This article is by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal
Herbs can be used in many different ways. Simplest of all is nibbling on the fresh plant, crushing the leaves to apply them as a poultice or perhaps boiling up some leaves as a tea. Many of these plants are foods as well as medicines, and incorporating them seasonally into your diet is a tasty and enjoyable way to improve your health. But because fresh herbs aren’t available year-round or may not grow right on your doorstep, you may want to preserve them for later use. Follow these guidelines.
You don’t need any special equipment for making your own herbal medicines. You probably already have most of what you need. Kitchen basics like a teapot, measuring cups, saucepans and a blender are all useful, as are jam-making supplies such as a jelly bag and jam jars. A mortar and pestle are useful but not essential. You’ll need jars and bottles, and labels for these. It is a good idea to have a notebook to write down your experiences, so that you’ll have a record for yourself and can repeat successes. Who knows, it could become a future family heirloom, like the stillroom books of old!
The simplest way to preserve a plant is to dry it, and then use the dried part to make teas (infusions or decoctions). Dried plant material can also go into tinctures, infused oils and other preparations, though these are often made directly from fresh plants. To dry herbs, tie them in small bundles and hang these from the rafters or a laundry airer, or spread the herbs on a sheet of brown paper or a screen. (Avoid using newspaper as the inks contain toxic chemicals.) You can easily make your own drying screen by stapling some mosquito netting or other open-weave fabric to a wooden frame. This is ideal, as the air can circulate around the plant, and yet you won’t lose any small flowers or leaves that are loose. Generally, plants are best dried out of the sun. A linen cupboard works well, particularly in damp weather.
Storing dried herbs
Once the plant is crisply dry, you can discard any large stalks. Whole leaves and flowers will keep best, but if they are large you may want to crumble them so they take up less space. They will be easier to measure for teas, etc., if they are crumbled before use.
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Dried herbs can be stored in brown paper bags or in airtight containers, such as candy jars or plastic tubs, in a cool place. If your container is made of clear glass or other transparent material, keep it in the dark, as light will fade leaves and flowers quite quickly. Brown glass jars are excellent—we have happily worked our way through quantities of hot chocolate in order to build up a collection of these!
Dried herbs will usually keep for a year, until you can replace them with a fresh harvest. Note that roots and bark keep longer than leaves and flowers.
Teas: infusions and decoctions
The simplest way to make a plant extract is with hot water. Either fresh or dried herbs can be used. An infusion—where hot water is poured over the herb and left to steep for several minutes—is the usual method for leaves and flowers.
A decoction, where the herb is simmered or boiled in water for some time, is needed for roots and bark. Infusions and decoctions can also be used as mouthwashes, gargles, eyebaths, fomentations and douches.
While the term tincture can refer to any liquid extract of a plant, what is usually meant is an alcohol and water extract. Many plant constituents dissolve more easily in a mixture of alcohol and water than in pure water. There is the added advantage of the alcohol being a preservative, allowing the extract to be kept for several years. The alcohol content of the finished extract needs to be at least 20% to adequately preserve it. Most commercially produced tinctures have a minimum alcohol content of 25%. A higher concentration is needed to extract more resinous substances, such as myrrh resin.
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For making your own tinctures, vodka is the simplest alcohol, as it can be used neat, has no flavor and allows the taste of the herbs to come through. If you can get pure grain alcohol (95%), it can be diluted as needed. Whisky, brandy or rum can also be used. Herbs can also be infused in wine, but this will not have as long a shelf life.
To make a tincture, you simply fill a jar with the herb and top it up with alcohol—or you can put the whole lot in the blender first. The mixture is then kept out of the light for anything from a day to a month to infuse before being strained and bottled.
Tinctures are convenient to store and to take. We find amber or blue glass jars best for keeping, although clear bottles will let you enjoy the colors of your tinctures.
Store them in a cool place. Kept properly, most tinctures will have an average shelflife of around five years. They are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, and alcohol makes the herbal preparation more heating and dispersing in its effect.
Wines and beers
Many herbs can be brewed into wines and beers, which will retain the medicinal virtues of the plants.
Elderberry wine and nettle beer are traditional examples, but don’t forget that ordinary beer is brewed with hops, a medicinal plant.
Vegetable glycerine is extracted from palm or other oil, and is a sweet, syrupy substance. It is particularly good in making medicines for children and for soothing preparations intended for the throat and digestive tract, or coughs. A glycerite will keep well as long as the concentration of glycerine is at least 50% to 60% in the finished product.
Glycerine does not extract most plant constituents as well as alcohol does, but it is effective for flowers such as red poppies, roses and St. John’s wort. Glycerites are made the same way as tinctures, except the jar is kept in the sun or in a warm place to infuse.
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Glycerine is a good preservative for fresh plant juices, in which half fresh plant juice and half glycerine are mixed, as it keeps the juice green and in suspension better than alcohol. This sort of preparation is called a succus.
