Let me begin by saying that I recommend gathering your own herbs if at all possible, in part because this is the only way to really ensure the quality and treatment of the plants is truly optimal. And do realize, that pretty much wherever you are, you have the ability to collect some of your own food and medicine. Any child can learn to recognize a few basic (but very important) herbs, and so can you! Perhaps most important, is that this is one of the best ways to form a lasting and powerful relationship with the plants
However, I know that many of you have neither the time, expertise, land, energy or even desire to realistically harvest the bulk of your herbs. So here’s some of my experience-based understandings to help you knowledgeably purchase your medicinal herbs. Over the years, I’ve seen that many herbs will behave in their expected way even if not of the premium organic, small farm variety. I’ve also noticed that some plants simply MUST be harvested very carefully from a healthy environment in order for them to work well (if at all). With a few of these herbs it’s totally clear that they just don’t work, as in the Skullcap is completely inert. In other cases, they seem to work, kind of, of they work well in some ways but the breadth and depth of their effect has been lost somewhere in the industrial process, (Ashwagandha is especially prone to this).
First of all, just completely avoid all plant matter that is some indeterminate shade of yellow-brown and has that distinct musty smell. Reject any herb that does not still look very much like it did while alive, it should still be vibrant and inspirited. If you’re buying from an herb store, it’s really preferable that the proprietor of the shop know where the herbs came from, when they were harvested and purchased and ~gasp~ something about the nature of the herb itself (something besides the newest drivel from alt. health glossies).
It truly is best in almost every case to buy locally from a small grower or wildcrafter. It may take some footwork to find them, but they’re more common that you might think. In fact, it took me years to figure out their was an organic lavender farm a mere 1.5 hours from me, but you can imagine how excited (ecstatic) I was when I found out. I’ve made a habit of slowly tracking down all of the people in my region who grow herbs I want but can’t grow/find for whatever reason. So there’s a woman in the village who grows Calendula for me, and another with Basil, and then a sweet lady who brings me Elderberries from the mountains just over the border in Arizona. It’s ever so satisfying to work with plants from your own bioregion and to be able to cultivate a relationship with the grower/harvester in person.
If you are buying your herbs online then you need to be extra careful, and very choosy. The easiest way of out of this is to buy from small, reputable farmers and wildcrafters with an ethical, prayerful approach to their work and who will ship to your area. This way you can talk to the actual humans that grew, talked to, and picked the medicine you will be working with. Once upon a time it was a monumental task to find these mythical beings, much less purchase affordable herbs from them. It’s a different world these days, and there are many great small farms and independent wildcrafters that are both accessable and affordable. I have compiled a small list found below of those I have worked directly with or that have been recommended by other practicing herbalists.
If you must buy your herbs from a large warehouse that gets its herbs from global sources, be sure to check that they do not irradiate their herbs and that they carefully test all of their stock for harmful chemicals and other undesirable substances. They will hopefully carry certified organic (for whatever its worth) and be working directly with the harvesters/growers of the herbs. This rules out pretty much all the herbs that come in those shiny foil packages. In fact, this eliminates most of what is carried in the majority of health food stores and many herb shops. And don’t let the hype and floral decor on their websites sway you either, you’re buying herbs not ads, after all
Don’t be afraid to complain or return herbs to suppliers if they’re less than satisfactory, or to urge your local shopkeeper to carry better stock. Polite pressure for higher quality can make a difference in the long run. On the other hand, be sure to let providers of fresh, fragrant, wonderful herbs know how much you appreciate them and how important they are to you. A little appreciation goes a long way in helping these wonderful folks feel how needed they are!
Keep in mind that not all herbs survive being dried and shipped around the world very well, no matter how nicely they’re treated. Some plants simply need to be used fresh or gathered locally. They’re living beings and can be quite delicate. Especially sensitive (to time, heat, etc) individuals include Skullcap, Passionflower, Lemon Balm, Basil, Ashwagandha, Red Clover, Raspberry leaf (don’t know why, but the leaf of commerce is generally awful) and Yarrow, among others. Some super tough plants include Chamomile, Rose (something I wouldn’t expect, but is generally true), Elderberry, Sage (usually), Thyme, Sumach and Elm. It’s all variable according to climate, treatment and sunlight exposure of course, but this has been my experience.
Whatever way and whoever you decide to get your herbs from, make sure the magic is intact. You know, the faery sparkles that live in happy plants. Yes, it sounds very silly, but really, any of us who have been using herbs for a while realize that the medicine works best when the spirit of the plant is present and alive. It’s the essential componant to how our body’s connect with and learn from these ancient allies.
Recommended Small Bulk Herb Providers that Ship in N. America