At first it was a lot of work to learn to identify everything and how to properly store and use them as medicine. However, once I got past the first hurdle it has been easy to continue the process. It was a bit overwhelming at first to identify what I would like to collect, so hopefully I can provide a guide for those of you looking to expand your horizons with herbal medicine.
Using sources such as the wonderful Kiva Rose's site and others, I familiarized myself with what I wanted to collect and what ailments I wanted to try treating. (As a side note: Kiva Rose's blog is really phenomenal, she has done a great job describing the energetics of herbs and how they can be used for everyday purposes. I learned so much! It is a must visit! )
I chose two winter herbs to gather that I highly recommend for beginners:
It has unmistakable toothy leaves.
image source: http://healthybodynow.net/
It is the center lichen pictured. It is fuzzy, easily separated, and sometimes has flat fruiting parts. However it is still unmistakably hairy ( aka: old man's beard) and pliable with a white interior under the skin of the organism.
I chose these two because they were abundant in late fall, and still are in the dead of winter, and do not have any poisonous look-alikes. I am paranoid that I might forage the wrong plant in my naiveness, so I try my best to start with very distinct plants. Please when you are foraging be very careful and always identify, identify, identify!
Dandelion is a wonderful bitter that can be used as a delicate diuretic. It helps expel toxins while maintaining potassium concentrations. Most diuretics can be a bit harsh because you can become dehydrated, however dandelion helps prevent that with potassium absorption. Typically used for liver and kidney support. I was interested in using dandelion because I know my acne is hormone related. The liver is a site for hormone production and breakdown. It synthesizes testosterone and estrogen and expels any excess hormones lurking around looking for trouble. I have heard that dandelion helps clear acne for this reason. Dandelion has neither a cooling nor heating effect on the body, so it is a useful delicate tonic for most all persons.
Usnea is an even more essential herb to keep in your medicine cabinet. It is a strong antibacterial and used for bladder (e.g. urinary infections) and immune support. It has a very cooling effect on people and is good in situations were there is excess heat (or energy/overproduction) in the body. I use this medicine to prevent me from getting sick in the winter months, and surprisingly as a disinfectant wash for my face. It works brilliant for both accounts. I have not gotten sick this winter and my face feels very nice after I apply a few drops of tincture.
Harvesting:Dandelion harvesting in winter is best for root collection. In the winter all of the nutrients migrate down to be stored in the root section of the plant. These are much easier to unearth in wet soil. Search for these in open field areas or on the edges of woods. Be careful not to take plants if you think they may have been contaminated with dog feces. Local parks are usually not good places to gather.
Usnea is very abundant if you know when and where to look for it. The best time to search is directly after any rainy, windy, or snowy weather that might shake loose tree branches or things growing on them. Look for fallen branches on the ground with other fungi growing on them and you are likely to spot usnea. Like all lichen, usnea is sensitive to pollution and will not grow in city areas well. I say this and yet I find usnea quite frequently in my neighborhood, just never enough to make medicine with :) Look for these when you are hiking or are in more rural areas.
It is additionally important to gather these during moist weather because usnea gathered on wet days tastes is earthy and sweet but batches collected on dry days are quite bitter.
Medicinal Storage Methods:There are four main ways to preserve herbs for medicine (that I know of):
Glycerin is used as an alternative for alcohol extractions. I don't use it.
Additionally I do not use herbal oils. For internally consumption they must be processed CORRECTLY in order to prevent botulism poisoning. This crock pot method that can be safely used but it is time-consuming.You can not simply place herbs in oil for extended periods of time, this is very dangerous.
Herbal infused vinegar is really lovely for salad dressings and such, but it is hard to stomach as a tonic in spoonfuls. Use 2 parts vinegar to 1 part herbs. Vinegar will kill bacteria, so as long as the herbs are submerged in the fluid, nothing will grow.
Herbal infused honey is a real winner when eating whole spoonfuls of harsh tasting medicine are involved. Unfortunately neither of these herbs infuse well with honey. Dandelion is bitter tasting and usnea will not extract into aqueous solutions. So try this one in the spring when dandelion blossoms are around. Raw honey has antibacterial properties as well, so as long as all of the herbs are submerged you should not worry. Make sure to stir your infusion every now and then.
Alcohol infusions (aka: tinctures) are my favorite way to store medicinal herbs. It is quick, simple, and the most antibacterial substance I know of, so I feel quite comfortable with this method of preservation. The only drawback is that you need very concentrated alcohol to make the usnea tincture. It requires at least 60% alcohol to extract the medicinal molecules from the lichen. So you need 120 proof booze. I have a bottle of bacardi on hand, but everclear would probably be more favorable because it is tasteless. I dilute my alcohol to about 40% for dandelion tinctures, because you don't need as concentrated of a solution for it and that alcohol stuff is expensive sheesh. Make sure your herbs are completely covered in alcohol when you store them.
Preparation:As for preparation of the medicines it is very simple.
-clean gathered herbs with water (most time consuming step) and a bit of vinegar
- chop with a knife or roughly process the herbs in a food processor
-add to a preferably opaque glass container and cover with alcohol
-store in a dark place cool place
-after two weeks, take 2 - 4 spoonfuls of liquid as needed daily depending on severity of condition. I would recommend starting with a low dose and working your way up to make sure your body is fine with the herb.
(The steeped herbs after several months)
Be aware: These medicines do not taste good. They tend to be bitter and strong. Collecting the freshest ingredients will help minimize their harsh taste. I find that the benefits of having them for use outweigh the stinging taste though.
I have read a lot of literature on preparing herbal tinctures, however I am not a medical doctor and information listed on this site should not be taken as medical advice. Please refer to more knowledgeable sources for any serious ailments you might be attempting to treat.