A quick guide to collecting plant parts for medicinal use

Collecting good quality herbs is undoubtedly the first and foremost step to making good herbal medicines. In order to achieve that, several factors play an important role, affecting the potency and concentration of bioactive compounds in the plant being collected. Let us see what Ayurveda advises about the herbs collection methods.

1. General  Physical / Geographical features

Source: Sushrut Samhita/Ashtang Hriday

Recommended features:

  • Plants with leaves having better lustre.
  • Plants having well-developed strong roots.
  • For plants with characteristic smell or taste – the stronger it is, the better. (This follows from the simple fact that it indicates a stronger concentration ofthe active biocompounds.
  • Plants growing on an eastward facing slope.

Not recommended:

  • Plants infested by microbes or pests.
  • Plants previously exposed to toxins or toxic fumes.
  • Plants exposed to excessive sunlight / heat / winds / humidity, causing injury/damage.
  • Plants growing in places where organic waste is decomposing, or under unhygienic conditions, unless that is their natural habitat.

          2. Timing of collection

          Source: Charak samhita

          • Twigs, leaves: are best collected when fully developed but not too dryed up; during spring (Vasant) or early rainy season (Varsha, in the tropics).
          • Roots: have best potency when the plants grow fresh leaves after fall (Shishir season), or when the summer is just about start peaking (Grishma season).
          • Bark, tubers and saps: should be collected during the 2 months coming after rainy season in monsoon regions(Sharad season), and during periods of broad sunlight and humid weather in other regions. Some contemporary Ayurveda experts also recommend collecting tubers during early winter.
          • Wood: has best potency during early winter (Hemant season).
          • Fruits and Flowers: during their respective seasons only.

              3. General Guidelines

              • Always caution against overharvesting. Remember that the plants growing in wild need more time and resources to sustain their species. So, overharvesting can be a very bad idea for the collector as well as the plant, of course.
              • The harvesting should be done in an evenly distributed pattern, or peripherally when dealing with a cluster of growth, so that regeneration is easier.
              • The collector should take care to be hygienic themselves and not use any instruments or other means that can cause disease or injury to the vegetation.
              • Collectors ought to never pollute the range in any way. Leaving meal cans, aluminium foils and other waste on site is one of the commonest bad habits seen nowadays in trekkers. It only acts to the deterrence of healthy and pleasant environment and should be avoided.
              • It is always highly appreciable if one  expresses their gratitude to the plants by leaving some manure in the vicinity to their benefit.
              • Care needs to be taken not to disrupt the ecosystem balance in the surrounding area. I once experienced an example of a group of trekkers who collected a lot of wild honey along with herbs in an area, only to find the plant population affected subsequently due to decreased insect-mediated pollination.

                      4. Specific Guidelines for some classes of herbs

                      Source: Sushrut samhita

                      • Purgatives/laxatives: should preferably be collected from moist and humid terrain with soils having high water retention capacity.
                      • Emetics: should be collected preferably from hot and dry terrains having red or sandy soils.

                          5. Some prominent exceptions

                          • Fruits: are sipposed to be harvested ripe and fresh. However, Bael fruit is more potent when unripe. On the other hand, fruits like grapes and Indian myrobalan should be harvested for medicinal purposes AFTER they dry up.
                          • Roots and tubers: are harvested when fresh and ripe. Ashtang sangrah advises collecting Raddishes for medicinal purposes only after drying. This advice, is however, contradicted in Charak Samhita and contested by contemporary scholars.

                              6. Packing and Storage

                              • Just as with any spoilable food article, storage of medicinal herbs should be airtight, cool and dry.
                              • Expiry period of roots, seeds, bark and leaves is generally two to three years from harvesting, if properly dried and well stored.
                              • Herb parts having active bio compounds in the form of volatile oils, such as spices, mint, eucalyptus etc., lose potency much faster, usually within a year. They can be used longer by creating infusions in carrier oils.
                              • Herbs having ingredients soluble in alcohol can be preserved by making Asavas and Arishtas.
                              • Fruits and flowers are preserved in Ayurveda by making specialized medicinal jams called Lehas.

                              Would have loved to share the processes for making the above preserved forms here, but each of them can make a separate post by itself. So, someday later maybe? Till then, keep reading, keep collecting herbs, and…

                              Stay Healthy, stay Happy!

                              About the author –

                              Dr. Harshad Rajandekar is a practising Ayurvedic and integrative physician based out Nasik, India. He takes interest in collecting and conserving rare medicinal herbs.

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