As summer begins to wane, we begin to harvest what we have sown. Lammas, or Lughnasadh, celebrated on August 1, honors the first harvest. Perhaps all summer you've been growing fruits, vegetables, or a little herb garden. You can't wait to share your bounty with others. But before you put your harvest to use… how do you appropriately gather that which you've tended for so long, in a way that will honor its sacrifice?
I always look to the pros for advice. One of the best-loved Wiccan authors, Scott Cunningham, was truly on one wavelength with herbs. He wrote numerous books on how to interact and make magic with plants, herbs, foods, oils, incenses, and more. He put years into formulating specific instructions on the actual gathering of herbs.
In Magical Herbalism, Cunningham suggests you gather herbs at night, fasting three hours beforehand. Wear clean clothing and go barefoot. Draw a circle clockwise around the plant with your magical knife. Then hold the knife to the herb, and declare your intentions. Cunningham suggests the following, or something similar: "Thou has grown by favor of the Sun, the Moon, and of the dew. I make this intercession, ye herb: I beseech thee to be of benefit to me and my Art, for thy virtues are unfailing. Thou art the dew of all the Gods, the eye of the Sun, the light of the moon, the beauty and glory of the Sky, the mystery of the Earth. I purify thee so that whatsoever is wrought by me with thee may, in all its powers, have a good and speedy effect with good success. Be purified by my prayer and be powerful." Then gently cut a few sprigs, or whatever part of the plant you need. He recommends taking at most 25% of the growth so that the plant can recover afterwards. Then bury a small piece of bread near the plant as an offering, an exchange of energies.
Everything you gather should be put directly into a cloth bag; Cunningham believes that once they have touched the ground, the plant's leaves, flowers, and so forth will be of no use in magical operations. He also cautions, as do many other authors, that they must not come in contact with iron.
Magical Herbalism was written more than 25 years ago and is still a great resource for anyone wishing to delve into these arts; it's deservedly a classic. However, if you're looking for a fresher approach, turn to Herb Magic for Beginners by Ellen Dugan. As a Master Gardener, Dugan has really devoted herself to all things growing, and has been practicing witchcraft for more than twenty years. Her approach is more practical and less verbose than Cunningham's. For example, when gathering the herbs, forget all the thous and thees. She speaks to the herb in plain English, saying something like, "I gather this herb for a magic spell, bringing harm to none. May it turn out well."
Also, she offers dos and don'ts when gathering live herbs for magical use. Some of the dos include: use a sharp knife or a pair of garden scissors, cut the leaves or stem cleanly, pay back the plant with fertilizer and care, leave the area looking better than you found it, and take the smallest amount of plant material necessary (she says less than one eighth of the plant). Some don'ts? Don't snitch flowers and herbs from someone else's, or a public, garden. Don't break or twist off stems or twigs, but cut them away cleanly. Don't gather wildflowers or plants from a park, as they may be a protected species or provide a protected habitat to animals. And my favorite? "Don't skulk around in the dark; this will not add to your mystique. Because you can't see what you're doing, you could gather the wrong plant or nip a finger."
Probably the safest way to avoid any problems here is to only gather what you yourself have planted in your garden, for your own magical uses. If you do prefer to gather herbs at dark, just make sure you do so carefully!
And remember, as with all magical operations, intention is key. If your demeanor and intent are honorable, compassionate, and respectful toward the herb, you can't go wrong. Take a few moments to connect with the herb, acknowledge its sacrifice for you, and empower it with purpose.