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Herbal Pharmacy

By Susun Weed on Aug 11, 2010

Picking & Drying Herbs

In your herbal pharmacy you transform fresh and dried plants into herbal medicines. Learning to identify and use the common plants around you is easy and exciting, beneficial and safe. Making your own medicines saves you money if you follow the Wise Woman Tradition of using local herbs, free for the taking.

Even one day's work in field, forest, and kitchen can provide you with many years' worth of medicines. When you make your own, you know for sure what's in it, where it came from, when and how it was harvested, and how fresh and potent it is.

Dried herbs are best for infusions. Stock your herbal pharmacy with your own foraged or cultivated dried herbs; expand your resources and experiment with new herbs by buying dried herbs from reputable sources.

Fresh herbs are best for tinctures and oils. If you can't make your own, buy from sources who wildcraft or grow their own herbs to use fresh in preparations.

Whether you buy or make your own medicines, remember, herbal remedies may not work or may work incorrectly if they aren't prepared correctly.

Meeting the Plants

Start by noticing the plants that live with you, along your driveway or sidewalk. Don't assume that medicinal plants are hard to find. Fennel, Pepper Grass, Dandelion, Plantain, and Mugwort (to name a few) are as common in cities and suburbs as in the country.

Learn more about the weeds around you directly from the plants, from a personal guide, and from field guides and herbals.

When we open all our senses, including the psychic ones, to the green world, we learn to hear and understand plant language. Through shape, color, location, scent, texture, taste, and energy, plants tell us how they will affect our bodies, which plant parts we can use, and how we prepare them. Some Wise Women converse with the plant fairies and the devas. Some hear the song that each plant sings. Some feel the dances of the leaves, breezes, and insects. All are means of learning the ways of herbs. Though the Scientific Tradition scoffs at such knowledge, the Wise Woman Tradition honors the plant as the ultimate authority on its uses.

A personal guide into the plant world will show you plant features which ensure positive identification, such as the hairs on Wild Carrot which safely distinguish it from Poison Hemlock. A personal guide will introduce you to the foods, medicines, dyes, fibers, decorations, and delights hidden in common plants, and instruct you in wise harvesting and preparation. Check local garden clubs, botanical gardens, and nature centers for contacts with personal guides.

Field guides are indispensable references once your taste for herbal identification is whetted. I find the line drawings in the Petersen guides more helpful than color photographs when I have to distinguish between similar looking plants.

Herbals concentrate on the specifics of using plants as medicines and are rarely illustrated well enough to serve as a guide to identification. Field guides hardly ever include information on medicinal value. The link between your field guide and your herbal is the botanical binomial, or Latin name, of each plant. The binomial is (usually) consistent in all references, unlike common names which overlap and vary from region to region. Once you have identified a new plant, you can look it up by finding the binomial in herbals and other references. This can increase your confidence and ability to find and use safe herbal medicines.

My years of leading Weed Walks and helping people identify wild plants have shown me that learning to recognize herbs in the field is far easier, and much less fraught with danger, than most people realize. As Euell Gibbons is quoted as saying: "You don't learn all the plants at once; you learn them one at a time."

Even if you never pick your own herbs, knowing how the live plants look will be a great asset when you go out to buy them.

Part 2
Buying Herbs

Knowing how to buy herbs is a necessary skill, just like learning to identify them. It is my personal goal to find or grow all the herbs I use. But even with access to a garden and hundreds of acres of Catskill country, I haven't yet achieved my goal. I, too, buy herbs collected, grown, and prepared by others.

In the last few years I have become aware of many practices in the commercial herb trade which appall me. Grossly substandard wages are paid to harvesters in Third World countries. Pesticide and herbicide chemicals banned in the United States are used on herbs grown overseas (and 80% of commercial herbs are imported).

Dried herbs may be legally irradiated with the equivalent of hundreds of chest x-rays, yet there is no labeling as to which herbs have been so treated. All commercial herbal warehouses, even those storing organic herbs, must legally be fumigated several times a year with chemical sprays.

I protect myself by purchasing herbs from individuals I know and trust.

Whatever the source, dried herbs should be brightly colored, fresh smelling, and as whole as possible. Powdered herbs and herbs in capsules lose medicinal value rapidly, with some exceptions, like Ginger, Slippery Elm, and Golden Seal.

When you look at a dried herb, envision it as it was when alive. The only thing that should be missing is the water content. Red Clover blossoms are a vibrant purplish-pink, not brown. Raspberry leaves are white on one side and green on the other, not a uniform brown. Witch Hazel bark shows the lighter color of the cambium along with the darker grey of the bark; it doesn't look like leftovers from the woodpile.

