and stinky organic herbs; yes, stinky, because if a herb doesn’t have a strong aroma, it’s probably low in quality or old, or was improperly stored, effectively losing potency. When you’re judging color of a dried herb, you want it to generally look like you freshly picked it and dehydrated it. Because if the plant material looks brown or grey, it has lost its vivacity, spirit, or life force. If they smell great and have fantastic color, then usually the taste and effect are optimal. The other method is to find who you can trust and stick with top quality farmers and herb vendors. I like to find small farmers that grow and craft high quality herbs, even if they don’t opt to go through the certified organic agency, but as long as they are organically grown.
How can you test if a herb has retained its potency? Check and be sure the herb passes three specific indicators… Does the herb have a visual aesthetic (i.e. the color is vibrant, and looks dried, still full of life and not dead), aroma (if it’s still pungent), and taste (I like to make a tea of 1-2 TSP per 8oz to test flavor strength). I also consider how the herb has been stored, preferring to keep them in airtight brown glass jars in a cool, dry, and dark place. I opt to not work with herbs stored for a long time in baggies or in clear plastic jars. If they’ve been in the sun, the first three indicators would have failed anyway, but it’s good to keep in mind in case the herb had been inadvertently abused.
Dried herbs should look similar to how the herb looks when it’s growing. Brown herb is usually no bueno. Check the smell and make sure the aroma is strong and unique. Pay attention to the herb as it should smell similar to how it smells when it’s picked fresh, not necessarily if it’s appetizing or not. Because even bitter herbs can smell earthy, acrid, and perhaps not exactly delectable, but as long as they’re strong then you know you’re working with a potent herb that was grown, harvested and dried at a high level. Even valerian, which Jenni gave my wife and I as a gift when we moved to Colorado to do her masters program, and for some reason our new apartment smelled awful, like feet and a little like rotting death. Come to find out, it was the high quality organic valerian that was haunting us, and wanting our attention. Taste is the next great identifier, and like smell, it may not be super palatable, but as long as it tastes strong, distinctive and alive, then you typically have a very good medicine to work with. The effect is of course the final major identifier, which I’ve learned because I’ve had some non-organic lemon balm that smelled like gasoline and tasted bad and earthy with zero of that iconic lemon zest taste. It did little for medicinal effect. Should have known, because even the color was brown. Boo. We all learn in some way. Point is, if it looks dead, it’s probably fucking dead.
Are you harvesting your own herbs? When is the best time to wildcraft herbs? The season and timing depends on the herb itself, but the general rule is to harvest when it’s at its most vibrant and healthy stage, where it’s reached peak potency. Do not collect leaves or plants that have been affected by disease, insects, or are dying off, as the potency and medicinal quality have been compromised. It’s also ideal to harvest early in the morning while the dew still clings to the plants, or at the end of the day during the golden hours pre-sunset. The heat and sun of mid-day can zap some of the potency and medicinal strength from the herbs.
What is the best storage conditions for dried herbs? Brown glass wide-mouth jars are my preferred container for longterm storage. I keep them in a cool, dry, and dark place to avoid light, heat and moisture damage to the herbs, which can weaken and destroy the medicinal properties. My herbs at home are in tight sealing jars and I keep them tucked away in my cabinets.