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[Herbal Rootlets]: No. 105 – Determining Shelf Life

I get a lot of questions asking about the shelf life of dried herbs and herbal preparations so I thought I’d take time to answer these questions in this week’s newsletter.

If you’ve studied herbs for any length of time, you’ve probably be given numbers for determining the usefulness of herbs. However, it’s important to take into account where you’ve acquired your herbs and preparations before staying with the general ‘rules’ of shelf life.

Leaves, barks, berries, flowers, and seeds

Let’s start with dried herbs. The general rule of thumb is that more delicate plant materials such as leaves and flowers are generally good for 1-2 years. Harder parts such as seeds, barks, and roots last for 3-4 years. This will depend greatly on how they were stored. Keeping them in a cool, dry, dark location will greatly increase their shelf life. Also, where you got your herbs from will make a difference as well. Commercial sources are often already 6 months old by the time you purchase them, if not older. Purchasing from a local grower or growing and drying them yourself will help to extend the shelf life.

To determine if they are still viable or not, use your senses. When you first are packing your herb, take a moment to assess it. What is the color of it? What does it smell like? Taste like? Look like? How does it taste in a tea (if used as such)? Write this information down in a notebook along with when/where you purchased/harvested it and how much you purchased. Then when you are doing inventory, compare notes. Does your dried Calendula still host bright orange and yellow petals or have they faded to a tan? Is the Lemon Balm still lemony when you crush it and smell it? and taste it? Does the tea still taste the same or is it blah? And most importantly, when you make use of it, is it still effective? All of these observations will help you to determine if the plant is ready to be composted or ready to be used.

Tinctures, glycerites, syrups, and vinegars

Tinctures are a bit different in nature. Since the herb is preserved in alcohol, most stay potent indefinitely when stored in a cool, dark location. A few, such as Shepherd’s Purse defy that rule and generally lose their potency after 1 year. Again, try the tincture and see if you get the same results as you did when it was freshly made. If yes, it’s still good, if no, time to compost it.

Herbal vinegars and honeys are similar to tinctures. They generally last indefinitely when stored properly. Keep them in a cool, dark location in your pantry, there is no need to refrigerate them.

Glycerites tend to not hold their value indefinitely. Typically they last for a few years at the most, with many herbalists finding after a year the potency drops significantly. Considering they are less potent to begin with, this can be the difference between an effective herbal remedy and a dud.

Syrups also typically only last for only up to a year, and often only about 6 months. Again, note the taste and smell when you first make it and then once a month, pull your syrups out of the refrigerator and check them. If they smell or taste off, it’s time to compost them.

Oils and salves

Herbal oils and salves generally last 6-12 months, again dependent on how they are stored. I prefer to keep my oils in the refrigerator for a longer shelf life. A quick sniff test will let you know if your oil has gone rancid. Again, smell your product and note its scent before storing then smell it each time before using it. When it smells off, it’s time to discard it.

Other factors

Other factors to consider in the storage of your herbs is your location and storage space. For instance, my home is not air conditioned and living in the midwest, we get hot, humid summers. We also do not have central heat, using a wood stove to heat during the damp, cold winters. I store my dried herbs in a cabinet in my office, which can get pretty hot during the summertime and pretty cold in the winter. Because of this, I know my herbs may not last as long as someone who has the humidity and temperatures controlled in their home. Because of this, I make sure to grow and harvest the herbs I need every year or I’ll need to purchase them.

If your only storage location is in your kitchen next to the stove, that will influence the life of your herbs as well.

Annual herbal check-ups

You should try to go through your dried herbs and preparations at least once a year. Personally, I like to do this in the late winter, early spring so that I know what I’ll need to harvest and grow in the upcoming year.

This is a great activity to do with your kids, as it will teach them how to determine if the herbs they are using are still good or not. It also can teach about the cycle of life, and composting your spent herbs is a great way to help close the circle and return the plants to the earth they grew from.

Hopefully this helps you feel more comfortable in the storage and use of your herbs.

Do you have any tips or stories about your herbal pantry? Please share them with us in the comments below!

Want to learn more about how to store your herbs? See my previous article on my tips here.


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