Autumn has arrived, and the regular cycle of harvesting at the end of a growing season is well under way.
While we have been gathering a lot of beautiful leaves aromatic plants, fresh fruits, and vegetables for several months now, fall is a particularly good period for harvesting herbs. The plant energy that was used in the spring and summer to expand the plant's aerial portions is now directed downward and inward, providing essential nutrients to the roots and inner bark.
Herbs for the Autumn Harvest
The dirt is still warm and pliable enough to produce roots when we dig because winter has not yet arrived. Fruits and seeds that have been left on the plant have fully developed and dried on their own, thus they don't need to be dried or processed further before being stored.
Depending on where you live, the harvest season in the fall may occur closer to the autumnal equinox (the "harvest moon" is really the term given to the full moon that occurs closest), or the harvest season in the fall may extend well into December. You should therefore keep an eye out for certain indicators on the plants you wish to harvest. For instance, you wouldn't dig up the roots of flowering plants like dandelion and chicory until the blooms have bloomed.
Like its Apiaceae relatives dill and caraway, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) displays in the fall
with a burst of small seeds on an umbrella-like head. Once dried on their stalks, all of these flavorful seeds are easily picked; fennel seeds that have just begun to change from green to a light brown color are ideal for harvest. Watch out for these because once they've dried, they tend to fall to the ground and you'll miss them. My preferred method for gathering fennel seeds involves cutting the flower heads off, putting them heads-down in a brown paper bag, and shaking the bag briskly to release the fragrant seeds. You can gently brush any stragglers off their stalks with your hand.
You shouldn't collect the seeds from the Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus), a perennial shrub that can reach tree-like heights, by cutting off the branches. As an alternative, allow the little
berries to dry until they turn brown on their spikelets, then remove them from the branches with one hand while holding a dish underneath to catch them as they fall. (As you do this, be sure to savor their peppery, musky aroma!) When gathered, chaste berries can be kept in an airtight container or used right away as a tincture in 95% alcohol (like Everclear, or a high-proof vodka). Both whole berries and tincture are lovely allies that promote the health of female reproduction (Romm, 2010).
Here, saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is common, and this year I've been fortunate to uncover some lovely stands. I try to gather them starting in October when I spot the ripe fruits, which change from orange color to a deep purplish-black and are about 14" in diameter because the
deer and other wildlife seem to adore this plant (leaving plenty for the animals, of course). I manually pluck each of these berries, but I've seen others place a bowl underneath the mass of ripe fruit and give it a nice beat to loosen it. They can be dried on screens or fresh tinctured after being gathered. It's necessary to keep in mind that the drying process takes some time, so it's crucial to have enough heat and moving air to keep them from decaying before they dry. Because they are such a well-liked treatment for male reproductive health, another thing to keep in mind is that certain regions have rules in place to avoid over-harvesting. Thus, consult your local cooperative extension before harvesting from public land.
Barks & Roots
Like other herbal roots, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) can be gathered in both spring and
fall when the phytochemical content is at its highest. Keep in mind that the plant's characteristics will vary slightly depending on when it is harvested. When we consider that dandelion root is a well-known herb used for "spring cleaning" or liver support, it seems logical that spring dandelion root has more bitter chemicals. On the other hand, dandelion root collected in the fall has a higher inulin content (the same is true for chicory), as the plant is starting to store its carbohydrates and other nutrients for the upcoming winter. It is therefore a fantastic herbal prebiotic for promoting intestinal health. Dandelion root is tougher to find in the fall because it is collected after the blossoms have withered, but it is worth it! I prefer to dry the roots whole after pulling them out of the ground with a nice, sharp hori hori in as much of a single piece as possible.
To put it mildly, poke (Phytolacca americana) is a superb natural treatment. Very low doses
are utilized when used internally as a lymphatic. I typically advise non-practitioners to stick to topical applications, like infused oil added to a castor oil pack. After the berries and stalks have dried up in the fall, poke root can be collected. Use gloves when harvesting and processing the root before it has completely dried because the fresh root is caustic (and more so in the spring than in the fall, when it is less toxic). The smallest poke roots can be as big as giant carrots, and the largest roots can be massive, making it difficult to pick them whole. If you decide to gather poke, take careful not to overdo it since one tiny root can be used for many different dishes. After digging the root, slice it diagonally and let it dry on screens before tincturing or infusing it with olive oil.
During this time of year, bayberry (Myrica cerifera), an aromatic deciduous shrub, can be harvested in order to have it ready for the cold and flu season when it can aid to reduce sinusitis and nasal congestion (Pursell, 2016). The root is traditionally dug in the late fall. To separate the inner bark from the root, it can be pounded while still fresh or peeled off in long strips with a vegetable peeler, then dried on a screen for a few days before storing. You might also notice the clusters of berries that develop along the branches of a bayberry shrub in the fall if you come across one. These berries can also be gathered. The fruits are actually a dark purple color, but they are covered in a waxy substance that may be removed by boiling the fruit, allowing it to cool, and then skimming it off the surface of the pot. Wax myrtle is another common name for this shrub, which was utilized for candles by early American immigrants.
And A Fall Flower...
Take advantage of the abundance of goldenrod (Solidago spp.), one of the few flowers that bloom this late in the year and has beautiful yellow flower spikes, in many temperate climates. Since the flowers are so little, it would be simpler to collect the complete flower stalks by hanging them upside-down in brown paper bags that have air holes punched in them. Inspect frequently, shaking the bags, and take out any fallen blossoms. This plant also makes a good wintertime tea and is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-catarrhal. (Braun & Cohen, 2007), or consider rubbing the dried flowers on your muscles to relax them.