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When I became pregnant two years ago, I was elated. My journey to motherhood had begun. Our daughter arrived exactly one week before her due date, at home, into the waiting arms of her father. Labor had gone quickly, and I gave birth naturally without any medical intervention. Watching my newborn baby wiggle her way up my bare belly to instinctively start nursing at my breast, I knew firsthand what a miracle birthing and mothering truly is.
I attributed my smooth pregnancy and speedy labor to several factors. About a year earlier, I had reduced my busy work schedule down to part-time, which allowed more time to care for myself and reconnect with my husband. I nurtured myself with whole, organic foods, regular yoga, long daily walks, plenty of rest, affirmative birthing stories and supportive, loving people. I read Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, and La Leche League’s The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. My husband made notes from Penny Simkin’s The Birth Partner and taped them to our fridge. We discussed the benefits of water births, learned about attachment parenting and family bed sharing, purchased cloth diapers and a sling, and prepared ourselves for what we knew would be a transformative experience. I also turned to what felt familiar and comforting to me: herbs.
For the past decade I had been studying and practicing herbal healing. I had completed certification as a master herbalist, and apprenticed at an herb farm to learn about growing, drying, processing and wild-crafting medicinal herbs. I had many of these useful plants growing in my own garden, close at hand. Over the years, I had established a small, home-based herbal business, focusing on natural care for the whole family, and with the help of my sister (a practicing midwife), had developed salves, teas and oils specific to mama and baby care. During the last trimester of my pregnancy I finished training as a postpartum doula, and added herbal postpartum care to my repertoire. Although I had shared my herbal knowledge with countless others, here was a unique opportunity to use these skills to strengthen, heal and nourish not only myself, but also my newborn child.
For centuries, medicinal plants, flowers and common garden “weeds” have been used to provide gentle, effective care for women during pregnancy and postpartum, and by parents for their children. Women were often trusted keepers of herbal knowledge, working as midwives and healers in their communities. Mothers knew which healing plants could be used for their households, where and when to gather herbs, how to grow and dry them properly, and correct ways to administer them safely.
I long to see a return to this common understanding of using healing plants in the home, and have tried to share this knowledge with my community by teaching workshops, sharing seedlings, and offering advice.
You don’t need to be a certified herbalist to work with medicinal plants, and an herbal kitchen need not have complicated tools—measuring cups, a Crock-Pot or double boiler, a few stainless steel pots, mixing spoons, glass mason jars, and a good kitchen scale will do. However, you do need a basic understanding of how to properly identify plants, when to harvest, and which parts of the plant are usable—as well as how to dry and store them, the correct dosage for your remedies, and which plants are safe during pregnancy and postpartum, or for infants and children.
Properly Identifying Plants
If possible, grow the herbs yourself using organic methods. If you don’t have the space to grow them, buy your plants from reputable organic sources in minimally processed or bulk form. If you are wild-harvesting herbs, take an easy-to-follow plant field guidebook like Newcombe’s or Peterson’s so you are sure to properly identify the plants. Even better is to start out wild harvesting by accompanying someone who is knowledgeable so you can learn side by side. To avoid over-harvesting, it is advised to pick no more than a quarter to a third of a plant. Do not pick in an area that is near a roadway, or which may be chemically sprayed or otherwise contaminated with noxious fumes.
When to Harvest
Herbs should be harvested when they are at their peak, so having a basic understanding of their growing cycle is helpful. Knowing whether to use the leaves, flowers, berries, roots or bark is also important. Leaves and blossoms are best harvested just before noon, when the volatile oils have reached them and the morning dew has dried, but before they start to wilt in the afternoon heat. Only choose healthy plants, and be careful never to cut the main root when digging herbal roots.
Drying and Storing Herbs
Herbs can be used fresh for making virtually any herbal product. For long-term storage they should be dried, either by air-drying or with a food dehydrator. To air dry, hang bunches of herbs in a well-ventilated, cool room away from direct sunlight. They are ready when crisply dried, but still retain a rich color (not brown). Hanging flowering herbs, like lavender or chamomile, covered with a brown paper bag punched with air holes, helps to catch the blossoms that may fall off as they dry. If any herbs develop mold, that’s an indication they were not dried with enough air circulation and should not be used. Herbs that are fully dry can be stored in glass jars in a closed cupboard, or in brown paper bags. If kept properly, they will last for a year or more.
Determining Dosage of Herbal Remedies
Just because something is natural does not mean it is always safe to use or right for every situation. Though many herbs are gentle, the correct dosage is very important for both effectiveness and safety. For example, red raspberry leaf, although generally considered a wonderful herb to use during pregnancy for toning the uterus and providing a rich source of calcium and minerals, may be advised in moderation if one has a history of short labor. The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual, by James Green, gives excellent, detailed descriptions on making remedies and assessing proper dosage.