DIY: Make Your Own Herbal Medicines
[Our bodies] are not distinct from the bodies of plants and animals, with which we are involved in the cycles of feeding and the intricate companionships of ecological systems and of the spirit. They are not distinct from the earth, the sun and moon, and the other heavenly bodies. It is therefore absurd to approach the subject of health piecemeal with a departmentalized band of specialists. A medical doctor uninterested in nutrition, in agriculture, in the wholesomeness of mind and spirit is as absurd as a farmer who is uninterested in health. Our fragmentation of this subject cannot be our cure, because it is our disease.
—Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America
Tremendous empowerment comes from learning to recognize the medicinal plants that surround us, even more in learning how to make them into medicines for healing. And though it takes time, as your knowledge increases, as you learn how to tend to your illnesses and those of your family, the sense of helplessness that so many of us have experienced when we become ill, often ingrained since birth, begins to dissipate.
We have been trained to place our health in the hands of outside specialists who, very often, know neither ourselves nor our families, not the fabric of our lives, nor the communities in which we live. They have no understanding of, and often no interest in, the complexity in which we live and from which our illnesses emerge. But for most of us, those specialists are the only place we know to go when we are ill, uncertain, and afraid, to seek help—for ourselves or our loved ones.
The world, however, is a great deal more complex than that frame allows and there are many more options to healing than that system acknowledges. All of us live, all the time, in the midst of a living pharmacy that covers the surface of this planet. And that living pharmacy is there for you, or anyone, to use—anytime you wish. Once you know that, once you have been healed by the plants in that living pharmacy, often of something that physicians said could not be healed, things are never the same again. You begin to break the cycle of dependence on which the health care system depends.
Taking back control over personal health and healing is one of the greatest forms of personal empowerment that I know. It does take time and effort, this kind of learning, but the learning goes quickly. Harder, perhaps, is learning to trust the plants with your life. It is a truly frightening moment, that moment of decision, when trust is extended in that way, for, before it occurs, there is no way to experientially know what the outcome will be. Most people on this planet, though, people who do not live in the Western, industrialized nations, make that decision every day of their lives. It is a trust they extend every moment of every day. Trusting the healing capacities of the plants is not a new experience to the human species.
The next step in the journey is learning how to turn the plants you are learning about into medicines for yourself and your family. It isn’t that hard—people all over the globe have been doing it for a hundred thousand years. At least.
To Begin With …
The first thing to understand is that there are no mistakes. You are learning a new skill and everyonelearns what works by learning what doesn’t. That is how human beings do it; we all learn to cook well by first cooking badly. So … enjoy the process, give yourself permission to make mistakes, to learn as you go.
If you are wildcrafting your medicines, the first step, of course, is getting to know the plants themselves, learning to recognize them in the wild, getting to know them where they live. I prefer finding a local plant person to help me with this; I like to be introduced to plants by someone who already knows them. It just seems more polite than learning about them from a website. An important part of this is increasing the acuteness of your seeing; you have to learn to see what is right in front of you. That is often hard with plants, as most of us have relegated them to the background as a sort of insentient and colorful backdrop to our city life.
One of the most common experiences herbalists have is going into the wild, looking diligently for a plant, not finding it, then giving up and sitting on a rock to rest and discovering they are in a field full of the very plant they are looking for.
As you increase your noticing, you will begin to see the plants sharply defined, as individuals, and you will find the ones you know everywhere. And as your experience of this new world opens up, you will find that plants are living beings and just like people they have their quirks, oddities, differences—plants of the same species don’t always look the same. Where they live changes them (just as it does us).
If you learn them in the high mountains of Colorado and then seek them in eastern Washington State, they will look entirely different. Plants such as red root hug the ground at 9,000 feet (2,750 m) above sea level but will stand 6 feet tall at lower elevations. Plants that are pulled into themselves, conserving water resources, in semi-arid and arid regions will plump out in the humid tropics, grow fat and big with all the abundance of an easy life. They will often change so much from eco-range to eco-range that they don’t appear to be the same plants—and, of course, their medicinal actions will change as well. They don’t need to make the same chemicals in the Olympic Peninsula as they do in the south of Spain.
