Packaging Fresh Herbs
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Hitesh Jain
Posted on: April 7, 2001

I am a research analyst with the Agriculture Technical Information Service, which is a program offered by the National Research Council-IRAP.

I am writing a report on herb handling and packaging. I am emailing you in hopes that you might provide me with some information. I am interested in packaging fresh, live herbs with the roots still attached. Such packaging would increase shelf-life. I have conducted an extensive literature search with little success.

I would like to know what are some of the factors to consider when attempting to package herbs with their roots? Should the roots have access to a nutrient solution? What kind of nutrient solution would work best? What kind of packaging material should be used?

Any information (contacts, publications, past experiences, etc) that you can provide would be extremely useful. Thank you very much for your time and help.

I assume you are asking about culinary herbs that are typically sold in fresh-cut form in fresh produce stores and supermarkets.

I am not aware of any attempt to sell herbs in quite this way, where the roots are deliberately left on the plants in order to increase shelf life. Cilantro (coriander leaf) is sold in bundles with the roots intact, partly because it is easier to harvest the young plants that way and partly because the foliage lasts longer. But the roots are shipped bare without a source of moisture or nutrients.

The closest example to what you propose is a lettuce product that was marketed in southern Ontario called "Living Lettuce". This was a hydroponically grown leaf lettuce that was packaged in plastic with the roots tied up in a ball with a little of the peat-based growing medium attached. This "ball" was moist and obviously supplied moisture to the lettuce plant so that the leaves remained turgid (firm). I gathered that the plants were simply uprooted and inserted in the plastic wrapper and the root ball was then tied with an elastic band to keep the growing medium from shaking over the leaves.

This product met with some success in the Toronto-area marketed as a premium-priced high quality product. The leaves were clean, perfectly formed, and firm, and, the product was claimed to be free of chemical pesticides. I do not know if this product is still on the market, but I do recall that the "Living Lettuce" concept was at one point franchised to growers.

Could herbs be sold in similar fashion? In theory all herbs could, but that is not the point. What is essential is whether a roots-intact approach would extend the shelf life enough to warrant the additional cost of packaging. In the case of some herbs, the answer is probably yes, but in others the answer is no. Some of the woodier herbs such as rosemary and thyme probably would not benefit, while some of the more tender varieties such as basil, dillweed, and chives may well benefit. In many cases, selling the fresh herb with roots is not practical from a harvesting point of view or from an economic point of view. Tarragon, for example, would be a poor choice for this form of marketing. Tarragon roots are expensive to establish because seeds are not available, and propagation is done by cuttings or root division. To determine which herbs can be grown and marketed profitably with intact roots will require case-by-case analysis and experimentation. I am not aware of any such research done on this problem.

As for whether a nutrient solution is required for longevity, my sense is that nutrients will have little effect on shelf life. The key is water -- to maintain leaf turgidity. As long as the product is away from sun or growing lights, the plants will not grow much anyway, so nutrients will not be needed to support growth. The "Living Lettuce" example provided the perfect source of water by packing a small amount of growing medium with each root ball.

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