Herb Basics: How to Store Herbs

How can I tell what label terms mean?

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How to Store Herbs

Herbs are organic materials, so they’re vulnerable to the elements, even when they come in capsules or tablets. Exposure to light, heat, or oxygen can reduce an herb’s potency, so it’s generally recommended that you store your herbs in a cool, dark place such as a pantry or cellar.

Some of the best herb protectors are colored glass bottles, particularly amber or cobalt-blue ones. Many commercial products are packaged in these and other materials to block out direct light, which causes oxidation and reduces effectiveness.

If you buy bulk herbs, make sure your supplier stores the products as carefully as you would at home. Andrew Chevallier, author of The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants (DK Publishing, 1996) recommends that you:

• Avoid herbs stored in clear containers.

• Smell the herbs. Good-quality herbs should have a distinct scent and taste.

• Check for signs of adulteration (dried grass or other non-medicinal mate­rial mixed with the herbs). Also, check for mold.

• Herbs lose their color as they age, so look for bright material.

If you’re storing bulk material, fill your containers as full as possible and move the herbs to smaller containers as you use them to minimize contact with air.

Translating Labels

Imagine this scenario: You’re at the health-food store, and you’re looking for an herb. You face a wall of bottles, many of which are labeled with terms such as “high potency” and “standardized extract.” Do you know the difference? Or do you just pick the most attractive label?

Here are some definitions to help you make a wise choice.

Active: An active compound has been shown through scientific research to have a biological effect.

Marker: A marker compound helps identify an herb. It’s not necessarily related to efficacy.

Standardized: When a product is standardized, the plant material has been scientifically analyzed and adjusted to guarantee it contains an active or marker compound within tight specifications. The analysis gives a chemical profile of the compounds in the herb and helps ensure consistency from batch to batch. For example, the silymarin content of milk thistle varies unless the product is standardized. It does not, however, mean the product is concentrated or more potent.

Potency: In the case of most herbal products, potency refers to the concentration of certain compounds. Potency doesn’t necessarily mean that a product is strong or ef­fec­tive.

Extract: In a general sense, this means the plant has been concentrated in a solvent such as alcohol to have more predictable results.

Extract ratio: A ratio such as 25:1 indicates the change in weight during processing. The first number indicates the whole, raw herb; the second is the final extract. So 25:1 means twenty five pounds of raw herb were used to create one pound of extract.

Wildcrafting: What it Means

Some herbal supplement products bear the word “wild-crafted” on their labels. What does it mean to you?

A wildcrafted herb is gathered from the wild, not culti­vated. This simple distinction can make a big difference in what you’re buying.

Richo Cech, staff herbalist at Herb Pharm, manufacturer of wildcrafted and cultivated products, says that wildcrafted herbs sometimes provide better medicine because they’ve endured tough living conditions, such as drought, which make them stronger. On the other hand, wild herbs are sometimes less-than-perfect because they’ve been improperly harvested, he says.

“But there’s no industrywide seal of approval,” Cech says. So, it’s up to consumers to ask manufacturers whether their suppliers of wildcrafted herbs legally harvest unpolluted ­products with a mind toward species preservation.

Herbalist and Herbs for Health editorial adviser Steven ­Foster suggests that consumers avoid products labeled “wildcrafted or organically grown” because the herbs could be either, so aren’t guaranteed to be organic.

Tincture Timing

Many herbalists believe that liquid extracts, or tinctures, are more quickly assimilated by the body than other herb forms. But when you take tinctures can ­affect how well they work. In most cases, it’s best to take them between meals, when absorption isn’t slowed by food.

There are a few exceptions, however. It’s better to take bitter herbs just before meals to improve digestion and to take sleep aid herbs before going to bed. The dosage and timing of some herbs, such as echinacea, changes depending on what you’re treating.

Find below suggested timings for several herb tinctures. For specific treatment information, consult your health-care professional.

The Best Beginner Internet Sites

Herbs are hot on the Internet: enter “herbs” into a search engine, and you’ll turn up hundreds of thousands of matches—many offering information that seems questionable.

But there are a few Web sites to take seriously. We selected them based on credibility, ease of use, and the sheer amount of information they provide. Most also have extensive lists of links to other sites, so they’re good jumping-off spots for your cyberspace forays into the herb world. Happy surfing!

The Herb Research Foundation
www.herbs.org


The Herb Research Foundation is a nonprofit educational organization that focuses on medicinal plants. This site features news, scientific research, regulatory updates, a photo gallery, and a “soapbox” where you can read and leave comments. You’ll also find extensive herb links.

HealthWorld Online
www.healthworld.com


This easy-to-use site presents solid health information, including pages about herbs and medicinal plants (under the listing “alternative medicine”). Topics include Western herbalism, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and an herbal materia medica that lists more than 160 herbs and their uses.

Algy’s Herb Page
www.algy.com/herb/index.html


This classic site includes sections on how to use medicinal herbs, herb lore, crafts, news, and a section dedicated to cooking. Join in an online herb discussion with its bulletin board service or visit the seed exchange.

Michael Moore’s Home Page
www.rt66.com/hrbmoore/HOMEPAGE/HomePage.html


Maintained by Michael Moore, director of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine, this site features more than 1,400 botanical photographs and illustrations, as well as various herb manuals and classic works. Updated ­regularly; includes links.

Henriette’s Herbal Homepage
sunsite.unc.edu/herbmed


This page features frequently asked questions (FAQs) about medicinal and culinary herbs, downloadable plant name databases, and herbal shareware for DOS. By far its best feature, however, is a plethora of links to other herb sites.