Smell dried herbs carefully and reject those which lack scent and those which smell of chemicals or molds. Peppermint and Licorice, for instance, should fill your head with their scent. Comfrey root should smell clean and fresh, not musty and moldy.

The energy, or life force, of an herb can be sensed even when the plant has been dried. Absence of energy means that the herb is old, or has been handled incorrectly. If you can, hold the dried herb in your hands: feel for tingle, look for sparkle. A pendulum will react to the life force present in dried herbs; dowsing can confirm your sensory impressions.

If you are buying by mail, return herbs that do not look, smell, and feel alive. If you buy from a store, bring poor quality to the attention of the owner and demand unpowdered and unencapsulated herbs. Say what you want and what pleases you. Consumer desires do have power in the herb market. Interest in organically grown herbs has resulted in increased availability of organic medicinals.

Part 3
Picking Herbs

When you have positively identified the plant you wish to use, center yourself by sitting next to the herb in silence. Take several deep breaths. Feel the earth under you, connecting you to all the plants. Listen to the sounds and songs all around you. Can you hear the song of your herb?

If you are picking only one plant, ask that plant to give you its power. Tell it how you intend to use it. If you are harvesting many plants, look for a grandmother plant. Ask her permission to use her grandchildren.Visualize clearly how you intend to use the plants.

Make an offering of corn or tobacco, a coin or love to the plants. Sing with them. Talk with them if you feel moved to do so. Thank the earth and begin your gathering.

Take care to preserve and contribute to the well-being of the plant community. Take no more than half of the annuals or biennials, no more than a third of the perennials. Walk gently and with balance.

Harvest plants when the energy you want is most concentrated:

Roots store energy in the form of sugar, starch, and medicinal alkaloids throughout the cold or dormant season; pick them when above ground growth of the plant has died back.

Leaves process energy to nourish roots and flowers; pick them at their most lush, before flowers have formed, after all dew has dried, and before the day's heat wilts them.

Flowers are fragile, pollen-filled, joyous; harvest them in full bloom, before seeds form, and before bees visit them.

Seeds are durable, but likely to shatter and disperse if left on the plant too long; harvest seeds when still green and before insects invade.

Barks (inner barks and root barks) may be harvested at any time but are thought to be most potent in spring and fall.

Look carefully at the plant you wish to pick and you will see where the energy is highest; let this guide your harvesting.

Deal with your harvest immediately. Allowing the cut plants to lie about dissipates their vital energies, encourages mold and fermentation, and results in poor quality preparations. If you intend to eat your harvest, refrigerate the plants, or wash and cook them and sit down and eat. If you intend to make a tincture or oil, cover the herbs with alcohol or oil as soon as possible; don't refrigerate them. If you intend to dry the herbs, it is vital to lay them out or tie them up as soon after harvest as possible.

Drying Herbs

To dry herbs and maintain their color, fragrance, taste, energy, and medicinal potency, you need only:

Pick when there is no moisture on the plant and do not wash the plant (roots are the exception).

Dry the herbs immediately after picking, in small bunches or spread out so parts don't touch.

Dry them in a dark and well ventilated area.

Take down the herbs and store in paper bags as soon as they are crisply dried. If insect invasions force you to store dried herbs in glass or plastic, air-dry them, then dry in paper bags for another two weeks before sealing in tight containers.

Keep the herbs as whole, cool, and dark as possible during storage. Under optimum storage conditions, well-dried volatile, delicate herbs last about six months; roots and barks maintain potency for six or more years.


Part 4
Water Bases

Our bodies are based on water and so are plants. We digest in a water base. In most instances, I prefer herbal medicines in a water base. Nourishing herbs such as Comfrey, Nettles, and Raspberry leaf are at their best when prepared in water bases, for water is best able to extract and make accessible their full range of vitamins, and nutrients.

Water-based herbal medicines spoil rapidly and must be prepared at or near the actual time of use. However, you can store dried herbs for long periods, ready to use in a water base.

Water-based preparations are called teas, tissanes, infusions, decoctions, and syrups. They may be used as soaks, baths, douches, enemas, eyewashes, poultices, compresses, and fomentations. They are all made by soaking fresh or dried plant material in water (usually boiling).

Tea is the standard water-based herbal preparation; even restaurants know how to make it. At fancy ones they call it tissane.

Use one teaspoon dried herb per cup of boiling water. Add an extra teaspoonful for the pot. Let it steep in your cup or the pot for up to twenty minutes. Honey, lemon, and milk are medicinal additions. (Don't give infants honey.)

Volatile herbs are easily extracted into water and therefore prepared as teas. Chamomile, Pennyroyal, Shepherd's Purse, Ginger, Anise and Fennel seeds, Valerian, Catnip, and Lobelia are some volatile herbs used.

