Herbal Medicine Making

Storing Dried Herbs

All dried herbs are sensitive to heat, light, oxygen and water. They should always be stored in a cool, dark, airtight and dry container. Amber glass jars are ideal, or at least glass jars stored in a cupboard. Paper or plastic bags are not airtight (remember if you can smell the herb through the bag then it is dissipating its force into the air). Also plastic has a tendency to emit fumes that will contaminate the herbs. Herbs should not be stored in tins because they may react with the metals and oxidize. No matter how well you store a dried herb it will slowly lose its potency and eventually become worthless. It is a good idea to date when you buy a herb and don’t use it after one year.

Making An Infusion

This is the easiest way to prepare herbs for use at home. It is the method used when preparing leaves, flowers and other soft parts of the plant.

Place 1 oz. (30 g.) of the dried herb or 3 oz. (90 g.) of the fresh herb in a china or glass pot and pour over 1 pint (500 mls.) of freshly boiled water. Cover and leave to stand for 10 mins. then strain off and drink. Lemon and honey may be added but don’t use milk.

If you are drinking this infusion for medicinal purposes then 1 pint per day is the correct amount for most herbs. The cooled infusion can also be used as a skin wash (on lint or cotton wool) e.g. for skin infections or inflammations; and as a mouth wash and gargle for sore throats, mouth ulcers and oral infections. The cooled infusion can also be used as an eye wash but do be sure to strain it thoroughly through a piece of gauze.

When you are combining 2 or more herbs in one infusion you would generally use equal parts of each to give a total of 1 oz. to 1 pint, unless otherwise indicated.

Decoction

This method is used when preparing roots, seeds, barks, stems and particularly thick or tough leaves. The proportions are the same as for the infusion (1 oz. to 1 pint) but the herb is placed in a glass, enamel or stainless steel pan, covered with the cold water and brought to a boil. Keeping the pan tightly covered allow it to simmer for 5 to 15 mins then strain off and drink.

You can use a decoction in all the same ways as an infusion, and the normal therapeutic dose is 1 pint per day. If you wish to make a preparation combining, let’s say, a root and a flower, then you would make a decoction of the root using 1 full pint of water but proportionately less herb and then use that decoction as the fluid to pour over the flower to make the infusion.

How to use an infusion or a decoction

  • As a tea for internal conditions.
  • As a skin wash for inflammations or infections.
  • As an eye wash – strained well through gauze.
  • As a douche or enema.
  • As a hair rinse for scalp conditions.
  • As a mouth wash or gargle for sore throats or mouth infections.
  • As a hand or foot bath.

Juice

This probably the most effective way to take herbs because you are getting absolutely all the goodness from the plant. Juices are made from fresh plants so are most appropriate when you are able to gather your own herbs in the country. A good juicer is essential: I recommend the Champion or the Norwalk. The main drawback with juices is that they oxidize very quickly and lose their potency. They can be preserved in the fridge for a few hours but the best way to preserve them for longer periods is to combine the juice with an equal part of glycerine (available from the drug store). This will give them a shelf life of around 6 months.

The dose of juice required will vary with different herbs and with different conditions but a general guideline is one 5 ml. teaspoon 2 – 3 times a day for the juice and glycerine mixture, or proportionately less for children.

Oils

Essential oils, expressed from the plant and steam distilled are both costly and difficult to make, requiring much expense and expertise. However, it is easy to make infused herbal oils which can be used in different skin applications.

Sterilize a glass jar by filling it with boiling water, then allow it to dry completely. Loosely pack the jar with freshly picked leaves or flowers, being sure to pick them when there is no dew or rain on them. Fill the jar to the brim with almond oil and leave it to stand on a window sill for 2 weeks, shaking and turning it daily. At the end of this period strain off the oil and store it in a tightly closed bottle in a cool dark place.

This type of preparation can be especially useful in treating various skin afflictions such as psoriasis and excema, and with the addition of different herbs, can be used for arthritis, shingles and so on.

Poultices and Compresses

These are used when you wish to apply a herb directly onto the skin, either to treat the skin itself or the part of the body just below the surface. They are especially useful in treating joint problems (e.g.. arthritis) because there is poor blood supply in a joint and so remedies given internally do not always reach their target tissue.

The main difference between a compresses and a poultice is that a compress may be applied hot or cold while a poultice implies the use of heat. Thus, for example, a cold compress might be employed in the treatment of excema, bruises or varicose veins while a poultice would be more appropriate for rheumatism, arthritis, infection and inflammation.

A compress is made using an infusion or decoction of the herb to soak a piece of flannel in the liquid then bandaging this over the area. In general a compress should be refreshed every 15 minutes or so and left in place for 1 to 4 hours. If heat is required a hot water bottle or hot towels may be used.

To make a poultice steam or crush herbs and bandage them over the affected area. A drawing poultice is made by mixing the infusion or decoction and mixing it with to a paste with slippery elm powder or powdered potato. This is then bandaged in place. The poultice should be left in place for 1 to 4 hours and kept hot the whole time with a hot water bottle and towels, or with a heating pad.

Capsules

If you wish to take herbal remedies but find the taste of the teas really offensive, putting them in capsules can be very useful. They are easily made by grinding the desired herbs to a fine powder (a coffee grinder usually works OK) and using the powder to fill empty vegetable gelatine capsules.

The name ‘OO’ is given to the largest size of capsules easily available through the drug store or health food store, and you would normally take 3 of these per day.

Note that capsules are not appropriate for small children, nor where the action of the herbs is specifically to promote and enhance digestion. Many of the herbs used to treat digestive disorders derive much of their benefit from reflex responses to their bitter taste so if you take them in capsules then you miss out on this effect.

Tinctures

This is what professional herbalists use and they are growing in popularity because they are stronger than water extractions, are easy to take and have a long shelf life (up to 3 years).

A tincture is made by soaking dried or fresh herbal material in water and alcohol for 2 weeks, shaking it daily, then straining off the liquid. Different plants have different requirements for the strength of alcohol needed to extract all the useful constituents: most need only 25% but some need 45% (e.g.. Chamomile), 60% (e.g.. Blue Cohosh) or even 90% (e.g.. Ginger and Cayenne).

Because in Canada it is very hard and expensive to obtain industrial alcohol, you can make a tincture with vodka. This is around 50% alcohol so will be strong enough for most herbs.

The standard proportion for a tincture is 1:5 or one part of herbal material (dried) to 5 parts of the water/alcohol mixture. Some tinctures are made stronger (1:1, 1:3 etc) or weaker (1:10) and this does not matter too much as long as it is labeled appropriately so that you can estimate the dose requirement.

The standard dose for a standard 1:5 25% tincture would be one 5 ml teaspoon 2 times daily, in water before meals although this does certainly depend on which herb it is you are taking. If you had a formula with several herbs in it then the dose of the formula would generally be 5 mLs. three times a day for an adult.

Salves

These are used to treat surface conditions and may be soothing, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic or anti-itching.

Take about 500 ml. of infused oil in a heavy stainless steel pan and warm gently. Add 60 g. of grated beeswax and when thoroughly melted pour out into sterile jars.

If you don’t have infused oils of the herbs you wish to use then place 500 mLs. of almond or olive oil in a heavy pan and add sufficient fresh herbal material to reach just below the level of the oil (in other words, there is as much herbal material in the pan as possible while still being completely submerged in the oil). Set the oven at 200 degrees Fahrenheit and cook the oil and herb mixture for a few hours until the herbs are slightly crispy. Filter off the oil and melt the beeswax in it as described above.

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