Plants, just like people, live in neighborhoods, in certain regions and habitats. Part of the journey is learning those neighborhoods and habitats, learning where they like to grow, learning how they appear in different regions, different continents, altitudes, climates, and how their medicine changes in each of those climates as well. It also means learning how they appear at different times of the year.
Plants go through cycles, and these cycles are more pronounced if there is a cold winter where they live. Once you make the acquaintance of a plant, learn where it lives, you can visit it in all seasons of the year, learn how it looks as the seasons progress, learn the differences in its medicine in each of those seasons. Illness comes at any time; if you wildcraft you will need to know your medicines no matter the time of year. If you live in a climate that is very cold with deep snow, then it becomes important to learn the trees, for they can be found and made into medicines in any season. It is important, too, to make enough medicine of the plants that sleep through the winter so that you have them on hand if you need them. All of the vegetalistas—plant people—that I know have an herb room, a place where they keep their medicines and store the plants they have harvested but not yet made into medicines.
Trusting the healing capacities of the plants is not a new experience to the human species.
As you learn the plants, you will come to know how they look but also how they feel to the hand, how they smell, how they taste, even how they sound. Aspens make a sound completely unlike any other tree as the wind moves among them. You also learn, over time, how a plant subtly changes your body the moment you take it inside you. All plants have different effects and this becomes part of the knowledge as well.
Learn, also, to pay attention to how the plant feels to your non-physical sensing. You have learned to pay attention to how a restaurant or someone’s home feels to you when you first walk in the door, to notice whether it feels welcoming or not, emotionally warm or not, safe or not. This kind of sensing can be extended to the plants you use for your medicines. Pay attention to whether or not the plant you are harvesting feels healthy and vital to you. Your medicines will only be as good as the plants you use to make them.
And … thank the plants as you harvest them. This is a form of saying grace for food, only now you are doing it for your medicines. This may not be a regular part of your life, this kind of thankfulness, but after 25 years of this work, I can tell you, it does make a difference to the quality of the medicines you make and of the relationship you will ultimately have with the plants you use for healing.
Making plant medicines is a full-immersion, full-sensory experience; it’s very physical. Harvesting plants often means walking miles to find the ones you are looking for. If you are working with roots, you will be digging, of course, and some plants are very difficult to dig. You will need a shovel, sometimes a pick. Other plants, such as nettles or devil’s club, have stinging hairs or thorns; you will need gloves. And despite their use, you will get bitten by the plant—everybody does. It’s part of the journey.
Take an easy-to-carry bag, with a fold-up shovel, plant cutters, a knife, and plastic bags to put the plants in. Big plastic bags. Paper is relatively useless; it won’t hold up to walking miles in the field and it is much bulkier than plastic. You can use a woven basket instead of a bag, but it’s better to keep the herbs you are harvesting in their own bags, not roughly mixed together in a basket. Take Band-Aids and tweezers and comfortable walking shoes and a staff, a hat and water and a lunch to eat. Also: Don’t walk any farther than half the distance you have the energy for. (Just an FYI on that one.)
Preparing Medicinal Plants
Once you have harvested the plants, take them home and begin preparing them as medicine right away; they will rot if you leave them in the plastic bags, or dry badly if you just dump them in a pile on the table and leave them too long. Never, never, never leave them in the truck overnight. (Everyone puts plant preparation off sooner or later and then has to throw the plants away. It onlytakes once … usually.)
Roots should be shaken and brushed to get the dirt off. Washing them is generally a bad idea unless, due to the nature of the root (e.g., coral root), they have to be washed. (Washing removes essential oils and the outer bark—things you don’t want to lose.) Some roots are as tough as steel once they dry (e.g., red root), so cut them into small pieces while they are fresh. (Everyone fails to do this once.)
Get a good drying tray for seeds, roots, bark, and so on. Flattish trays that are fairly shallow are best. I like woven ones that let the air circulate or high-impact plastic trays. You will always drop and break a glass one. (Eventually.) Metal has too many reactions with plant chemicals and moisture and can contaminate the herb.
Leafy plants can be tied together—you will need some good twine—and hung from the rafters to dry unless you are making medicine from the fresh leaves. They dry well that way.