Infusion is the most medicinally potent water-based herbal preparation. There are a great many definitions and recipes for preparing infusions; some herbalists use the term interchangeably with "tea."

My medicinal infusions contain a great deal of herbal matter and are steeped for a long time. The result is a liquid much thicker and darker than an herbal tea, leaving no doubt that you are dealing with a medicine, not a breakfast drink.

Prepare infusions in pint and quart canning jars. A teapot or cup is impractical for the long brewing an infusion requires and their openings allow volatile essences and vitamins to escape. Caning jars rarely break when filled with boiling water. They make it easy to measure the amount of water used in the brew. An infusion brewed in a jar is convenient to carry along to work, school or wherever, and this increases the probability that the infusion will be consumed.

And then there's the "wonder water" effect. Wonder water sounds like a new hype, but it is an interesting principle discovered by some researchers at Organic Gardening magazine. They found that plants absorbed nourishment more thoroughly and easily from water that had been boiled, poured into a jar, covered tightly, and allowed to cool. They maintained that gas molecules normally held in water interfere with the plants' rapid and complete assimilation of nutrients dissolved in water.

These dissolved gases are released upon boiling. If a jar is filled with boiling water and capped tightly, the gas molecules cannot be reabsorbed into the water from the air. This is exactly how I prepare an infusion. And I suspect that people, like plants, benefit from and respond strongly to the wonder water effect.

Herbal infusions are the basis for all the other water-based preparations: decoctions, syrups, soaks, compresses, etc.


Part 5
Making Herbal Infusions

Roots:

Use one ounce (a big handful of cut-up root, or half a dozen six inch pieces of whole root) of dried root in a pint jar. Fill the jar to the top with boiling water. Put the lid on the jar and let it sit at room temperature for eight hours.

Roots are the most dense and usually most potent part of perennial and biennial plants. The medicinal virtues of roots are often found in their alkaloid content, which dissolves quite slowly into water. This is why many herbals suggest boiling roots; the rapid movement of the water molecules bouncing against the alkaloids frees them from the cells and extracts them into the water. I have found, however, that a very long period of infusion extracts all the useful alkaloids and medicinal substances from the roots, without the careful watching necessary when they are boiled.

Some roots and barks do not contain medicinal alkaloids (or have alkaloids that we wish to avoid) and these should be infused for only an hour or two. Slippery Elm bark, and Ginger, Valerian, and Licorice root are herbs which should be steeped for this shorter time.

 

Barks:

Prepare the same as roots.

"Bark" is a misleading word, as the usual part of the tree or shrub actually used for herbal medicines is the inner bark, or cambium layer, which lies between the true bark and the wood. All the nourishment and life force of the tree, passing between roots and leaves, moves through this layer, making it a rich source of valuable resins, sugars, and astringents. The wood and the bark are dead cells and thus contain little that is medicinally useful. Cambium cell walls are tough, requiring long brewing for full extraction of medicinal virtues.

 

Leaves:

Use one ounce of dried leaves (two handfuls of cut-up leaves or three handfuls of whole leaves) in a quart jar. Fill the jar up to the top with boiling water, put the lid on and let it steep four hours at room temperature.

Leaves contain the potent healer chlorophyll.

Long steeping extracts all the chlorophyll, as well as the vitamins, minerals and other medicinal components of the leaves. Steeping in a closed jar keeps the water-soluble vitamins from escaping in the steam. Some leaves are tough and leathery and need to be steeped for more than four hours; Rosemary and Uva Ursi are leaves which require longer infusing, up to eight hours.

Some leaves release their medicinal factors very easily in water. Catnip, Shepherd's Purse, Lobelia, and Pennyroyal are leaves that require steeping for an hour or less.

 

Flowers:

Place one ounce of dried flowers (two big handfuls of crumbled-up flowers) in a quart jar. Fill the jar up to the top with boiling water, put on the lid and infuse for two hours.

Flowers are the sexual expression of the plant. They are generally delicate and volatile. Chamomile is exceptionally volatile and should be infused for no more than thirty minutes. When the stalk and leaves of the plant are used along with the flowers, as with Yarrow, Red Clover, and Skullcap, infuse for four hours, as though it were the leaves alone.

 

Seeds:

Use one ounce of dried seeds, berries, hips, or haws (one to three tablespoons) in a pint jar and fill it to the top with boiling water. Screw on a lid and infuse no more than thirty minutes.

