How to Dry Herbs and Flowers
Drying is one of the oldest and easiest ways to preserve herbs, flowers and other botanicals. It’s easy to learn how to dry herbs and flowers, even without a dehydrator or special equipment.
Depending on the plant, you may be harvesting leaves, flowers or roots (or all three). All parts of most plants can be dried and used later for aromatic, medicinal or culinary purposes. Drying herbs and flowers is a great way to make your garden last longer and it can even save you money.
How to Harvest and Dry Herbs
In order to have the best possible dried herbs, you need to harvest the plant parts optimally. Here’s what you should know about harvesting herbs for drying.
- Never take more than 1/3 of the plant, or you risk killing the plant. If the plant is an annual, or if you’ve grown it specifically to harvest the roots, then harvest the whole thing when it’s near the end of the growing season but before flowers.
- For plants with tough stems, like thyme or rosemary, harvest small branches, rather than individual leaves. Use sterilized, sharp scissors or pruners and make a clean cut through the stem. Taking the whole stem is best for the plant’s health and will also help your plant continue making new, tender growth.
- For leafy plants, pluck off single leaves or cut off small sections of stem. Only pluck leaves if it is possible to do so easily and without damaging the plant’s stems. Basil and mint are great examples of herbs with leaves that are easy to pull off.
- You can dry a large batch of herbs or just a single leaf. For efficiency’s sake, it’s usually best to wait until there’s a significant amount of herb to harvest before drying.
- Harvest herbs before they flower unless it is the flower you wish to process. Once an herb has flowered, the leaves can become flavorless, or worse, bitter. The leaves will likely be of less value medicinally after flowering. Many perennial herbs will put up tender, flavorful new growth if you cut them back after flowering.
- Harvest early in the day when the plant oils are most concentrated to ensure the best flavor.
Harvesting Flowers to Dry
Nearly every herb, fruit, vegetable and many shrubs will eventually produce flowers. Flowers are how many plants produce seeds to parent the next generation. In many cases, herb flowers are attractive and have culinary or medicinal benefits, too.
Other plants, like roses, are grown mostly for their flowers. Whether from herbs or herbaceous plants, shrubs, trees or ornamental plants, blooms may have culinary or medicinal benefits, may be aromatic or may simply be attractive. All of those are great reasons to harvest and dry flowers.
- Like herbs, flowers should be harvested early in the day.
- Take only healthy flowers that are about to fully open or are just barely open.
- Be mindful of flowers with heavy pollen. They can spread pollen all over, including in your home and in your drying area. For that reason, some people choose to grow pollenless varieties of flowers they intend to use as cut flowers or to dry.
- As noted above, producing flowers will affect the flavor of the plant leaves. If you’re growing the plant for its leaves as well as its flowers, be sure to either plant multiples or to harvest and dry the leaves before flowers form.
- Use caution if a plant has thorns or if there are pollinators present. While most bees and other stinging insects actually don’t want to sting humans, they will if threatened. Grabbing a flower currently occupied by a bee is a great way to hurt the bee and get stung in the process.
How to prepare fresh herbs for drying
Once you’ve harvested your herbs, prepare them for drying. Discard any wilted, diseased or damaged parts of the plant, as well as any immature leaves, buds or flowers.
Should you wash herbs before drying?
- if the herbs have soil on them, they may need to be rinsed, if the soil won’t brush off. If they are grown organically, it may not be necessary to wash them and doing so can remove some of the oils and flavor. That is a personal choice, however, and you should do what makes you comfortable.
- If you have free-ranging poultry in your garden or lots of wild birds, or other animal visitors, I’d suggest washing your herbs.
- if you are drying roots, they might need to be cut into smaller pieces to facilitate drying. They should be free from dirt, so they may need to be washed.
Washing herbs for drying
Aim to expose the herbs to as little water as possible and be gentle in wetting them. Soil will often brush off and doing that is less messy than trying to wash it off. You can hold the herbs under tepid, slow running water if they just need a quick rinse. To clean leaves or roots more thoroughly, soak them in a bowl of room temperature water until they appear clean. Change the water if it becomes dirty.