Storing Supplies and Medicines
Label everything. Everyone, and I mean everyone, thinks they will never forget the plant they just harvested, but everyone, and I mean everyone, does if it is not labeled. Then you will find yourself with a lot of unidentifiable plant matter on your hands that you can’t use (and no, using them for illnesses you can’t identify either won’t work). And … label all your medicines once you’ve made them as well. You will forget what is in that bottle.
You will need bottles, of course, to store your finished medicines in. Tiny ones are nice for salves. Brown ones are nice for tinctures; they keep the light out and minimize degradation. Everything is best if kept in the dark; light has a strongly negative impact on the life of your medicines. (You will need droppers too—they are ridiculously expensive compared to the bottles they go with.)
The Different Kinds of Herbal Medicines
Herbal medicines, in general, fall into two groups: 1) those for internal use, and 2) those for external use.
The main forms of herbal medicines for internal use are:
- Water extracts (infusions and decoctions)
- Alcohol extracts (tinctures)
- Percolations (water or alcohol)
- Fluid extracts
- Fresh juice (stabilized or not)
- Powders (plain or encapsulated)
- Essential oils
The main forms of herbal medicines for external use are:
- Oil infusions
- Evaporative concentrates
- Essential oils
Most of these you can make yourself. Essential oils need special distilling equipment and I won’t spend much time on them in this post—just a bit about using them as medicine.
If you are making tinctures, you will need Ball jars or something similar for the herbs to macerate in. I often get old olive or pickle jars, the big ones, from restaurants to use for larger batches. Make sure they are clean—the smell does get into the tincture if you don’t. There are other things you will find you need as you go along. I will mention a number of them when I talk about the particular kinds of medicines you can make.
In general, there are only a few kinds of herbal medicines: salves, infusions, tinctures, and powders. The list I am going to give you will appear more complicated than that, but that is pretty much all it comes down to. There are just a number of differentforms to those four types of medicines. Most of them you will never need; still, I’m going to tell you about them. You never know what might come in handy.
Remember: Have fun. This is an art as much as a science and art always, always, has a depth of feeling and intuition to it that can never be captured and quantified. Trust your feelings and understand that your heart is as important to listen to as your head. Life without heart, you know, is not much of a life at all.
A Comment on Solvents
Unless you are using the plant itself in some form—as powder, food, juice, or so on—what you will be doing when you make your medicines is extracting the chemical constituents of the plant in some kind of liquid solvent. (When you take the whole herb internally, the stomach acids, bile salts, and so on are the solvent media. They leach out the active constituents of the plants for you.)
Every solvent has its own properties and people use different ones for many different reasons, some of which I will go into in this post. Generally, a solvent is referred to as a menstruum. It comes from menstruus, a Latin word meaning “month.” It was felt, in the old days, that the moon and its cycle of 28 days had an influence on liquids, just as it does on the tides. So, herbs were placed in liquids—on particular days by the fanatical—and left in there for one cycle of the moon. Hence menstruum. Though derided as superstition by scientists, there is some legitimacy to this kind of thinking. Plants really are stronger when harvested on certain days, the moon does affect the underground aquifers of the earth, just as it does the oceans (causing the ground to breathe out moisture-laden air), leeches really are useful (surgeons use them regularly now), maggots really do clean gangrenous wounds better than anything else, and … oops, sorry, got carried away again.
Anyway, the solvent is called the menstruum, herbs are placed in the menstruum, and once there they begin to macerate. Maceration is the soaking of something—usually a plant of some sort—in a solvent until the cell walls begin to break down so the compounds in the herb will leach into the solvent, where they are held in suspension. When you later separate the liquid (now containing the medicinal compounds) from the solids, the solids that are left are called the marc. The liquid is called whatever kind of medicine you were making: tincture, infusion, or so on.
Water is considered to be the universal solvent; it works for most things to some extent. For most of human history, it has been the primary solvent people have used. Alcohol is the next most effective solvent. Combining them will give you the most comprehensive solvent medium that exists.
Just as with the plants you harvest, use the best-quality solvents you can get. Your water, especially, should be well, spring, or rain water—if you can get it. If you use tap water, have a filter on the water line if you are at all able to do so. Or else buy a good-quality water. The better the water, the better the medicine. (Tap water is, as well, filled with minute quantities of pharmaceuticals—you really don’t want to ingest them. They are highly bioactive.)
