So you’ve decided that you want to use herbs on your family, but you have no idea where to find good quality herbs? Should they be organic or does that matter? Should they be fresh or dried? What else do you need to look for when buying them?
Below I’ll be attempting to answer the above questions so that you can walk away with a good idea of how to source quality herbs to use in your homemade herbal preparations. Keep in mind that I’m referring to purchasing herbs online or in a store only. I’ll be talking about growing your own herbs and wild-crafting herbs in upcoming posts.
How To Source Quality Herbs
One of the reasons herbal preparations don’t work (de la Foret, 2012) and people new to herbs get frustrated, giving up on herbs completely is because quality herbs aren’t used. Like most other things in life, quality matters, and most times you’re going to pay more for quality products.
Now, don’t stress. Using herbs is still WAY cheaper when you do things yourself rather than buying premade products or going to the doctor so even though you may spend a bit more money on quality herbs over a cheaper variety, you’re still coming out ahead when it comes to saving money.
So how do you source quality herbs? Well there are 4 things to keep in mind when looking for quality herbs.
- Harvesting practices
The freshness of an herb matters. This is why most people who start buying smaller quantities of spices from spice companies never go back to bottled spices you find on grocery store shelves. Do you have any idea how long those herbs have been in those bottles and on the shelf? I don’t, but I do know that the spices I purchase from my local health food store taste much better!
Most local and online herb suppliers keep track of the dates on the herbs they buy and sell. This helps them to rotate product, discarding what’s old and replacing it with fresher herbs. In fact, many herb suppliers will be out of stock on certain herbs at different times during the year because those herbs aren’t in season and they can’t buy them from the herb farmers they work with.
So how do you know if an herb is fresh?
- First off, ask! Most store owners are happy to answer this information for you.
- Next, look at the herb. Does it have a lot of color or is it faded and pale? Not sure what it’s supposed to look like? Look it up online before you buy. Knowing what a good quality herb looks like can help you distinguish between an old herb verses a fresher one.
- Another thing you can do is smell the herb. Obviously this only works for local herb shops, but most times you can open the herbal container and take a wiff. If it smells herbally, chances are it’s fresh enough to use and the medicinal properties are still in the plant.
- Lastly, you can taste it. If there’s a lot of flavor (sweet, salty, pungent, spicy, bitter) then the plant is most likely fresh.
2. HERB LABELS
Many times when searching for herbs, you’ll come across herbs listed as “natural”, “organic”, and “wild-crafted”. Below are what each of those terms mean, and what I think is best.
Herbs labeled “natural” don’t tell you much. Of course an herb is natural–it’s a plant for crying out loud! Sometimes companies will label herbs as “natural” or “grown without chemicals” in order to make their product look better, but in my opinion this isn’t enough. I want to know that my herbs are free of chemicals, harvested at peak times, and dried and stored appropriately so they’re as fresh as can be when I go to use them.
Granted not all herb companies sell organic or wild-crafted herbs which is not always a problem, but this is where research and trust in that company comes into play. We’ll talk more on that below.
Herbs labeled “organic” or “certified organic” are herbs that are grown without the use of synthetic, harmful chemicals and haven’t been treated with anything once they’re harvested. This is probably one of the best purchasing options you can find although just because something is labeled “organic” doesn’t mean its a high-quality product. There’s more to high quality than not using chemicals alone. Again, harvesting, processing, and storage all come into play.
Most companies that sell “certified organic” herbs will have an organic seal or label on their product or website that tells you where they get their organic certifications from. This is also a good indicator of a company you can trust because they’re upfront with their information.
Now I know someone is going to ask me if buying herbs that are “certified organic” really matters. Well, my answer to that question would be yes and no. Buying herbs that have labels stating they’re organic provides you with a sense of trust, quality, and reassurance, but what about local herb farmers or small businesses that can’t afford to get that official label? They may offer organic herbs that are still high quality, they just don’t have a certificate or label saying it. Again, this is a personal choice and something that requires knowing more information on the herbs from businesses that don’t offer “certified organic” products. Most times it seems that small businesses that want your business are willing to be upfront with you on how they buy, process, and store herbs.
Wild-crafted herbs can be just as good, if not better, than organic herbs. Wild-crafted herbs are plants that have been taken straight from their habitat or environment, and many times are higher quality than many farm-raised herbs… at least when it comes to the medicinal content of the plant.