It’s difficult to wash flowers without damaging them. If you must wash flowers, I’d suggest soaking them rather than rinsing them.
Preparing flowers for drying
Follow the same advice for preparing fresh flowers as for herbs. In most cases, you should strip all leaves and thorns from the stems.
- carefully remove any wilted or damaged petals
- remove the stem if you don’t wish to dry the flowers with the stem attached
- flowers can be dried whole or broken down into petals – if you intend to dry petals instead of the whole flower, carefully separate them at this point
- even if you intend to use or display flowers in bunches, they should be separated into single stems or blooms for drying
Decide how you’ll use the dried materials so you can process them in a way that makes sense.
The more you break down the fresh herbs or flowers, the more you limit their use in the future. It’s best to only break plant parts down as much as necessary to ensure they can dry completely without molding. That way you retain more of the plant’s properties and leave yourself flexibility in the future.
Drying herbs and flowers for culinary use
For example, if you’re planning to dry basil and oregano for an Italian seasoning mix, remove each leaf from the stems. You can then tear or cut the leaves up for a finer finish. On the other hand, you might choose to dry sage in bunches, still on the stem, because it’s easier to use in culinary applications like a bouquet garnish. Be aware that the further you break down the leaves and flowers, the more quickly they will lose flavor.
If you aren’t sure what you’ll do with herbs, then process them as little as possible before drying. You can always strip dried leaves off a stem later or crumble dried leaves for a finer texture.
Drying herbs for tea
In general, drying herbs for tea is the same as drying them for other applications. Herbs for tea should be dried whole (ie the leaves aren’t chopped or minced) and then processed into finer pieces once completely dry. The finer the finished material, the more quickly it will infuse the warm tea water. The trade off is that the more finely herbs are processed, the more quickly they can lose flavor and potency.
For flowers that will be used in teas, herb blends, or as culinary decorations, leave each flower intact but separate, unless the flowers are quite large. To dry bigger flowers, like roses, it’s better to remove the petals from the hips to ensure the flowers dry without molding.
Drying flowers and herbs for medicinal use
Most of the advice from culinary use applies here. Be very judicious about washing or breaking down herbs or flowers intended for medicinal use. An intact botanical retains more essential oils and medicinal properties. Be sure you are only including the parts of the plant or flower that contain beneficial compounds.
In most cases, dried herbs or flowers are used to infuse oil for balms, salves or other topical agents or they’re included in a tea, tisane or tincture. Although you can use fresh herbs for teas and tinctures, you should ONLY used dried plant parts to infuse oils. That’s because ‘wet’ herbs can mold in the oil during the weeks of infusing.
The exception to this is using gentle heat to infuse oil rapidly. The oil should be used immediately or stored in the refrigerator.
Drying flowers for ornamental use
Dried flowers are a lovely way to hold onto summer’s beauty all year long. And drying flowers from special occasions is a wonderful way to preserve special memories. Unlike culinary or medicinal use, ornamental flower drying focuses on maintaining as much of the shape and structure of the flower as possible. This might mean drying the entire flower (including stems or leaves) or just select parts, like petals.
To prepare flowers for drying, decide how you want to use or display them. If you want to have whole stems arranged in a vase or bouquet, maintain the stem (and leaves if you want). Otherwise, carefully remove only the parts you wish to dry and use, like petals.
When drying flowers for ornamental use, pick only the most attractive and well-formed flowers. Avoid flowers that have gone past their full bloom, unless you’re just drying petals. For arrangements, consider choosing flowers in a range of development stages. For example, you may have a few perfectly opened flowers along with several half-open flowers and even a few buds.
If a flower has a lot of pollen, gently knock as much of it off as possible before bringing the flower to your drying area.
How to air dry herbs and flowers
Air drying just means putting fresh herbs or flowers in a secure spot away from moisture, direct sun or drafts and letting the moisture slowly evaporate out. It’s the easiest and cheapest way to dry herbs but it’s also the slowest. Air drying is very flexible, however, and can be done without any special equipment. There are a few items that make air drying herbs easier, though, which I’ll discuss below.