Another thing to understand is that the more finely powdered your herb, the more surface area that is exposed to the solvent. This allows more of the chemical constituents to leach into the solvent.
When you are making extracts, part of what you learn, and develop in your practice, is knowledge of just what kinds of solvents are right for which herbs and in what combinations. The goal is to get as many of the medicinal compounds as possible into the extractive medium. Each herb is different and needs different combinations of water and alcohol—that is, a different formula for preparation. Some do better in pure alcohol, some in pure water. Some need oils to extract the active constituents (Artemisia annua is an example of this; artemisinin is more easily soluble in fats than in either alcohol or water). Some need boiling, some prefer cold liquids.
Pharmacists, prior to World War II (before pharmaceuticals began to dominate medicine), were extensively trained in very sophisticated forms of herbal medicine making—many of which are beyond the scope of this website (and of most pharmacists these days). This is why pharmacists are still called “chemists” in England and the drugstores there the “chemist’s” shops. Distressingly, that kind of training no longer occurs; it is now a lost art. I doubt there is a medicinal pharmacist in practice anywhere in the Western world who can prepare a tincture of Colchicum officinale and determine, exactly, the amount of colchicine in it—as all pharmacists could do in 1920.
In becoming an herbal medicine maker, you are learning how to be a practical dispensing pharmacist. Part of what that means is discovering how to best prepare the herbs and with which solvents.
The two most common forms of water extractions are infusions and decoctions. Two lesser-known forms are evaporative concentrates and percolations.
Teas are, at heart, weak infusions. When making medicine, however, you are usually working with what would formally be called an infusion. Infusions are stronger than teas since the herbs sit, infuse, in the water for a much longer period.
An infusion is made by immersing an herb in either cold or hot, not boiling, water for an extended time. Again, the water you use should be the purest you can find, not tap water. Water from rain, a healthy well, or a spring is best.
The weakness of infusions, cold or hot, is that they do not keep well; they tend to spoil very quickly. Refrigeration will only slow the process a little. Infusions, unless you stabilize them with something like alcohol, need to be used shortly after you make them. Their strength is that nearly everyone has access to enough water to make them without resorting to the expense of buying alcohol.
Although the guidelines below call for short timelines for hot infusions, I often make my infusions at night just before bed and let them infuse overnight. I usually make enough for one day, then drink the infusions throughout the next day.
Most hot infusions are consumed, confusingly, not hot but warm or at room temperature; the infusion periods are too long for the water to stay hot. Hotinfusion, in this sense, is a description of the extraction process, not of its temperature when used.
Some herbs, however, are best consumed while still hot, such as diaphoretics that stimulate sweating. For example, yarrow, if being used to help break a fever, is best consumed hot (steeped 15 minutes, covered). If being used for GI tract distress or to stimulate menstruation, though, it is best prepared as a hot infusion but consumed hours later at room temperature.
To prepare a hot infusion, bring water to a boil, then combine it with the herb in the following manner:
- For leaves:1 ounce per quart of hot water, let steep 4 hours, tightly covered. Tougher leaves require longer steeping. The more powdered the leaves (if dried), the stronger the infusion. If you are using fresh leaves, cut them finely with scissors or chop them as finely as possible with a sharp knife.
- For flowers:1 ounce per quart of hot water, let steep 2 hours, tightly covered. More fragile flowers require less time. Most flowers can be infused whole.
- For seeds:1 ounce per pint of hot water, let steep 30 minutes, tightly covered. More fragrant seeds such as fennel need less time (15 minutes), rose hips longer (3 to 4 hours). Most seeds possess very strong seed coats to protect them from the world until they sprout. You will need to break the seed coat in order for the solvent to work; the seeds should be powdered as finely as possible.
- For barks and roots:1 ounce per pint of hot water, let steep 8 hours, tightly covered. Some barks, such as slippery elm, need less time (1 to 2 hours). Most barks and roots are infused after being dried; powder them as finely as possible. If you are using fresh roots, mince them as finely as possible.
