Concerning the methods of collecting and preserving plants and parts of them for use.
THE virtues of different plants residing principally in certain parts of them, and those different according to the nature of the herb, these several parts are to be selected, and the rest left; and these are in some to be used fresh and just gathered; in others, either necessity, or the natural preference, make it proper to dry and preserve them.
In some only the leaves are to be used; in others the whole plant cut from the root: in others the flowers only; in others the fruits; in others the seeds; in some the roots; and of some trees the barks; some the woods; and only the excresences of others: while some vegetables are to be used entire, whether it be fresh gathered, or dried and preserved. Of all these, instances will be given in great number in the following sheets, and the matter will be specified under each article, as the part of the plant to be used will always be named; and it will be added whether it be best fresh, or best or necessarily dried or otherwise preserved; but it will be proper in this place to enter into the full examination of this matter, to save unnecessary repetitions under the several particular articles.
The whole of most plants native of our country, dies off in winter, except the root; and in many that perishes also, leaving the species to be renewed from the fallen seeds. When the whole plant dies, the root is seldom of any virtue; but when the root remains many years, and sends up new shoots in the spring, it commonly has great virtue. This may be a general rule: for there is very little to be expected in the roots of annual plants: their seeds, for the most part, contain their greatest virtues.
In others, the root lives through the winter, and there arise from it large leaves in the spring, before the stalks appear. These are to be distinguished from those which afterwards grow on the stalk, for they are more juicy, and for many purposes much better. In the same manner, some plants, from their seeds dropped in autumn, produce a root and leaves which stand all the winter, and the stalk does not rise till the succeeding spring. These are of the nature of those leaves, which rise from the root of other plants before the stalks in spring; and are in the same manner to be distinguished from those which grow upon the stalks: they have the full nourishment from the root, whereas the others are starved by the growth of the stalk and its branches, and the preparations made by nature for the flowers and seeds; which are the great purpose of nature, as they are to continue the plant.
For this reason, when the leaves of any plant are said to be the part fittest for use, they are not to be taken from the stalk, but these large ones growing from the root are to be chosen; and these where there is no stalk, if that can be; for then only they are fullest of juice, and have their complete virtue; the stalk running away with the nourishment from them. This is so much done in some plants, that although the leaves growing from the root were very vigorous before the stalk grew up, they die and wither as it rises.
When the juice of the leaves of any plant is required, these are the leaves from which it is to be pressed: when they are ordered in decoction, notice is always taken in this book, whether they be best fresh or dried; if fresh, they should be just gathered for the occasion; they should be cut up close from the root, and only shook clean, not washed; for in many, that carries off a part of the virtue: they are to be cut into the pot. If they are to be dried, the same caution is to be used; and they are best dried, by spreading them upon the floor of the room, with the windows open; often turning them. When thoroughly dried, they should be put into a drawer, pressing them close down, and covered with paper. When the entire plant is to be used except the root, care is to be taken that it be gathered at a proper season. Nature in the whole growth of plants, tends to the production of their flowers and seeds, but when they are ripe, the rest begins to decay, having done its duty; so that the time when the entire plant is in its most full perfection, is when it is in the bud; when the heads are formed for flowering, but not a single flower has yet disclosed itself: this is the exact time.
When herbs are to be used fresh, it is best not to take them entire, but only to cut off the tops; three or four inches long, if for infusion, and if for other purposes, less: if they are to be beaten up with sugar, they should be only an inch, or less; just as far as they are fresh and tender. The tops of the plant thus gathered, are always preferable to the whole plant for immediate use.
When the entire herb is to be dried, the season for gathering it is to be as just described, when the flowers are budding; and the time of the day must be when the morning dew is dried away. This is a very material circumstance, for if they be cut wet with the dew, herbs will not dry well, and if they be cut at noon day, when the sun has made the leaves flag, they will not have their full power.
Care must also be taken to cut them in a dry day; for the wet of rain will do as much harm, as that of dew.