Hanging herbs and flowers to dry
Hanging is a very efficient drying method, and can look quite charming. But it can also be messy if dried plant parts shake loose and fall to the floor. Not the end of the world, but something to be aware of, especially if you are drying bundles in an area where pets or small children may be.
If the herbs are still part of a larger plant or on their stem, then they can be hung upside down to dry. For herbs with sturdy stems, like lavender, gather the stems and tie them into bunches. Bushier herbs like sage can be harvested in small clumps and hung accordingly. Hang flowers from their stem individually, unless the flowers are very small (like violets) or grow in small, dense clusters (like sweet alyssum or yarrow).
How to contain herbs while drying
A great way to contain herbs for air drying is to put the herbs into drawstring organza bags. Use larger bags for big clumps of herbs and small bags to contain delicate herbs or flowers. Simply put small sections of herbs into the bag, then tighten the drawstring. From there, it’s easy to hang the bags or to lay the bags on a drying tray (more on that below).
The bags keep all the dried plant parts in check and it’s easy to empty the herbs out and put them away. I keep a range of sizes on hand and use them constantly. I’ve listed the sizes I use most often here. Some people use paper bags to hold drying plant parts but that can limit air circulation.
Be sure to write the name of each herb on the bag. Once they’re dried, it’s much harder to tell what’s in the bag! I use a permanent marker and write the name and date directly on the organza. Easy as pie.
Drying herbs on trays or screens
If you are drying a lot of herbs or flowers, it could be very tedious to hang them all for drying! Instead, lay the leaves or plant parts in trays, or spread them on non-aluminum screens. The advantage of this is that you can dry a large amount of herbs in very little space.
It’s important the herbs not be heaped up so deeply that air cannot circulate around them. I generally make sure the herbs aren’t deeper than an inch or so, but larger leaved herbs, like basil or lemon balm, can be piled a little higher. The herbs will need to be turned daily as they dry, to ensure all of the plant parts receive plenty of air. Lay flowers in a single layer with space between each flower or cluster of flowers.
For culinary or medicinal use, it doesn’t matter if a few leaves or flowers get crinkled but for ornamental use, make sure the flowers are positioned carefully in the position you hope to display them.
Small batch drying
For small batches, the lids of paper egg cartons make excellent drying racks. They stack and it’s easy to add a few air holes if needed. Air will circulate readily even when they are stacked loosely on top of each other. Another advantage of the carton lids is that the edges keep the herbs from blowing around. And, of course, they’re super frugal, which I love.
If you have space, non-metal window screens or furnace filters are an excellent drying surface. These can be stacked and air circulates readily. Be sure they are stored someplace free from breezes, however.
Using Herb Drying Racks
Finally, there are some wonderful herb drying racks available for purchase, like this small hanging collapsible rack. If you dry a lot of herbs or flowers or if you need to minimize the amount of space your drying set up takes, these are quite compact and efficient. I use this hanging rack with 8 bays. Each rack only takes up a couple of feet of space in my basement but I can process large numbers of herbs. When I’m not using it, it folds up into a tiny bag. I’ve been very happy with how sturdy they are, too.
Another great space saver is this clip laundry rack. If you dry lots of large herb bundles or flowers on the stem, it’s an efficient space saver and easy to use.
No matter how you lay the herbs out for drying, they need to be checked daily to ensure no moisture is accumulating. Turn or shuffle them each day and if they are in stacked containers, rotate the stack daily.
Can You Use a Dehydrator to Dry Herbs?
It’s possible to dry herbs in a dehydrator and it can speed up the process. I use a four tray Excalibur dehydrator and it does a fine job with herbs. Despite the speedy processing, it’s not my go-to herb drying method. It’s just too easy to cook the herbs instead of drying them, even on the lowest setting. Outside of the rare times I need dried herbs quickly, I prefer to use my drying rack.
If you do use a dehydrator, keep the temperature on the lowest setting (90-95 is usually recommended) and check your herbs frequently.
