Most people have no idea how to make use of a plants medicinal properties. They think it is much too difficult, or magical, and they would never be able to do it. I will let you in on a little secret, if you have ever made a cup of tea, you have made an herbal preparation.
Wintergreen became widely recognized as an effective pain management tea during the Revolutionary War. After the colonists dressed up as Indians, boarded the merchant ships in Boston harbor, and dumped all of the tea into the harbor, they turned to the widely available wintergreen plant. They brewed a fine tasting tea which had the added benefit of reducing pain and fever. Talk about two birds with one stone...
I know you are sitting there reading this thinking “that was a great story Kirk, but how does it help me?” Well my future medicine maker, it means you need not worry about making healthful herbal preparations. With a little knowledge, and a few basic tools, you can turn your kitchen into a makeshift apothecary. The first things we need to look at are the types of preparations.
(Using fresh or dried herbs) This is by far the easiest method of making use of the health benefits of a plant. All you need to do is place a small amount of fresh or dried herb into a cup. I usually use a teaspoon of most dried herbs, and a tablespoon of most fresh herbs. Then heat water until it is just about at a boil, and pour it over the leaves. Allow this to steep for 10 or 20 minutes, strain and enjoy your healthful tea. You can add more or less herb to suit your taste. If you have a sweet tooth like I do, then I might also recommend a little locally grown organic honey.
Infusions are made using mineral rich food type herbs such as Stinging Nettle, and Dandelion, etc. To make your healthful infusion, you simply place 2 ounces of the fresh herb, or 1 ounce of dried, into a quart mason jar, and fill the jar with almost boiling water. Cover the jar, and let it sit for 8 to 10 hours. It is usually recommended that you make your infusions at night, then you can enjoy them the next day. If refrigerated, the infusion will last a day or two.
One would make a decoction from fresh or dried roots, barks, berries, or seeds. This method is not used for aromatic herbs, as the essential oils will be lost when the water is brought to a boil. Place 2 ounces of fresh, or 1 ounce of dried material into a pan. Add 1 quart of water, and bring to a boil. Continue to boil over medium heat, stirring periodically, until reduced by half. Cool the mixture, and strain and drink.
Steam inhalations are used to break up sinus congestion, and ease head colds. To make your steam inhalation, take a couple ounces of fresh aromatic herbs like wintergreen, peppermint, spearmint, eucalyptus, lavender, etc., into a sauce pan. Add water, and bring to a gentle simmer. Remove the pan from the heat. Be careful, it will be very hot. Place a towel over your head, and place your head over the pan, and inhale the soothing vapors.
A poultice is an external application of macerated leaves or berries applied to an effected area of the body. In my opinion, the best poultice is still made the old fashioned way; by taking the leaves and or berries into your mouth, and chewing them into a paste. Your saliva actually has antiseptic properties which will aid in the healing power of the poultice. It is however important to remember that only your own saliva may be used. If you are treating someone else, their saliva must be used. Just as you would not spit in someone's eye, you should never spit in their cut. My favorite poultice is made by chewing up a bunch of plantain leaves, and applying the paste to the skin. Use a bandage, or a piece of gauze to hold the macerated material in place until it dries out. Examine the area, and reapply if necessary. A poultice can also be made by adding the herb and a small amount of oil to a blender, and pureeing to form a paste. This paste is then bandaged over the affected area. I like this method, because the oil does not dry out, and the poultice remains viable much longer. Transdermal delivery of herbs is much faster than taking them internally.
A compress is similar to a poultice in that an herb is applied topically. But unlike a poultice, it does not use macerated whole fresh or dried plant material. To make a compress, one would soak a piece of gauze, cotton ball, or some other material with tinctured, decocted, or infused plant materials, and secure it to the affected area with a bandage. This can be used as often as you like. Change it as needed, or at the very least, twice daily. To make an infusion to treat a cut or skin abrasion, I would suggest adding equal parts Arnica and Plantain plantain to a pint of water; bring it to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Next soak a rag in the tea, and apply it directly to the affected area. When the cloth is dried out, rewet and reapply as needed.
A fomentation is very similar to a compress. The difference lies in the fact that the infusion, decoction, or tincture used is much more diluted than that of a compress. To make the fomentation, soak a cloth in the diluted medium. Apply to affected area, and replace every 5 - 10 minutes.
