How to Make Herbal Medicines: Infusions, Decoctions, Tinctures, Syrups, Oils and Salves
If you regularly buy herbs or herbal preparations from your herb dealer or health food store, you may have noticed that they are pretty costly! Any and all of them can be prepared at home, often from plants from your garden, if you take the time to grow medicinal plants.
Some of my favorite medicines to prepare at home are Echinacea tincture (for infections of all kinds), mullein oil (for ear infections), and wild cherry cough syrup, but there are many other possibilities.
I also like to use flowers and herbs to make cosmetic items, such as flower-waters and flower (or herbal) vinegars, and to include flowers and herbs in face cream recipes.
If you are collecting herbs, such as mint, chamomile, pineapple weed, red clover, or catnip, it is best to air-dry them, rather than to dry them in a dehydrator. The heat from the dehydrator causes too much loss of essential oils.
Good ways to dry delicate herbs: Hang in bunches out of direct sunlight and away from moisture, or place small amounts loosely in baskets to dry and hang up the baskets for good air circulation. A friend of mine puts her herbs in her car in summer, if the weather is dry, in baskets or in loose piles on paper towels, with a least one window down.
Even roots and barks, if they are cut into fairly small pieces, can be dried in hanging baskets or in a hot car, provided the weather is hot and dry.
Dried herbs and flowers are often prepared as teas. Pour 1 pint of boiling water over 1 ounce of herbs and let steep for 20-30 minutes. Strain and use.
One ounce of herbs to one pint of water is fairly standard for medicinal preparations. Often less is used to prepare teas for minor illnesses or just for enjoyment.
With some teas, such as chamomile, it’s important that they be covered while steeping, so that important constituents don’t evaporate. This is a good practice with all teas.
Tough plant materials such as roots and bark, when prepared in water, are prepared as decoctions. In a saucepan, add 1 ounce of the roots or bark to 1 pint of water, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, strain, and use. (One exception to this method of preparation is wild cherry bark, which should be steeped—never boiled—since boiling destroys the medicinal principles of this bark.)
COMBINING A TEA AND A DECOCTION
If you are making an herbal brew that includes both herbs and bark and/or roots, first make a decoction of the bark and/or root materials: Put them in a saucepan of water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 30 minutes. Now remove the pan from heat, stir the herbaceous material, and allow to steep, covered, for about 20 minutes.
To make a tincture, fill a jar with the herb, root, or bark material and add vodka or Everclear to cover. Close the lid on the jar and let it sit in a dark place for about a month (“one moon cycle”), shaking occasionally. Strain into a labeled bottle.
Tinctures are a wonderful way to preserve medicinal plant materials that you are growing, or that you collect in the wild.
The final concentration of alcohol in a tincture should be at least 30%—and is very often more. The proof number on bottles of alcohol is twice the alcohol content. If the bottle says 80 proof, this means it is actually 40% alcohol.
OILS AND SALVES
For medicinal oils to be used for external application, put herbs in a baking dish with enough oil (olive, almond, or linseed oil) to cover, and bake in the oven at 110° to 120° F. for one to two hours, until herbs become crispy (meaning that all their essential oils have been extracted) strain, and bottle.
If you are preparing the oil with roots or barks, bake at 120° to 125° F. for two to four hours, strain, and bottle.
You can also do this in a saucepan on the stovetop, using very low heat for the same amount of time.
Always use extra-virgin, first-cold-pressed olive oil, if you are making this with olive oil, so that you get the maximum benefits from the olive oil itself. Do not use mineral oil for such preparations.
To preserve, you can add the contents of one 440 I.U. capsule of Vitamin E per each cup of oil. Or you can add two drops of tincture of benzoin per ounce of oil.
To make a salve, stir melted beeswax into the finished medicinal oil. Use about 1 ½ ounces of beeswax per pint of oil.
Salves may be preserved by adding Vitamin E oil or tincture of benzoin in the same amount as for the medicinal oil.
OILS AND SALVES MADE WITH FLOWERS
Some ointments made with delicate materials such as mullein flowers, are put into a jar and allowed to sit in a warm place—and in some cases a sunny place—for about a month and then strained through a coffee filter. Actually, recommendations for the length of the steeping time vary widely. Santillo suggests five days, Grieve mentions 21 days, plus a couple of other durations, and one herbalist informant feels that the appropriate time for this, as well as for tinctures, is “one moon cycle,” or 28 days. I would suggest 28 days, if possible.
There are several ways to make syrups, and which method you choose will depend on what type of herbal material you are using to make the syrup. If honey is too expensive, a heavy sugar syrup could be substituted.
To make sugar syrup, dissolve equal parts sugar and hot water.
METHOD 1(Tincture combined with honey)
Put herbal material (bark, roots, herbs) in a jar and add alcohol (vodka, Everclear, or brandy) to cover. Let this steep for 28 days, strain, and add equal parts honey—or equal parts vegetable glycerin or heavy sugar syrup, if you prefer. Lemon juice and/or a pinch of cayenne may also be added.
METHOD 2 (For roots and barks)
Simmer two ounces of herbs or combination of herbs in one quart of water until reduced by half. Strain and mix with equal parts honey, heavy sugar syrup, or vegetable glycerin. Lemon juice and/or a pinch of cayenne may also be added. Put in canning jars and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath, if you want to can it for indefinite preservation
METHOD 3 (For more delicate herbs, including flowers)
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
2 cups herbs or flowers
1 cup lemon or lime juice
Place herbs in a large bowl. In a saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add sugar and stir to dissolve. Pour hot sugar-water over herbs and mix. Cover and let stand 24 hours. Strain, add lemon or lime juice and bottle. Put in canning jars and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath, if you want to can it for indefinite preservation.
This is a good method for preparing herbs like mint, lemon balm, red clover, or elderflowers for winter use. Mix the syrup with hot water at a ratio of 4 or 5 parts water to one part syrup for tea, or mix with cold water, carbonated water, vinegar (for fevers), or other herbal preparations.
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