When the herbs are thus gathered, they are to be looked over, the decayed leaves picked off, and the dead ends of the stalks cut away: they are then to be tied up in small bunches, (the less the better,) and hung upon lines drawn across a room, where the windows and doors are to be kept open in good weather; the bunches are to be half a foot asunder, and they are to hang till perfectly dry. They are then to be taken softly down, without shaking off the buds of the flowers, and laid evenly in a drawer, pressing them down, and covering them with paper. They are thus ready for infusions and decoctions, and are better for distillation than when fresh.
The flowers of plants are principally used fresh, though several particular kinds retain their virtue very well dried; they are on these different occasions to be treated differently.
Lavender flowers, and those of stoecha, keep very well; they are therefore to be preserved dry; the lavender flowers are to be stripped off the stalks, husk and all together, and spread upon the floor of a room to dry. The stoechas flowers are to be preserved in the whole head; this is to be cut off from the top of the stalk, and dried in the same manner: when dry, they are to be kept as the herbs.
When rosemary flowers are dried, they are generally taken with some of the leaves about them; and this is very right, for the leaves retain more virtue than the flowers. Some dry borage, bugloss, and cowslips, but they retain very little virtue in that condition. Rose buds are to be dried, and to this purpose, their white heads are to be cut off; and the full blown flowers may be preserved in the same manner. The red rose is always meant, when we speak of the dried flowers.
For the rest of the flowers used in medicine, they are best fresh; but as they remain only a small part of the year in that state, the method is to preserve them in the form of syrups and conserves. Such as the syrup of cloves and poppies, the conserves of cowslips, and the like. Of these, a short general account shall be subjoined, that nothing may be wanting to make this book as useful for families, as the nature of such an one will admit.
Among the fruits of plants, several are to be used fresh, as the hip for conserve, and the quince, mulberry, and black currant; from the juices of which, syrups are made. As to those which are to be dried, as the juniper berries, the bay berries, and the like, they are only to be gathered when just ripening, not when quite mellow, and spread upon a table or floor, often turning them till they are dry. But of these we use very few of our own growth; most of the fruits used in medicine are brought from abroad, and must be purchased of the druggist or apothecary.
With respect to the seeds and plants, it is otherwise: many of them are of our own growth, and nothing is so easy as to preserve them. These are all to be used dry; but nature has in a manner dried them to our hands: for they are not to be gathered till perfectly ripe, and then they need very little farther care. They are only to be spread for three or four days upon a clean floor, where the air has free passage, but where the sun does not come; and they are then ready to be put up.
The seeds used in medicine may be referred to three general kinds. They either grow in naked heads or umbels, as in fennel, parsley, and the like; or in pods, as in mustard and crosses; or in large fleshy fruits, as in melon and cucumbers. In each case they must be left upon the plant till perfectly ripe; then they are only to be shook from the heads upon the floor, or if in pods, a smart stroke or two of the plant upon the floor, when they are thoroughly ripe, will dislodge them. In the other case, the fruit must be cut open, and they must be taken out from among the wet matter, separated from the membranes that are about them, and spread upon a table, in a dry place, where they must be often turned and rubbed as they grow dry, that in the end they may be perfectly dry and clean.
Among the roots a great many are to be used fresh, but a greater number are best dried. The black and white briony, the arum, and some others, lose all their virtues in drying; and many that retain some, yet lose the greater part of it: there are others which are excellent both fresh and dried, as the marshmallow and some more.
As to the few which lose their virtue entirely in drying, it will be best to keep some of them always in the garden, that they may be taken up as they are wanted. The others are to be managed according to their several natures, and they do a great deal toward the furnishing this druggist's shop, which should be filled with medicines, the produce of our own country.
The best season for gathering roots for drying is in the earlier part of the spring: what nature does for plants when they are just going to flower, she does for roots when the leaves are just going to bud: the juices are rich, fresh, and full, and the virtue is strongest in them at this season, therefore they are to be then taken up.