Seeds are the embryo of the plant. Though they are hard and dense, like roots, they are engineered to open and release their properties immediately upon contact with water, so they do not need to be infused for a long time. In fact, if seeds are brewed for too long, bitter oils and esters are leeched out into the water and a foul-tasting brew results. Rosehips and Hawthorn berries are exceptions; they may be steeped up to four hours.


Combination Infusions:

When preparing infusions containing several herbs, it is generally best to brew the components separately so that each herb infuses for the proper length of time. This is unnecessary if the combination is all roots, or all leaves, or leaves and flowers treated like leaves, etc.

If you buy herbs which are already mixed and wish to infuse them, brew for the shortest time needed by any ingredient; for instance, a mix containing Chamomile should be steeped for no more than thirty minutes. Some medicinal potency will be lost this way, but you will avoid extracting bitter esters, oils, and resins which may cause unwanted side effects.

The Wise Woman tradition focuses on the use of simples. A simple is a medicine made from a single herb. When combinations are used, the formula rarely exceeds three herbs. This tradition allows for maximum feedback on the effect of each herb and rapid understanding of medicinal herbs.

Dosage: Two cups, 16 fluid ounces, of an infusion per day is the standard dose for a person weighing 125-150 pounds. Use one cup if you weigh 65-75 pounds. Half a cup for 30-40 pounds. A quarter cup (4 tablespoons) for 15-20 pounds.

 

Summary of Infusion Data

 

Plant Part

Amount

Jar/Water

Length of Infusion

Roots/Barks

One ounce

Pint

8 hours minimum

Leaves

One ounce

Quart

4 hours minimum

Flowers

One ounce

Quart

2 hours maximum

Seeds/Berries

One ounce

Pint

30 minutes maximum


Part 6
External Uses of Infusions

A soak consists of an infusion that has been rewarmed after the plant material has been strained out. The affected body part is then soaked in the warm infusion.

If you soak your feet in an herbal infusion, it's a foot bath, an excellent way to soothe and heal the entire body, and absorb herbal benefits.

A sitz bath is a big soak! Two or more quarts of infusion are usually needed to fill a shallow bowl or pan big enough for you to "sitz" in.

A bath is an enormous soak, like steeping your body in an infusion. You can prepare an herbal bath by putting the herbs directly in the tub, but my plumber made it clear to me that herbs and drains are incompatible. Some herbals say to put the herbs in a cloth and allow the bath water to run over them but I find the resulting bath too weak. If you want a strong herbal bath, try it this way: Infuse two quarts of your favorite bath herb, strain, and add the liquid to your hot bath. Ahhhhh!

Enemas, douches, and eyewashes are herbal infusions carefully strained and inserted into the proper body cavity.

Plant material strained out as an infusion still contains healing qualities and can be used to poultice. Simply place the damp plant material, warmed if desired, or fresh plant material grated, chewed, or crushed, directly on the body. Poultices are preferred for first aid and infections.

Make a compress by putting macerated fresh or infused dried plant material into a cloth. Compressing is recommended when using hairy herbs like Comfrey leaf which irritate sensitive skin. They are less messy than poultices, and are often the choice when dealing with internal organs and growths.

For a fomentation, take a clean washcloth or a small cotton towel, soak it in a heated infusion, wring it out, and apply. Fomentations treat breast congestion, sprains, muscle aches, and the like.

 

Making Tinctures

Part 7
Spirit Bases

Herbs prepared in vodka, brandy, or other liquors, or vinegar, are called tinctures. Tinctures can be used internally or externally.

Herbs prepared in rubbing alcohol are called liniments. Liniments are for external use only.

 

Tinctures

Tinctures are a popular way of using medicinal herbs. They have the following advantages over water-based preparations:

-Tinctures remain potent for many years.

-Small quantities of tinctures are effective, sometimes as little as one drop, making them more portable and potable.

-Tinctures act very rapidly, especially when administered under the tongue.

-Certain herbal alkaloids and resins are extractable only into alcohol, not water.

-A very small amount of plant material produces a tincture consisting of many medicinal doses.

Nourishing factors found in herbs, such as vitamins and minerals, are extracted into tinctures but, since only small amounts of tinctures are taken, only small amounts of these nutrients are ingested. The Wise Woman tradition focuses on the excellent nourishment available in wild foods and herbs to support the body's ability to repair and heal itself. Thus, water-based preparations are usually my first choice as herbal medicines, but I use tinctures when I travel, when I need immediate medicinal effect, or when I am dealing with rare, horrible tasting, or expensive plants.

People who refrain from using all alcohol can still take tinctures. Since alcohol-based tincture doses are small (20 drops is the average dose) and diluted in water, the taste and effect of the alcohol is virtually non-existent. Many alcoholics indicate that herbal tinctures react like medicines in their bodies, not like alcohol. To further mitigate the effect of the alcohol, let it evaporate somewhat by adding the tincture to some water and letting it sit exposed to the air for a few hours.