A soak is just as the name implies. You fill a tub large enough to soak the effected area, with water and an herbal infusion, decoction, or tincture. You then soak the effected body part. You can also soak your bottom in a sitz bath, or use the bathtub to soak your entire body. This is an excellent remedy for tired, achy, sore muscles, or even strains and sprains.
You can purchase infused oils in the grocery store. Many of use use them all the time when we cook. I love using garlic infused olive oil for my pasta sauces. Making your own medicinally infused oils follow the same logic. the medicinal properties of the herb are infused into the oil of your choice. I normally use almond, sunflower, olive, or vegetable oil.
Natural Solar infusion method: Chop well 2 ounces of fresh herb or root (or again 1 ounce of dried) and place it in a blender. Next add 5 ounces of the oil of your choice, and pulse the blender five or six times to completely mix the herb and oil. Now pour this mixture into a pint size wide mouth mason jar, cover, and place in a sunny spot for a month or so. Strain your oil, and store in the refrigerator until needed.
The kitchen infusion method: (The one I always use) Chop well 2 ounces of fresh herb or root (or again 1 ounce of dried) and place it in a blender. Next add 5 ounces of the oil of your choice, and pulse the blender five or six times to completely mix the herb and oil. Pour the mixture into a double boiler, or a small crock pot, and simmer over the lowest heat setting for the better part of a day. Strain your oil, and store in the refrigerator until needed.
When straining my infused oils, I place a coffee filter into a fine metal sieve, and set the sieve over a glass bowl. I then pour the mixture into the strainer, and let it sit until all the oil has drained. Once it appears that it has completely drained, you will notice that there is much less than the 5 ounces of oil you started with. I usually take a large wooded spoon, or something else heavy, and pack the mixture into the strainer. I am always surprised how much oil is still released from the plant material.
Infused oils are turned into ointments and salves. In a medium saucepan, heat your previously prepared infused oil over low heat. When the oil is hot enough, stir in 1 teaspoon of grated bees wax per ounce of oil. When the wax is completely dissolved, dip the back of a clean cold spoon into the mixture. Allow it to cool and solidify. If the ointment is too hard, add more oil, if it is too soft, add more bees wax, until you reach your desired consistency. After a discussion with a local herbalist concerning the benefits of adding Lanolin to ointments, I have begun adding it to all of my ointments. I love the luxurious texture, and soothing effect it has on the skin.
A tincture is an herbal extraction made by soaking a fresh or dried herb in a alcohol, also called a menstrum. Not only is the alcohol meant as a means to extract the medicinal properties of the plant, it is also used to preserve your medicinal tincture.
The alcohol content of your menstrum is very important to the final product. What proof you use depends upon the type of plant material you are using. If you are using fresh plants material, you should use the highest percentage alcohol you can find. The reason for this is tow fold; first of all, many plants contain resinous constituents that are not readily soluble in a low alcohol percentage menstrum; and finally, as the curative properties of the fresh plant material are extracted, so too is the water contained within the cells. In many cases this will greatly effect the ratio of ethanol to water. Everclear, which is 95% alcohol, is perfect for fresh or slightly wilted plant material. To ensure my tinctures are of the highest quality and efficacy, I will typically use the highest percentage alcohol I can find. However, if you find the high cost of 95% alcohol prohibitive, and you are tincturing a plant that is not resinous in nature, you can use 100 proof Vodka. It contains 50% alcohol, and even after the water is leached from the plant material, the alcohol content will still be over 40%. This level is sufficient to preserve your tinctures. Due to its lack of water, if you are using a dried, low resin, plant material, you can use 80 proof, or 40% ethanol. I have read accounts where fresh plant material was tinctured in 80 proof alcohol, and it resulted in a tincture that was just over 30% alcohol. This is not a high enough percentage to properly preserve the tincture. In most cases properly made tinctures will last for years, but as the alcohol content goes down, so too does the shelf life.