On the Excalibur, that’s 95 degrees but some models don’t have a thermostat. I’ve personally had the most success using the dehydrator for mid-sized, leafy herbs like basil or oregano. Larger leaves, like sage, can sometimes end up overdone before they get fully dry and tiny herbs, like thyme, get overcooked.
Another drawback to using a dehydrator is limited space. Even large dehydrators can’t hold big harvests of herbs. If you grow or process large quantities of herbs, air drying them is far more efficient
Drying flowers with a dehydrator
While I don’t use my Excalibur for herbs very often, it’s great for drying larger flowers, like calendula. Lay flowers face down in a single layer, then dry on the lowest setting. A dehydrator is great for drying flowers for culinary or medicinal use but since it can distort the petals, be cautious using it for ornamental purposes.
Drying flowers by pressing them
If your only purpose in drying a flower is to preserve it for sentimental reasons, you can use this method. Put the flowers or flower parts in between pieces of tissue paper, then slide the paper between the pages of a heavy book. Close the book and put something heavy on it, like another book. In a few months, you’ll have a dried, flattened flower. This is a great method for preserving single, small flowers that are relatively flat, like violets or pansies. Be sure to mark the location of your flowers in the book and don’t use a valuable or favored tome. Drying and pressing flowers is a great way to make use of an old encyclopedia set, for example.
Using sand to dry flowers
Fine sand keeps petals from curling, so it’s a great way to dry flowers with large petals that you want to preserve intact. Fill a shallow container with fine sand, then lay the flower or petals on the sand. Flatten the flower or petals gently, or otherwise arrange them as you want them to look dried. Very carefully spoon sand over the flowers or petals, carefully filling each crevice. Use only enough sand to weigh down the petals – too much sand can smash the delicate tissue.
Can you dry herbs in the oven?
You can dry herbs or flowers in the oven. One big advantage in using the oven is that you can dry a LOT of herbs all at once. Unfortunately, it is very, very easy to cook them instead of drying them, especially if your oven doesn’t have a “keep warm” setting.
For comparison, my oven’s lowest setting is 175. My excalibur dehydrator tops out below that at its highest setting. The recommended setting for drying herbs is around 90-95 degrees, which is very hard to achieve in an oven.
Drying herbs in the oven
If you opt for the oven, use the lowest possible temperature setting and check your herbs every few minutes. One of my favorite garden bloggers, Garden Betty, suggests preheating the oven to the lowest possible temperature, putting in the herbs and then turning the oven off. I don’t routinely use that technique to dry herbs but I do use it to dry herb salts and it works great.
The important thing to remember about using the oven to dry herbs is that ovens get very warm, even on their lowest settings. That means it doesn’t take much to bake herbs and turn them into tasteless dust. There’s also no air circulation, which means the only thing removing moisture from herbs in the oven is heat.
The Herb Drying Process
This is the easy part! Simply put the trays or hang the bunches somewhere out of direct sunlight and wait. The drying area needs to have a good air flow and not be damp or cold. If you don’t have an area with good air circulation, use an electric fan.
How to Tell When Herbs Have Finished Drying
Some herbs make it very easy to see if they’ve dried fully. Leafy herbs, like basil, will shrink and shrivel, and the absence of moisture will be pretty obvious. Small leafy herbs, like thyme, can be more challenging, especially if they’ve been stripped from the stem. The best way to judge is to pick up a leaf or a small pinch and rub it between your thumb and forefinger. See if it crumbles quickly and easily. If so, the herbs are fully dried. If there’s any resistance or if you feel even a hint of moisture afterwards, give them another day and check again.
How Long Does It Take Herbs to Dry
The smaller the plant part, the faster it will dry. Large bundles or bigger sections of plant will take longer to dry fully. Depending on the environmental conditions, some herbs may be fully dried in just a day or two, while other may take a week or more. If your herbs don’t show a visible decrease in volume after 24 hours or if the plants feel damp, their location may be too humid for drying. Try moving them somewhere less damp or put them near a fan (on low setting).
Want to know more about herbs? Add some of these excellent herb books to your library
Can you dry any herb or flower?