Dosage: Tincture dosage is widely variable. Experiment with caution and consult references.

 

Making a Tincture From Fresh Plant Material

The best tinctures are made from fresh plants. These tinctures are so far superior to commercial tinctures made from dried plants that they almost appear to be different medicines!

Tincturing is amazingly simple:

-Identify and pick the plant parts you desire to tincture.
-Look through the plant material and discard any damaged parts.
-Do not wash any part of the plant except roots, and those only when necessary.
-Chop the plant material coarsely, except flowers and delicate plants.
-Fill a jar to the top with the chopped plant material.
-Then fill the jar to the top with 100 proof vodka, vinegar, or the spirit of your choice. (Yes, you can fill a jar to the top twice!)
-Cap the jar tightly.
-Label the jar with the name of the plant, the part of the plant used, the type of the spirit used, and the date. Example: Shepherd's Purse, the whole plant in flower, 100 proof vodka, 12 May 1985.
-Top up the liquid level the next day. (The plant fairies come by and take a little taste of each new tincture.)
-Allow plant and alcohol to mingle together for six weeks or more.
-
Decant the tincture and it is ready to use.

Making a Tincture From Dried Plant Material

Most dried plants are unsuitable for tincturing, with the exception of dried roots, resins, barks, and leathery leaves such as Rosemary, Uva Ursi, and Wintergreen. Powdered herbs are never suitable for tincturing.

The procedure is similar to making a tincture from fresh plants:

-Put two ounces of dried root or bark in a pint jar.

-Add 10 fluid ounces of 100 proof vodka or other spirit.

-Cap well and label (plant, part, type of spirit, date).

-Watch the alcohol level closely for the first week and top it up as necessary. (Those fairies get very thirsty.)

-Decant the tincture after six or more weeks.


Making a Vinegar Tincture

Vinegar tinctures are not very potent, don't last for as long as alcohol tinctures, and have an aggravating tendency to rust the lid onto the tincture bottle. A few medicinal herbs, such as Lobelia and Wintergreen, are commonly tinctured in vinegar. Many garden herbs, such as Tarragon, Oregano, Chives, and Rosemary, are put up in vinegar.

If you make full strength tinctures with these seasoning herbs, instead of the weak brews you've probably been making, you'll be thrilled with the marinades and salad dressings you'll be able to create.

Follow the above tincture instructions for fresh and dried plants, with these changes:

-Fill your jar to the top with room temperature, not boiling, vinegar.

-Use apple cider vinegar, wine vinegar (or wine), rice vinegar, etc., but no white vinegar.

-Use cork or plastic to cap all your vinegar tinctures. A piece of waxed paper or plastic wrap between the jar and the metal lid is acceptable.

-The usual dose of a medicinal vinegar tincture is one teaspoon per 100 pounds of body weight.

-In cooking, use your vinegar tincture just as you would regular vinegar. Heavenly!


Tips for Making All Tinctures

-Choose a jar that will be filled to the top by the plant material and the alcohol; if an empty "head space" is left, some of the plant material oxidizes and spoilage is more likely.

-For extra potency, put up tinctures when the moon is dark or new; decant them when the moon is full. This helps oils, too.

-Keep your tincture in a place where you can watch the interesting changes in color, and occasionally poke your finger in to get a taste. There is no need to shake it daily or keep it in isolation or the dark. Avoid strong direct sunlight, though. Occasionally tinctures will ooze; protect your furniture.

-Although the tincture is ready to use in six weeks (that's one reason why you label it with the date - so you know when it is ready), there is no need to decant it then. I have kept some herbs sitting in their vodka for years with no problems or decrease of potency.

-To decant the tincture, just pour off the alcohol, put it into a brown glass bottle, and cap tightly. You will notice that the plant material is still wet. Put small handfuls of it in a cotton cloth and wring, hard! (This also builds good muscles in the hands.) Add this extra tincture to your bottle.

-If your tincture is made from dried roots, much of it remains in the roots after decanting, because dried plant material absorbs alcohol. There are various ways to retrieve that extra tincture. The easiest way is to put the plant material through a centrifugal juicer (minus the cutting blade) such as Acme or Braun. If you don't have access to a juicer, you can use a salad spinner. Wringing is also possible.

-Label the bottle of decanted tincture with the same information you put on the original tincture.

-When you're ready to use the tincture, put some of the decanted tincture in a small glass bottle with a dropper top. Please use only glass droppers, as residues from plastic droppers will interfere with the medicinal actions of the herbs (and your continued good health). Label the dropper bottle clearly and keep it in a safe place. Buy dropper bottles at your local pharmacy or by mail.