In the end of February and the beginning of March, the ground should be searched for the first budding of leaves, and the roots taken up. They are to be wiped clean, not washed; and, according to their several natures, prepared for drying.
Some are full of a mucilaginous juice, as marshmallow, and above all other roots the squill, and in some degree many others of that kind: these must be cut into thin slices cross-wise, and they will dry best if laid upon a hair cloth stretched across a frame. They must be frequently turned; and be very thoroughly dry, before they are put up, else they will become mouldy: but, rightly prepared, they keep very well.
Other roots have juices, that evaporate more easily. These have the virtue either throughout the whole substance, or only in the outer part, and they are to be prepared accordingly. When roots are of one uniform substance, they generally have the virtue equal, or nearly so, in all parts. These should be split open length-wise, first cutting off the head, and the little end; or if considerably thick, they may be quartered; when this is done, they are to be strung upon a line, by drawing a needle threaded with a small twine through their thickest part, and they are then to be hung up to dry in the manner of the herbs; the line being stretched across a room, the doors and windows of which are to be kept open in good weather.
When roots consist of a sort of thick rind, or fleshy substance within the rind, and a hard sticky part in the middle, this fleshy substance under it possesses all the virtues, the hard inner substance having none; in this case, the root is to be split long-wise as before, and the hard woody part is to be taken out and thrown away; the rest is to be strung as before described, and dried in the same manner.
When roots consist of fibres, these are generally connected to a head, if it be ever so small, and the best way is to split this in two, and then string up the separate parts for drying.
It is needless to enumerate the examples of the several kinds of roots here; they follow in their places: but if the charitable lady would, on first looking over this book to see what are most useful, order her gardener to take out of his ground, and to seek in the fields, the several roots there mentioned, and see them dried and preserved according to these directions, she would be possessed of a set of drugs of a new kind indeed; but they would save the price of many brought from other countries, and might be used with less danger.
The barks of trees make but a small part of the English drugs, and most of them are best fresh; but such as will preserve and retain their virtues dried, are very easily prepared that way: nothing more is required, than to cut them into moderate pieces, and string them up in the same manner as the roots. When they are dry, they are to be put up as the others; and they will keep ever so long; but in all this time they are for the most part losing of their virtues.
It may be prudent to preserve drugs brought from abroad a great while because of their price; but as these cost only the trouble of gathering and preserving them, I would advise, that the whole shop be renewed every year; what is left of the old parcel of every kind, being thrown away as the fresh one is collected in its season.
The place for keeping these should be a dry room, neither damp nor hot; and they should now and then be looked at, to see that they are in order; that they do not grow mouldy, or smell musty through damp, or become lighter, and lose their virtue by too much heat.
It may be proper just to mention, that the woods which we use are best kept in the block, and shaved off as they are wanted; for being kept in shavings, they lose their virtue: and in the same manner as to the foreign woods, it is best to keep a block of sassafras, and of lignum vitae in the house, and cut them as they are wanted.
As to the excrescences, such as galls of the oak, and the burr upon the wild briar, they are naturally so dry, that they only require to be exposed a few days to the air, upon a table, and then they may be put up with safety, and will keep a long time.
Lastly, the funguses, such as Jew's ears and the like, are to be gathered when they are full grown, and strung upon a line, that they may dry leisurely, for else they spoil: they must be very well dried before they are put up, else they will grow mouldy in damp weather; and if once that happen, no art can recover their virtues.
Thus may a druggist's shop of a new kind be filled, and it will consist of as many articles as those which receive their furniture from abroad; and there will be this advantage in having everything ready; that when custom has made the virtues of the several things familiar, the lady may do from her judgment as the physician in his prescription, mix several things of like virtue together, and not depend upon the virtues of any one singly, when the case requires something of power. These roots and barks powdered, will make as handsome and as efficacious boluses and mixtures, as any furnished by the apothecary.
The Family Herbal, 1812, was written by John Hill.