I realize there may be some out there who, for one reason or another, may not use alcohol. To allay your fears, you are not doing a shot of tincture. You are making a medicine that is administered by the drop, with an average dosage being 20 - 30 drops. Imagine putting 20 drops of a mixture 50% alcohol into a shot glass; that amount is negligible. Even most religions allow for the use of alcohol in medicinal preparations. If however you are still against using alcohol, vinegar or glycerin can also be used as a menstrum. I do not feel the resulting preparation are of the same efficacy as al alcohol tincture, but many people swear by them. I should also point out that these preparations cannot be considered tinctures, as a tincture by definition uses a alcohol as a menstrum.
For demonstration purposes, I will talk you through creating a Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica tincture as a general health tonic. The medicinal actions of Stinging Nettle are Alterative, Antiarthritic, Anticatarrhal, Anti-Inflammatory, Antirheumatic, Astringent, Depurative, Diuretic, Immunostimulant, Pectoral, Tonic.
We begin by gathering a large ziplock bag full of Stinging Nettles. Transfer the herb to a cutting board, or food processor, and chop them well. I have even mixed the plant with a small amount of menstrum in a blender and blended it until completely incorporated. Doing this creates more surface area from which the menstrum can leach the curative properties. Completely fill a quart mason jar with the chopped leaves, being sure to pack them in well. Next fill the mason jar to the top with the highest percentage alcohol you can get. Yes, it is possible to completely fill the same jar twice. Take a fork, and press the Stinging Nettles down to release any air bubbles. Top off the vodka, so it fills to the rim and seal the jar. Place the tincture in a cool dark place. After the first 24 hours, check the jar, and fill as needed. Just like with a fine Scotch, it always seems as though the fairies take their share the first day. Shake the jar once a day for the first 7 days. Let your tincture sit in that cool dark place for a minimum of six weeks. Strain, and bottle. You now have a wonderfully curative general health tonic. The resulting deep green tincture will be a ratio of 1:2.
You can also tincture dried plant material. The procedure is similar, although you do not fill the jar with the dried plant material. When tincturing dried materials, I begin by powdering the material as best as I can. Remember, more surface area results in a better tincture. I then weigh out 5 oz of dried plant material and add it to a mason jar. I then pour in 750 ml of 95% alcohol Everclear. It will require you to pour in part of the Everclear and then stir the jar to ensure there are no dry spots. This will allow you to pour the rest of the menstrum into the jar. Next seal the jar and place it in a dark cupboard. make sure to shake it well every day to ensure no plant material settles to the bottom. In about 3 -4 weeks you will have a great 1:5 ratio tincture.
A liniment is a tincture made with isopropanol, isopropyl rubbing alcohol, as the menstrum rather than the ethanol. This is toxic, and can only be used as an external rub. If you choose to make a liniment, make sure to label it "FOR EXTERNAL USE ONLY". Liniments are used to soothe tired sore muscles. A liniment made from capsicum and wintergreen or capsicum and willow or black birch bark is an excellent topical rub for arthritis.
I will let you in on a little secret, an ethanol tincture applied topically has the same efficacy as an isopropanol liniment. It does not however, have the inherent toxicity of isopropanol. While it is a few dollars cheaper than the least expensive ethanol, those few dollars are not worth a possible mistake which has the potential to end in death. I would counsel you to spend a few extra bucks and make tinctures for topical application rather than run into a potential problem with isopropanol.
A syrup is a method of using a medicinal herb that is sweet and pleasurable. Children are much more receptive to taking their medications if they taste good. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize adults are not much different. Who among us, when given the choice, would choose to take something bitter over something sweet?
I think the best way to describe a syrup is to give you a recipe. The following information will help you make a delicious cough syrup from mullein flowers. Start by gathering the individual ripe flowers from a mullein flower stalk. You will find that not all flowers bloom at the same time, so it will be necessary to harvest flowers from a large number of plants. While this is initially considered a pain, it also allows you to harvest from the same plants multiple times in a season. Using a pint mason jar, fill the bottom with about ½ inch of white sugar. Nest add about ½ inch of packed mullein flowers, then add another ½ inch of white sugar. Continue with this process until the jar is filled with alternating layers of sugar and flowers. Make sure the top layer is white sugar. After the jar is full, cap it, and place it in a sunny location for a month. After straining out the spent flower petals, you will be left with an amber colored syrup that is both delicious and highly effective.
You now have the necessary information to begin reaping the benefits of the natural world around us.