Yes. But although any herb will dry, some will become so flavorless that it’s hardly worth the effort. Herbs like basil, parsley, and chives become bland copies of their former selves. To preserve herbs like those, try freezing them instead. Follow the same process for harvesting and processing the fresh herbs, then lay the herbs in a single layer and freeze for a few hours. Store in a bag or jar in the freezer and use like fresh herbs. They will lose most of their texture once thawed but the flavor will be great. Because they’ll be mushy, it’s best to use frozen herbs within cooked dishes, rather than as a garnish.
Rosemary, thyme, oregano, mints, marjoram, tarragon and lavender are just a few herbs that hold onto their flavors when dried. Drying herbs is a great way to preserve them but check out these other ways to use up (and preserve!) extra herbs.
You can dry any flower but very tiny flowers or very large flowers can be more difficult to dry and use effectively.
How to store dried herbs and flowers
If you’ve put in all that effort to dry herbs, the last thing you want is for them to get stale or breakdown from sunlight.
Put your herbs and flowers into an airtight container once they are completely dry. Store them out of direct sunlight or in opaque containers.
The best containers for storing dried herbs
I use glass jars, either canning jars or repurposed commercial jars to store my dried herbs. It’s a great way to reuse single-use grocery store jars and I can clearly see how much is left.
Other storage options include canisters or reusable food storage containers, or even plastic baggies.
During the first couple of weeks, open the jars every day or so and let the herbs breathe for a few minutes. That will ensure the herbs stay fresh and flavorful.
Dried herbs, if stored correctly, will still be flavorful even years later. They will likely have lost some of their flavor and may not be as powerful for medicinal purposes. If the herbs have little to no aroma, they’re likely past their prime and although they’ll be safe to consume, they’ll be pretty flavorless.
How to use dried herbs?
I’ve been asked this question often enough that I decided to add it to the original post. It makes sense to ask how what you can actually do with dried herbs before you put in the work to dry and store them. In general, you can use any dried herb as a substitute for its fresh counterpart. Dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor, so you will generally use a small amount.
There are a few times when dried herbs are actually a better choice than fresh herbs. Any time you want to add herbal flavor without adding moisture, use dried herbs. One great example of this is making vinaigrette or other very wet sauces. Dried herbs help stabilize the mixture and add some structure, while fresh herbs can water it down.
Dried herbs are also useful for rubs. They adhere more readily to the surface of meat or vegetables than fresh herbs. Finally, dried herbs can be a better choice for sprinkling over some finished foods. Think a light shake of dried oregano and basil on pizza. There’s nothing wrong with using fresh herbs for that, necessarily, but sometimes the texture can be jarring or the flavors too sharp.
And, of course, dried herbs are a great substitute for their fresh counterparts during the winter season. While nothing beats fresh herbs, the next best thing is herbs you picked and dried at the peak of their freshness!
Using dried herbs and flowers to make herb oil, tea and infusions
If you want to make herb infused oils for long term storage, use dried herbs. Fresh herbs are not shelf-stable in oils and can lead to mold or botulism growth. You CAN use fresh herbs to flavor oils, but the infusion process must be done quickly, with the herbs strained out completely. The finished oil should be used at once or stored in the freezer. This post has more about Making Fresh Herb Oil.
Dried herbs are also perfect for making tea or infusions. Use hot but not boiling water and allow plenty of time for the herbs to steep. And you can use dried herbs to make herb infused syrup, instead of fresh.
Dried herbs and flower can also be added to soap or candles to provide visual appeal.
Drying Herbs and Flowers
Drying herbs and flowers is a great way to extend the summer season and stock your pantry and medicine chest. It’s pretty easy to dry flowers and herbs, even if you don’t have a lot of room or special equipment. Now that you know how to dry herbs and flowers, you can maximize your garden or visits to the local farmers market.
Do you dry herbs and flowers? Have you tried any of these techniques? Let me hear from you in the comments! Or maybe you have questions about how to dry herbs or flowers – if so, post them below or shoot me an email.
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