Choosing Your Herbs

A lot of people have asked me how can they choose the best herbs for their practice. This really depends. If you only use herbs once in a while, they are probably not a big part of your Magickal workings. But, if like me – you use them almost daily, then its worth it to take the extra time and really make sure you are getting the best bang for your Magickal buck!

First, there is a difference between medicinal herbalism and Magickal herbalism. Medicinal herbalism deals with the biological properties of herbs primarily and their energies as a secondary. Magickal herbalism is the opposite – we are mainly concerned with the Metaphysical properties of each herb primarily and their biological properties as a secondary.

Many people ask me – why are the biological properties even important if I am just using it in Magick? Well because many herbs are toxic if inhaled in incense or drank in a tea, can cause rashes if used in an herbal mix or herbal bath. You should always at least be aware of the biological side effects of any herb before you use it. Words like natural, organic, herbal do not equal safe. Remember that Cyanide is all natural and can kill you! Safety first!

Now with all that said – here are a few terms widely used when you purchase herbs – and here is what they actually mean:

· Wild harvested – This generally applies to harvesting plants in their natural habitat. There are rules for wild harvesting in different states, but mainly it means taking 25% or less of the plant so that it can continue to grow and thrive to be harvested again. Wild harvested herbs are generally pesticide-free but location is important. It is possible to wild harvest herbs growing by the side of the road, but it doesn’t mean you would really want to use those herbs.

· Organic – this means herbs were grown without pesticides and artificial enhancers. This also means that sustainability precautions were taken when growing the herbs to make sure that their environment remains healthy (i.e. – no soil stripping etc). The requirements for this will vary from state to state but mainly the USDA will govern almost all of organic certifications that are valid.

· Fair Trade – this is a worldwide program and it’s mainly a social program but it has ramification, I believe, in the final products we receive. This program will pay a fair price for good from third world producers so that they can sustain their families with their work. This eliminates the mass bidding and price undercutting that takes place sometimes in larger operations in favor of smaller family-run type farming.

· Green for Green – this is a practice unique to the metaphysical community that became more widespread in the middle of the last century when most local pharmacies started to make the move from Herbal Medicines to Pharmaceuticals. With less and less local availability of herbs, many pagans started to turn to online and mail ordering companies. Most herbs were being sold cut and sifted instead of whole like they used to be, and many of the lesser reputable stores started engaging in this green for green policy. This means that they would substitute a lower cost herb that “looked” the same as a higher cost herb and sell it at the higher price. Since herbs were cut and sifted, many customers would not be able to tell the difference. This practice is no longer as widespread as it used to be – but it is still out there today – and it is dangerous! This is why its important to learn what herbs (even sifted herbs) should smell and look like!

So now, with all of this said, if you plan to become a Magickal herbalist, what should you choose? Well consider this – when you work with an herb magically, you are working with the energies within those herbs. This means that everything that has happened to that herb before it got to your hands, will affect the energy of that herb. If it was bombarded with pesticides, if it was harvested in a careless manner, cultivated by people who are upset at being under-cut in pricing and can no longer feed their families – all of this affects it. So with that said, when possible, I always recommend going with Fair Trade, Organic or wild harvested herbs. However this is not always possible – but I still contend that your spell is better off with no herbs instead of using low quality herbs. I equate it to cooking steak – if all you can have if the $1.99 special – wouldn’t you go with the chicken instead? I would =)

So – here are a few tips on buying, caring for and storing herbs:

· Color – very few herbs are naturally brown. If you receive peppermint that has a brownish tint – throw it out – it means its old. Once herbs are harvested, cut and sifted, they will lose some of their color and scent but they should not lose all of their color – ever.

· Scent – most herbs have a distinct scent (although woods generally do not). Although not always pleasant, you should still be able to smell it. A perfect example is Rue – strong scent, pungent and bright green. If you receive rue that is brownish clump that has a moldy smell throw it out – it’s too old.

· Shelf life – most herbs if properly cared for – will have a shelf life of about one year. Some are longer than that – I have had high quality lavender remain viable for 3 years – but this is rare. After one year – give your herbs the good-old sniff test. If they lost their scent or smell moldy – throw them out. If their once yellow or green color has turned brownish – throw them out. It really is not worth it to use old moldy herbs in your spell. If you are taking the time to use herbs in your smell you might as well make sure they are good.

· Storage – herbs will last longer if they are stored in a cool (under 75 degrees), dry and dark place – a dresser drawer is a good place – a sunny window is not! Personally I like Ziploc baggies for them – they are cheap and easy to stack (just make sure every time you close ‘em you squeeze out as much of the air as possible) – but jars work too. If you decide to use jars, make sure they form a TIGHT seal or your herbs will not last as long.

· Sellers – most pagan shops will sell herbs of one kind or another. The problem is that for pagan shops where herbs are not a big part of their business, these herbs will sit on shelves for 1 year or more – and that’s even before they get to you! The same thing can happen to local organic shops. I drove down to our local organic market looking for eucalyptus and found a brownish unscented herbal “thing” that was labeled eucalyptus. I can only imagine how long it had been sitting on the shelf. Be picky – if you order herbs from an online place – do the color and scent test. I have received Eucalyptus from suppliers that looked ok but when opened it – there was no scent – Eucalyptus ALWAYS has a scent.

If your herbs don’t pass the freshness or quality test – don’t be afraid to send them back! I generally found that I get better herbs if I purchase from an herbal store directly or from pagan stores that focus on herbs as their primary products. Even then, even if buying from the most reputable place there is – always do the sniff and color test when you get ‘em – anyone can make mistakes but ultimately its YOUR Magick and you have to make sure your materials are good =)

So there ya go – I hope some of this is useful to you =)