Rosemary in pillowcase

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Recently, talking with visitors to Holt Wood about harvesting herbs, I found myself once again extolling the wonders of pillowcases. You might think this odd. Actually, there is no limit to the usefulness of pillowcases and I think they are an essential piece of kit for harvesting herbs. They provide exceptionally flexible containers for collecting plant materials, and offer many benefits. I simply could not survive without my collection of pillowcases, and I have accumulated quite a colourful range of them! I love that pillowcases are so extremely portable, one is easy to fold one up in your pocket but even half a dozen can be easily carried about. The pillowcase allows me to collect a significant quantity of herb just when plants are readily available. Of course, herbal gathering should always respect the environmental context and be limited to sustainable amounts. So herbal harvesting should only take place in areas where there are large populations of a particular plant and/or steps are taken to replant or replace any herbs taken. At Holt Wood we limit the amount taken from individual trees and shrubs, and we use coppicing and pollarding to make harvests possible on a cyclic basis from medicinal tress and shrubs.

Willow bark in pillowcase

Willow (Salix daphnoides) bark peelings

An infinitely useful container for harvesting herbs

I always take spare pillowcases with me for gathering at Holt Wood. When harvesting from willow or witch hazel, a well-stuffed pillowcase can hold up to 2 kg of fresh plant material such as leafy twigs. The ‘slip’ part of a pillowcase provides a handy mean to hook it over a convenient branch, leaving hands free to gather material. Or a pillowcase can be knotted onto a stick for easy carrying around.

More advantages 

As pillowcases are usually made from a woven polycotton or similar textile base, they breathe and this is most important when collecting fresh plants since decomposition rapidly sets in if moisture is allowed to linger. And, crucially, the pillowcase is largely impermeable to bugs. So the collected material can be transported home as it will last for a short while without too much deterioration. The material collected can then be readily emptied out to check for contaminants, damaged or unwanted parts and then it can be processed, often by shredding and drying. A clean pillowcase can be used for holding the sorted and shredded plant material. I also use pillowcases for gathering of cut branches for later peeling. The pillowcases turn out to be ideal for storing of shredded bark, though they must be filled only half full and regularly shaken and turned in order to ensure even drying. A crucial point is that pillowcases should always be labelled! This is particularly important for longer term storage. Small tags on string loops are quite effective closures and provide a simple label if marked with name of plant, part, date and location of harvest.

Cramp bark branches

Cramp bark (Viburnum opulus) cut branches

Further benefits

P1020581

Another crop of rosemary

Pillowcases are washable and reusable, just turn inside out to shake out bits of leaves and put in the washing machine on the hotter cycle of 60 degrees C or more to ensure bugs cannot survive. Pillowcases are readily available in many shapes and colours from the plain housewife version (which I prefer) to the luxurious. Pillowcases are cheap to buy, most supermarkets have them, or they could be readily made from your chosen material. I have been thinking about sourcing organic cotton and making some up – a task to add to my long list of ‘to do’s.  A pillowcase can provide many other benefits – use as a tool bag, temporary sun hat, first aid bandage in an emergency, substitute table cloth and more. I think a pillowcase could beat a brick for the infinite number of uses that are possible! Pillowcases are truly wonderful!