Another way to extract and preserve plant material is to use vinegar. Some plant constituents extract better in an acidic medium, making vinegar the perfect choice. Herbal vinegars are often made from pleasant-tasting herbs and are used in salad dressings and for cooking. They are also a good addition to the bath or for rinsing hair, as the acetic acid of the vinegar helps restore the natural protective acid pH of the body’s exterior. Cider vinegar is a remedy for colds and other viruses, so it is a good solvent for herbs for these conditions.
Honey has natural antibiotic and antiseptic properties, so it is an excellent vehicle for medicines to fight infection. It can be applied topically to wounds and burns. Local honey can help prevent hay fever attacks.
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Honey is naturally sweet, making it palatable for medicines for children. It is also particularly suited to medicines for the throat and respiratory system, as it is soothing and also clears congestion. Herb-infused honeys are made the same way as glycerites, or they can be gently heated in a bain-marie (double-boiler).
An oxymel is a preparation of honey and vinegar. Oxymels were once popular as cordials, both in Middle Eastern as well as European traditions. They are particularly good for cold and flu remedies. Honey can be added to an herb-infused vinegar, or an infused honey can be used as well.
These are made by stirring powdered dried herbs into honey or glycerine to make a paste. Electuaries are good as children’s remedies, and they are often used to soothe the digestive tract. This is also a good way to prepare tonic herbs.
Syrups are made by boiling the herb with sugar and water. The sugar acts as a preservative and can help extract the plant material. Syrups generally keep well, especially the thicker ones containing more sugar, as long as they are stored in sterilized bottles. They are particularly suitable for children because of their sweet taste and are generally soothing.
While we are not recommending large amounts of sugar as being healthy, herbal sweets such as coltsfoot rock and peppermints are a traditional way of taking herbs in a pleasurable way.
Plant essences, usually flower essences, differ from other herbal preparations in that they only contain the vibrational energy of the plant and none of the plant chemistry. To make an essence, the flowers or other plant parts are usually put in water in a glass bowl and left to infuse in the sun for a couple of hours. This essence is then preserved with brandy and diluted for use.
Oil is mostly used to extract plants for external use on the skin, but infused oils can equally well be taken internally. Like vinegars, they are good in salad dressings and in cooking. We prefer extra-virgin olive oil as a base, as it does not go rancid like many polyunsaturated oils do. Other oils, such as coconut and sesame, may be chosen because of their individual characteristics. Infused oils are often called macerated oils and should not be confused with essential oils, which are aromatic oils isolated by distilling the plant material.
Ointments or salves
Ointments or salves are rubbed onto the skin. The simplest ointments are made by adding beeswax to an infused oil and heating until the beeswax has melted. The amount of wax needed will vary, depending on the climate or temperature in which it will be used, with more wax needed in hotter climates or weather. Ointments made this way have a very good shelf life. They absorb well, while providing a protective layer on top of the skin. Ointments can also be made with animal fats or hard plant fats such as cocoa butter.
Butters and ghees
Butter can be used instead of oil to extract herbs, and, once clarified by simmering, it keeps well without refrigeration, making a simple ointment. Clarified butter is a staple in Indian cooking and medicine, where it is called ghee. It is soothing on the skin and absorbs well. Herbal butters and ghees can also be used as food.
Creams are made by mixing a water-based preparation with an oil-based one, to make an emulsion. Creams are absorbed into the skin more rapidly than ointments but have the disadvantages of being more difficult to make and not keeping as well. Essential oils can be added to help preserve creams, and they keep best if refrigerated.
The simplest poultice is mashed fresh herb put onto the skin—as when you crush a ribwort leaf and apply it to a wasp sting. Poultices can be made from fresh herb juice mixed with slippery elm powder or simply flour, or from dried herb moistened with hot water or vinegar. Change the poultice every few hours and keep it in place with a bandage or band aid.
Fomentations or compresses
A fomentation or compress is an infusion or a decoction applied externally. Simply soak a flannel or bandage in the warm or cold liquid, and apply. Hot fomentations are used to disperse and clear, and are good for conditions as varied as backaches, joint pain, boils and acne. Hot fomentations need to be refreshed frequently once they cool down.
Cold fomentations can be used for inflammation or for headaches. Alternating hot and cold fomentations works well for sprains and other injuries.
Embrocations or liniments
Embrocations or liniments are used in massage, with the herbs in an oil or alcohol base, or a mixture of the two. Absorbed quickly through the skin, they can readily relieve muscle tension, pain and inflammation, and speed the healing of injuries.
Herbs can be added conveniently to bathwater by tying a sock or cloth full of dried or fresh herbs to the hot tap as you run the bath, or by adding a few cups of an infusion or decoction. Herbal vinegars and oils can also be added to bathwater, as can essential oils.
Besides full baths, hand and foot baths can be very effective, as can sitz or hip baths where only your bottom is in the water.
Herbal infusions or decoctions can be used once they have cooled as douches for vaginal infections or inflammation.
This article was published in the HERBAL REMEDIES™ #90 issue and reprinted with permission from “Backyard Medicine” by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal. Skyhorse Publishing; New York, NY; ©2009. To subscribe, click here.