There are many kinds of infusion pitchers and mugs that are available to buy; they are pretty common. Most of them have some form of basket in which to place the herbs (and a lid to cover them). The basket is suspended at the top of the mug or pitcher so that the herbs and the liquid do not mix together. It does make it a bit easier. (Avoid plastic if you can; use stainless steel, glass, or pottery infusers.) You can also buy (or make) small cloth bags to hold the herbs, which you then suspend in whatever container you are using. A tea ball will also work, but I don’t find them as effective; they don’t usually hold enough herb.
The best infusers work by holding the herb in the upper part of the pot, so that only the upper portion of the liquid is in contact with the herb. As the water at the top of the infuser becomes saturated with the herbal constituents, it gets heavier and sinks to the bottom. This creates a circulating current in the water that brings the unsaturated water to the top of the jar where it can then infuse as well. This will make the strongest infusion. You can just put the herb in a jar with hot water and cover it; it will work fine, but it won’t be quite as strong as this method.
If you keep the containers tightly covered, the volatile components in the herb will remain in the liquid rather than evaporating into the air. The heat will vaporize the volatiles and they will rise up in the steam, then collect on the underside of the lid. As the mixture cools, the volatiles will condense and drip from the lid back into the infusion. This ensures that the essential oils, which are very volatile, will remain. You can easily identify an herb that has a high volatiles content; it will have a strong essential oil or perfumey smell to it. These must always be covered when making a hot infusion.
When you are ready to use the infusion, pour off the water and squeeze out the marc as much as possible. The liquid in the saturated herbs is often much stronger than the infused liquid, so keep it if you can.
Cold infusions are preferable for some herbs. The bitter components of herbs tend to be less soluble in cold water. Yarrow, for instance, is much less bitter when prepared in cold water. Usually cold infusions need to steep for much longer periods of time; each herb is different. The necessity for a cold infusion rarely arises; nevertheless, it may. If so, place the herb in room-temperature water, cover, and let steep overnight.
A Hot Infusion for Parasites
2 ounces dried alchornea leaf
2 ounces fresh gingerroot, chopped finely
2 ounces dried sida leaf
2 ounces dried wormwood leaf (Artemisia absinthium)
2 quarts water
Place herbs in container, pour near-boiling water on top, cover tightly, and let sit overnight. Strain and press the marc to extract as much liquid as possible. Drink 1 cup four times per day. This amount will last 2 days. Make it again every 2 days until you have been using it for 8 days. This is a good infusion for treating intestinal worms (you can just use the wormwood and ginger if you wish). It will be very bitter, though the ginger will help that a bit.
Decoctions are much stronger than infusions. Basically, they are boiled infusions. There are two forms of decoctions: 1) simple decoctions, and 2) concentrated decoctions. A simple decoction is any water extract that is boiled for a short length of time. Concentrated decoctions are boiled until the water is reduced to some extent. Normally, herbs that are highly resinous or filled with volatile oils are not decocted. Only herbs whose constituents are not damaged by heat are boiled.
It is important to begin with cold water, not warm or hot, add the herbs, and bring to a boil. The extraction will be more efficient if you begin with cold water as different constituents extract better at different temperatures.
Some herbs, such as isatis, are stronger if they are boiled for a few minutes simply because the higher heat is a better extractant. Herbs high in polysaccharides such as reishi are also often helped by boiling; polysaccharides tend to extract more efficiently when decocted. In essence, anytime an herb is boiled, no matter how short a time, it is considered to be a decoction. If you are just boiling the herb to better extract the constituents, you are making a simple decoction.
Recipe for a Simple Decoction
1 ounce herb
1 pint cold water
Combine herb and water. Bring to boil. Boil at least 15 minutes (some herbs will need longer). Let cool enough that you can handle it. Strain the decoction to remove the herb. Press the herb to extract all liquid. Add enough water to bring the liquid back to 1 pint. Take as directed.
In a concentrated decoction, which is more common than simple decoctions, the herb is boiled in water long enough that the amount of water you began with is reduced to some extent, often by half, sometimes more. This acts to concentrate the constituents in less liquid, making the medicine stronger. Concentrated decoctions are not often drunk as a tea (reishi is an exception). However, they are sometimes used in smaller doses similarly to a tincture. Once the decoction is made it is allowed to cool, the liquid strained, then dispensed a tablespoon at a time—usually three or four times a day depending on the herb and the disease. The usual dosage range for concentrated decoctions, depending on the herb, is 1 to 4 fluid ounces a day.
