Even though picking the herbs requires quite some physical resources, it is the most enjoyable part of our work. Somehow, the herbs always choose magical places to flourish! Being there, usually early in the morning, teleports us in another dimension. The smells, the morning sounds of nature, the rising sun and our discussion with the herbs to see what they will let us pick, give us a sensation which lies in the core of why we do what we do.
First of all, picking the… location
Before starting anything, when picking wild herbs, we have to decide where will we pick them from. By now we know very well our island and all the places where each herb grows. Not all of them are suitable for picking though and every year the candidates change, due to a list of factors.
Being on the island for years and taking part in its intricate social web we’ve learned and keep on learning all sorts of stories of the island’s past. This has proven valuable in identifying areas that have been contaminated in the past, a fact which is not always detectable today. Of course all these areas are ruled out of our options, no matter what grows in them.
In order to be efficient and the picking session to be feasible in a 3-4 hour window, we choose areas where the herb in interest is abundant. This is also an indication that the herb is well established there and picking a percentage of it will not endanger its survival and proliferation.
Some herbs, like the wild carrot, are opportunistic and have annual cycles, so we have to hunt down their locations each year. Once found we have to consider the above factors as well.
Accessibility is also taken into account. As much as we love hiking, we are not going to pick from an area that needs an hour of steep mountain hike, carrying the sacks on our backs. We believe that these areas, rich as they are in herbs and other vegetation, should stay completely untouched from humans. They are the planet’s reserves, even if small.
Timing is everything
Timing is extremely important when picking herbs to distill. Essential oils, like all substances in the plant, have annual, monthly and daily cycles. These cycles affect both the quantity and the quality of the essential oil. For most of the herbs the optimum time for picking is when the plant is in full blossom. We observe daily the plants’ status as we go about our business on the island and prepare for picking when the time approaches. Factors like the herb species, the year’s weather conditions, the altitude and the surrounding terrain can make planning the proper timing for picking from each location, a challenging task.
Picking is done always in the morning, as early as possible but when there is no dew visible on the plant any more. Rain washes away the essential oils, so if there is any, we must wait a couple of days before picking, so that the plant can dry superficially and restore its essential oils.
How we use our hands and treat our plants: our method
For almost all of the herbs we work with, we use sharp scythes to cut off the part the herb that we need. One hand grasps firmly a bunch of stems, flowers or leaves and the other brings the scythe under the first, cutting the bunch in a swift pull-and-rotate motion. Experience is the most important factor here for this work to be correct and efficient. This motion will be repeated hundreds of times in a 3 hour picking session.
The necessary part of the herb and only that has to be cut off the plant for two major reasons. First and foremost we must not hurt the plant. We are always picking the new growth and as long as we stick to that part of the plant we are actually pruning it, stimulating it to fork and produce more stems in its next growing season. Furthermore, if we pick older parts of the plant which are usually woody, we are adding substances to our essential oil like lidocaine, which undermine its quality substantially.
Transporting the herbs with care
As soon as a herb is picked, it starts to dry out and decay. We must delay these processes to the biggest extent possible so as not to loose quality and quantity of final product. To achieve that, the picked herbs must be taken care of in such a way, in the short period of time between picking and distilling.
While on the field we use jute sacks to store the herbs. Jute is a natural material and its weaving allows good air circulation and does not accumulate heat thus preventing drying and decay. As soon as a sack is filled, it is transported to our closed no-windows van (parked in the shadow) and the herbs are spread out in crates.
When the picking session is over, we drive immediately back to our lab for distillation. Every minute is important in order to keep the freshness and quality of our products.
So, a bit of knowledge and common sense, teaches us that there is only one way to do the picking: the right way. If we were to be hurting the wild plants, even if we didn’t have a conscience and had profit only in our mind, we would only be hurting ourselves. We are not flybys on this island, we live off of it on all aspects. If we hurt the wild herbs, it is also us that will not have them next year and our business will become unsustainable.
Of course we never pick the total available amount of a herb from an area. We will go up to a maximum of 50% on areas where the herb is well established, flourishing and under no threat. The rest of the flowers are left for nature to do its thing: bees, seeds, propagation and a million other processes.
Not only do we take care of the herbs, but also try to propagate them by spreading their seeds in areas where they are not established yet. We also try to save them, when sometimes a local “cleans” their land. We try to convince them to leave as many herb plant possible standing, by explaining that it’s to their benefit to have natural anti-fungal, anti-bacterial protection around their cultivation.
We have been picking, for eight years now, exactly the same plants and year after year we have been monitoring their status. We have not noticed a reduction of plant mass in any of our picking areas (except in cases of other third party interventions) and in plenty of them the plants are spreading and their population is increasing. At some point in the future, when we’ll have accumulated enough data, we plan to collaborate with an interested university school to make a study and publish it.