-It is advisable to respect the potency of herbal tinctures; although it is unlikely that ingestion of even an entire ounce bottleful could kill someone, the likelihood of unsettling effects from such a large dose is great.


Choosing Your Spirit

I prepare nearly all of my tinctures in 100 proof vodka. Other herbalist friends wouldn't think of making a tincture in anything other than brandy. Pharmacists and homeopaths make their tinctures in pure grain alcohol (198 proof).

I suggest 100 proof vodka because it is readily available and fairly inexpensive, clear, and exactly half water and half alcohol. Most books which give recommendations on dosages of tinctures assume that the tincture you are using is a 50% tincture: that is half water and half alcohol. Preparing a tincture in 100 proof vodka eliminates the need to do fancy math to determine the correct dose.

 

Summary of Tincture Proportions

-Tincture one ounce fresh plant material in approximately one ounce spirit for six weeks.

-Tincture one ounce dried plant material in five ounces spirit for six weeks.

Making Medicine by the Spoonful!

 

Part 8
Herbal Decoctions and Syrups

Decoction, or simple decoction, is my term for an infusion which has been reduced to one-half its volume by slow evaporation.

A double decoction is an infusion reduced to one-fourth of its original volume.

Some herbalists use "decoction" to refer to what I call an infusion; others use it to mean something closer to tea.

Decoctions keep longer than infusions if carefully stored under refrigeration. Decoctions are more potent than infusions; this makes them invaluable when dealing with children and animals. The smaller dose is more easily administered.

Decocting is an excellent way to prepare an herb with a terrible taste, such as Yellow Dock root, so it can be consumed without gagging. Adding a bit of some nice tasting brandy or liqueur to decoctions enhances the taste and the keeping qualities.

Decoctions of roots and barks are often prepared; decoctions of leaves, flowers, or seeds are rarely prepared. Since decoctions are made by evaporation, the volatile essences and water-soluble vitamins in the leaves, flowers, and seeds are lost in the process.

I always make decoctions when I have to be in the same room as the stove for the entire evaporating time. With such a low heat, decoctions rarely burn, but if you become involved in something else, there is the danger of reducing the liquid to a scorched nothing.

For a pint of infusion (two cups), about an hour is needed to reduce it by half.

Making a Decoction

-Begin by straining the plant material out of the infusion and discarding it.

-Measure the liquid.

-Heat the liquid until it begins to steam; this is before it simmers and long before it boils. Stand right there and watch for the steam to start rising. When it does, turn the heat down very low.

-Steam until the liquid is reduced to ½ or ¼ of what it was in the beginning. A little stainless steel pan with measuring marks on the side is of invaluable assistance in this process, but you can also judge by the mark left on the side of the pan as the liquid level falls. Or you can measure it.

-Pour the decoction into a clean or sterile bottle.

-Label with the contents, strength, and date. Example: Simple decoction of Witch Hazel bark, Dec. '84.

-Optional: Add one tablespoon of brandy or spirit per four ounces of decoction.

-Cap well.

-Cool at room temperature, then store in the refrigerator. Some decoctions may keep for as long as a year, others ferment and sour within a few months.

Dosage: A simple decoction is four times as potent as an infusion. One cup (8 ounces) of infusion is equal to one-quarter cup (2 ounces) of a simple decoction. Use up to one tablespoon for an infant.

Double decocting increases the strength of the infusion by a factor of sixteen (four times four). So the dose equivalent of one 8 ounce cup is only one tablespoon (½ ounce). The usual infant dose is half a teaspoon of double decoction.

Making a Syrup

Add sugar or honey to any type of decoction, and you have a syrup. The extra sweetness makes some herbs more palatable, soothes the throat, and can improve keeping qualities.

How much sugar or honey should you add? The exact amount is determined by weight. A standard for syrups is an equal amount, by weight, of sugar and decoction.

One cup (8 fluid ounces) of water or decoction, weighs half a pound (8 ounces). So one cup of decoction requires half a pound of sugar.

Honey is about twice as sweet as sugar. Use a quarter of a pound (4 ounces) of honey to every cup of decoction. One level tablespoon of honey weighs about one ounce.

-Add the sweetener to the hot liquid.

-Increase the fire until the brew just comes to a boil.

-Pour the boiling hot syrup into a bottle and cap it. Sterilized bottles reduce the risk of producing unexpected herbal fermentations. But the boiling liquid kills many yeasts in the bottle.

-Optional: Add one tablespoon of brandy, vodka, etc. to further stabilize the syrup.

