So. You've collected an armful of fresh herbs, shaken out the spiders, twigs and dead leaves, and hung them in the kitchen to dry. What comes next? Aside from the pleasant smell emanating from that suspended bundle, you won't reap much benefit if you can't convert your herbs into some usable form.
But don’t fret. Remember, herbalism is a simple art. You don’t need complex paraphernalia to make herbal medicines. Before you get started, though, you should collect a few basic supplies:
- Measuring cups
- Porcelain, glass, or stainless steel teapot and saucepans
- Electric blender (handy for mixing and emulsifying fresh plant preparations)
- Coffee bean grinder (good for powdering dried herbs)
- Glass jars with tight-fitting lids
- Fine-mesh sieve and either undyed cotton muslin cloth, fresh cheesecloth, or unbleached coffee filters
- Spatulas and spoons (stainless steel or plastic are best)
- Kitchen scale
As you become more adept at your craft, you may find additional equipment or supplies helpful.
Make an Infusion
An infusion is simply a tea. Unlike the insipid teas you buy in the store, however, herbal infusions that are intended for medicinal use require substantial portions of raw material. For dried herbs, place two tablespoonfuls of cut, powdered or crushed leaves or flowers in a cup, add boiling water, cover, and let brew for 10 minutes. Double the amount – four tablespoonfuls – if you’re using fresh herbs. Strain through a coffee filter. (Alternatively, you can pack the herbs into a tea-strainer and pour boiling water over it, but a firmly-packed strainer sometimes doesn’t allow sufficient circulation around the herbs.) You have just made a simple herbal infusion, with all of its attendant medicinal properties. Infusions have a very short shelf life and must be used the same day they are made. Standard dose for an infusion is one cupful 2 to 5 times daily.
Some plants, such as slippery elm, become mucilaginous in hot water. They are best prepared in fresh, cold water, and they should be allowed to steep for 6 to 12 hours before being used.
Make a Decoction
A decoction is simply a strong infusion. Decoctions can be made from the aerial parts of herbs, but they are often made from roots and seeds, where volatile oils and other active ingredients are more highly concentrated and/or more difficult to extract. Place two tablespoonfuls of dried – four tablespoonfuls of fresh – root, seeds, or bark into a saucepan with 1 ½ cups fresh, cold water. Bring to a boil on medium heat; lower heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and use as you would an infusion. Decoctions will keep up to two days if refrigerated, but they should be discarded if not used within that time.
Make A Syrup from a Decoction
If you continue to simmer a decoction over low heat until it has boiled down to about ½ or even ¼ of its original volume, you have made an herbal concentrate. Herbal concentrates are then used to make syrups. To each pint of concentrate, add 3 – 4 tablespoons each of honey and vegetable glycerin. Syrups, which are good for coughs, sore throats and laryngitis will store in the refrigerator for up to a year. Take one teaspoonful every one to four hours as needed.
Make a Tincture
There are a couple of methods for making herbal tinctures, both of which require alcohol (that’s the definition of a tincture, after all). For the first method, pour one ounce of dried, powdered herb (powder your herbs in a coffee blender that you don’t use for your coffee) and one pint of 80 to 100 proof alcohol – vodka, gin, brandy, etc. – into a glass jar, cap tightly and shake. For the second method, combine two cups of fresh herb and a pint of alcohol in a blender, blend until the herb is completely pulped, and then pour into a glass jar. Cap tightly.
For both methods, place the jar in a cool, darkened area. Shake the herb-alcohol mixture vigorously twice daily for two weeks. At the end of that period, strain the mix through a clean muslin cloth, squeeze the excess liquid from the cloth, and discard the leftover herbal mass in your compost heap. Keep the tincture (the liquid portion) in a tightly-covered jar – preferably amber-colored – in a cool place. A tincture will keep for several years if it's properly stored. The usual dose is 1 to 4 milliliters (30 to 120 drops) three to five times daily. If the alcohol content in your tincture is problematic, simply trickle the dosage into ½ cup of boiling water, allow it to stand for ten minutes, and drink. The alcohol will be gone!
Other popular (and useful) herbal preparations include liniments, glycerites, salves, oil infusions, suppositories, poultices and compresses. We’ll cover those in a future post. For now, enjoy experimenting with the herbs you’ve gathered!