An example of this can be found in the ginseng market. Wild ginseng roots are smaller and grow differently than cultivated ginseng roots. Buyers can tell whether ginseng is wild or cultivated just by looking at the root, and wild ‘sang is also bought and sold for more money than cultivated ginseng as well.
Now don’t get me wrong–farm-raised herbs can be very high-quality. Again, research and trust in the company you buy from is important here.
You need to know how each company handles wild-crafting. There are guidelines, and you want to make sure your herbs are being sustainability wild-crafted or else they’ll end up extinct and you won’t have them anymore. This is one way a farm-raised herb can be a better thing than a wild-crafted herb because farm-raised herbs are not over-harvested.
We’ll be talking more about wild-crafting herbs and endangered herbs in a later post.
3. HARVESTING PRACTICES
Another way to determine the quality of an herb is based on harvesting practices.
So why do harvesting practices matter. Well, certain herbs have to be harvested and processed in a certain way in order to keep the medicinal properties of the herb at their highest levels. This can be include optimal harvesting time (first year vs. second year plants, spring or fall harvesting, buds vs. open flowers, etc.), how freshly harvested plants are stored before drying (sun vs. shade), how the plant is dried (method, temperature, etc.), and how the dried plant is handled and stored afterwards (including how it’s shipped).
You can ask a company about how their farmers harvest herbs, and hopefully they know. If they don’t, that’s a sign that the company may not care so much about herbal quality.
The last thing to look for when sourcing quality herbs is how the herb is stored. Herbs, when stored, last longest if they’re kept air tight, cool, and dark.
Most local stores will keep herbs in glass jars which helps to minimize exposure to oxygen as well as keep the herb free from dust and bugs. When shopping online, most companies will send herbs to you in plastic bags. You can ask how these herbs are stored before they’re placed in bags if you want as every business will do things different.
The temperature of the stored herb also matters when it comes to quality. Herbs should not be stored in any space that is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit as it damages the constituents in the plant.
Light exposure should also be kept to a minimum as light damages the properties of herbs just like high temperatures and oxygen does. Dark bottles, paper covered glass jars or tins, or paper bags are excellent ways to store herbs to keep light out.
Buying in Small Batches vs. Bulk
When purchasing herbs, you have two options. Buying in small batches or buying in bulk. Which is best?
Personally, I do both. If I’m trying an herb out for the first time, I buy a small amount. If I’m using a rare herb in a specific remedy, I buy a small amount. If I’m buying a common herb that I use in a lot of different ways, I buy in bulk. If I’m making a large amount of a preparation for friends and family, I buy in bulk. This is how I do it.
Many local health food stores will offer herbs for sale by the ounce. I’m not talking about premade tea packets or tinctures or even herbal capsules. I’m talking about loose, dried herbs that you can purchase and use how you wish. If you only need a small amount of herb or you’re trying it out, this is usually the best way to purchase herbs as you can gauge how much you need.
However, if you’re looking to stock up on herbs or if you are making a large batch of something, buying in bulk is often better. Below you’ll find some of my personal favorite bulk herb sources that I shop with regularly.
Bulk Herb Store
Bulk Herb Store is an online herbal business that has a large selection of high-quality natural and organic herbs offered in bulk amounts (8 oz. or 1 lb. bags) as well as many herbal mixes, accessories, books, videos, and more. This is my go-to source for good herbs, and it’s a company that I trust enough to work for!
Mountain Rose Herbs
Mountain Rose Herbs is another great online herbal business that has the largest selection of herbs that I know of. I love surfing their site! Beyond herbs they also offer a huge selection of materials you’ll need to make all sorts of herbal, household, and skin care remedies as well. Almost all of their herbs are offered in small batch and bulk sizes (4 oz, 8 oz, or 1 pound bags) and most herbs are certified organic or wild-crafted.
Starwest Botanicals and Frontier Herbs
Both Starwest Botanicals and Frontier Herbs offer natural and organic herbs in bulk online. I usually purchase from these two companies via Amazon, and they both usually offer 8 oz and 1 pound sizes of bulk herbs.
Research & Trust
When it comes down to the nitty gritty, sourcing herbs is all about doing a bit of digging, contacting the company to find out what their quality control is like, and seeing what kind of reputation each business has. These three things can tell you a lot about the quality of the products a business is selling as well as the business itself. Once you know these things, the choice is yours as to the type of herb you purchase and the companies you tend to gravitate towards.