-Store the syrup in the refrigerator once it cools. Syrups keep for 3-6 months.

Depending on the herbs in your original infusion, you can make a cough syrup (Comfrey root and Wild Cherry bark), an iron tonic (Yellow Dock and Dandelion roots), a soothing syrup (Valerian root), or any other medicinal syrup.

Dosage: Generally, one teaspoon of syrup is a dose for a 125-150 pound person. The dose is repeated as needed, up to 8 times daily. Use a half teaspoonful for 60-75 pound children and a quarter teaspoonful for 30 pounds or smaller.

Summary of Syrup Proportions

-Begin with one pint (16 ounces) of infusion.

-Reduce the liquid to half its original amount (8 ounces).

-Add an equal amount, by weight, of sugar (8 ounces or ½ pound), or half the amount, by weight, of honey (4 ounces or 4 tablespoons).


Part 9
Making Herbal Medicines

The art of making herbal preparations is fascinating and complex. Each herb has one or more optimum methods of preparation, each method extracting different properties from the herb. Each type of preparation affects the body in different ways. The quality of herbal preparation is dependent on the quality of the herb used.

The quality of the herb is affected by the weather during the growing season, the thoughts of the gatherer or grower, when the herb is harvested, and the conditions surrounding handling and storage. The moon sheds her subtle influence on all of this, adding to the variables. It's no wonder that every herbalist creates unique herbal preparations, and that non-herbalists feel confused.

After years of experimenting and teaching, I offer these easy, foolproof instructions for home preparations of herbal medicines. All the equipment you need is probably already at hand: canning jars with lids, small jars with lids or corks, a sharp knife, a grater, several pots and pans, water, oil, vodka, labels, and a ball point pen.

I prepare herbal medicines in three bases: water, spirit, and oil.

Water-base products are teas, infusions, decoctions, syrups, baths, enemas, fomentations, eyewashes, and douches. Spirit-base products are tinctures, liniments, vinegars, and essences. Oil-base products include essential oils, infused oils, ointments, and salves.

In all bases I use no direct heat. No herbs are ever boiled or baked. This virtually eliminates burned, fried, and ruined medicines. And the finer vibrations of the plants appreciate the care.

In a water base, dried herbs produce the best potency. Spirit bases produce superior medicinals when fresh herbs are used, although dried roots and barks are often acceptable. Oil bases absolutely require fresh plant material. Don't assume that you have no access to fresh medicinal herbs. Weed Walks in city neighborhoods and along suburban sidewalks have never failed to provide an abundance of fresh medicinal plants.

Problems with Foraging

Are you concerned about contamination of wild plants with lead, chemicals, and dog doo?

Avoid harvesting herbs from roadsides where lead concentration is high; plants growing by busy roads will accumulate more lead. The nearer the plant is to the road, the higher the level of lead concentration.

If you can't find a particular herb anywhere except by a road, pick at least eight feet from the road edge; lead levels drop sharply in the first few feet. In cities, pick from parks and other out-of-the-way places. Be wary of vacant lots which may be contaminated with lead paint.

Avoid picking under powerlines and along roads where the weeds are controlled by spraying instead of cutting. Suburban lawns that have been doused with weed killers rarely grow medicinal weeds, but if you support chemical warfare (distorted, mutated, sparse weeds are good clues), avoid that area.

Avoid gathering herbs where canines gather. Dogs can pass parasites to humans.

Allow yourself to be guided by your intuition, as well as your senses and your intelligence, and you will know which areas to avoid when picking wild plants. Given the amount of chemical contamination on commercial herbs (and fruits and vegetables, for that matter), I honestly feel safer taking risks in the wild.

Open your eyes and observe the green abundance. Open your heart and feel the green joy. Come with respect for green power. The devas of the plant kingdom welcome you


Part 10
Oil Bases

There are two very different types of oil-based herbal medicines. They are known as essential oils and infused oils.

Essential oils cannot be made easily at home. They are the pure plant oil, usually extracted by chemicals or hot steam. Hundreds of pounds of fresh plant material may produce only ounces of essential oil. Essential oils are readily available commercially. They are used in aromatherapy, as insect repellents, and to increase local circulation.

Essential oils are intended for external use. They can be fatally poisonous if taken internally in quantity. They are also highly irritating to the mucus surfaces of the body (genitals, mouth, eyes, etc.) and may cause allergic skin reactions in some people. Be certain to keep all essential oils well out of the reach of children.

Infused oils can be made at home. They are usually reserved for external uses, but could be taken internally without disastrous results. Infused oils are much less potent than essential oils and have none of the associated side effects. Infused oils can only be made from fresh plants, with the exception of some roots which can be coaxed into an oil base if baked in the oven for many hours.

Infuse herbs in any type of oil: olive, safflower, apricot, coconut, etc. The lighter, clearer oils are expensive; they produce delicate and beautiful infused oils. Olive oil is my personal choice; it rarely turns rancid, is absorbed easily into the skin, adds its own healing benefits to the preparation, and is available inexpensively.

Making Infused Oils

-Pick the plant on a dry, sunny day.

-Discard any diseased or soiled parts. Do not wash any part of the plant. If there is dirt on the plant, scrub it off with a stiff, dry brush.

-Chop the plant coarsely.

{Completely fill a clean, very dry jar with the chopped herb.

-Slowly pour oil into the jar, poking with a chopstick or knife to release air and make sure the oil penetrates into all layers of the herb.

-Add enough oil to thoroughly cover all the plant material and fill the jar to the very rim. (As with preparing a tincture, it is really possible to fill that jar twice: once with herb and then again with the vehicle.)

-Cork the jar or screw on a lid.

-Label the jar with the name of the plant, the plant part used, the kind of oil used, and the date. Example: St. Joan's Wort, leaf and flower, olive oil, 21 June 1985.

-Keep the jar of infused oil at normal room temperature and on a surface that will not be ruined by seeping oil.

-Decant the infused oil in six weeks. The plants can be left in the oil longer, but have a tendency to mold and spoil if not kept very cool.

-Oil held in the plant material after the decanting can be extracted. Put small handfuls into a clean kitchen towel or cotton cloth; squeeze and wring out the oil.

-Allow the decanted oil to sit for several days while the water in it (from the fresh plant material) settles to the bottom of the jar. Then carefully siphon or pour off the oil, leaving the water behind.

-Store at cool room temperature or refrigerate

Trouble Shooting Infused Oils

Mold grows readily in infused oils. The presence of any moisture on the herb or in the jar encourages mold growth.

-If the jar is not filled to the top, mold will grow in the air space left. To save your preparation, completely remove the mold and fill the jar to the top with fresh oil.

-If the jar was not totally dry when you filled it, mold will grow along the inside of the jar. Save your preparation by carefully pouring the oil and the plant material into a dry jar. Jars dried in the oven for five minutes immediately prior to use prevent this problem.

-If the jar is put in the sun or left near a heat source, the warmth will cause condensation inside the jar, providing the moisture necessary for colonies of mold. Remove the mold and pour oil and plant material into a fresh jar to save this.

-If the plant material was wet when combined with the oil, mold will grow throughout the oil. Saving it is impossible. Start again.

Some herbs release gas as they infuse. You may notice bubbles moving in the oil; this is not a problem and does not indicate spoilage. Chickweed, Comfrey, and Yellow Dock are notable in their gas production when infused in oil. The gas will force some of the oil out of the jar (yes, even if tightly capped). Corked jars go pop!

 Rancidity occurs when there is plenty of heat and oxygen.

Infused oils in an olive oil base resist rancidity at cool room temperature for several years. In very warm climates, adding the contents of a capsule or two of vitamin E to the decanted oil helps prevent rancidity. Tincture of Myrrh or Benzoin added to ointments also checks rancidity; use about ten drops of either per ounce of oil.

Making Ointments

Ointments and salves are easily made from infused oils.

-Pour one ounce of infused oil into a very small pan.

-Grate a tablespoon of beeswax and add it to the oil. (Buy beeswax from a local beekeeper, craft supply shop, or marine supply store.)

-Place the pan on low heat; a candle flame will suffice.

-Stir constantly until the beeswax is totally melted. This rarely takes more than a minute or two.

-Pour the liquid into your ointment jar and allow to cool and solidify.

-If the consistency is too hard, remelt and add more infused oil.

-If the consistency is too soft, remelt and add more beeswax

(This multi part article has been reprinted with the author's kind permission.)

(Photo Credits: All herb, flower & plant photos by Jane Sherry and photo of the author from Susun Weed.com)



Susun Weed, green witch and wise woman, is an extraordinary teacher with a joyous spirit, a powerful presence, and an encyclopedic knowledge of herbs and health. She is the voice of the

Wise Woman Way, where common weeds, simple ceremony, and compassionate listening support and nourish health/wholeness/holiness. She has opened hearts to the magic and medicine of the green nations for three decades. Ms. Weed's four herbal medicine books focus on women's health topics including: menopause, childbearing, and breast health. Visit her website  for information on her workshops, apprenticeships, correspondence courses and more! Browse the publishing site Ash Tree Publishing to learn more about her alternative health books. Venture into the NEW Menopause site to learn all about the Menopausal Years the Wise Woman Way. Read Susun's bio.