As an Aside
Oxymels, which I won’t discuss more than this, have been used for thousands of years. The basic form is 40 ounces of honey to which is added 5 fluid ounces of water and 5 fluid ounces of vinegar. Oxymels were often used for colds, flu, and sore throats. However, a more medicinal form of an oxymel is made using a concentrated decoction for the water part of the recipe. Electuaries, on the other hand, are medicinal pastes (the core of which can be a concentrated decoction to which powdered herbs are added) that are made palatable by the addition of sweeteners such as honey or syrups. Marsh mallows, originally, were not candy but a particular kind of electuary that made the medicine more palatable. This is still a good way to take powdered herbs: mix the powdered herbs you wish to take very well, then add enough honey to make a ball only slightly sticky to the hand, then eat it.
The most common form of medicine made from concentrated decoctions is a cough syrup. They are also used to make a fomentation—that is, a very condensed water extract that is soaked into a cloth and applied to the surface of the body (to treat pain and inflammation in a joint, for example). Decoctions are also used as enemas—should the need arise, which everyone hopes it won’t. This gets a very strong concentrate into the bowel where it will, usually, rather easily move across the membranes of the colon into the bloodstream.
When you are making your concentrated decoctions, use porcelain, glass, or stainless steel pots if you can; iron and aluminum will often contaminate the mix. When the decoction is cool, prepare it as needed for whatever you are going to use it for. Concentrated decoctions will last longer than infusions, especially if kept cold. Syrups will often last a year in a refrigerator just fine.
A Concentrated Decoction for Colds and Flu
1 ounce dried white or culinary sage leaf Pinch of cayenne
3 cups cold water Wildflower honey Juice of one lemon
Combine sage and cayenne with water. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until liquid is reduced by half. Let cool enough that you can work with it. Strain the liquid and press sage to extract as much liquid as possible. Add wildflower honey to taste. Add juice of one lemon. Store in refrigerator. Take 1 tablespoon or more as often as needed at the onset of throat or upper respiratory infection.
Cough Syrup Recipe
3 ounces horehound leaves/stems
2 ounces cherry bark
2 ounces elder berries
2 ounces elecampane root
2 ounces licorice root
2 ounces mallow root
1 ounce slippery elm bark
1 ounce vervain leaf
1 ounce lomatium (or osha) root
7 pints water
3 ounces glycerine Wildflower honey
2 ounces mullein tincture
1 ounce grindelia tincture
Combine the horehound, cherry bark, elder berries, elecampane, licorice, mallow, slippery elm bark, and vervain, along with half the lomatium, in the water in a large pot. Bring to a boil. Stir frequently as it heats to prevent sticking. Once it boils, reduce heat a bit and, stirring constantly, cook until the liquid is reduced by half. Let cool. (You can put the pot in a bath of cold water to cool it faster. Don’t let it tip over.) Strain the liquid, and press the marc through a cloth to extract as much liquid as you can.
(The mucilaginous herbs—the licorice and mallow—can make it hard for the liquid to pass through the weave of the cloth you are using to press the marc. So, conversely, you can keep the licorice and mallow out of the mix and, once the marc is pressed, reheat the liquid, adding the licorice and mallow to the pot in a muslin bag. Bring to a boil and let simmer, stirring constantly, for 30 minutes. Remove the bag, let it cool, then squeeze it out as best you can.)
Warm the liquid again, just enough that it will dissolve the honey and glycerine. Add the glycerine, then the honey to taste. Powder the remaining lomatium to a fine powder—a nut or coffee grinder or mortar and pestle is good for this—then add it to the liquid. Let the mix cool, then add the mullein and grindelia tinctures.
The honey, glycerine, and two tinctures help stabilize the syrup, keeping it from going bad. I do keep the whole thing in the refrigerator, though. It will last a year very easily. Generally, it is best to make this kind of a syrup in the fall, after the berries are ripe and ready for harvest, and just before flu season. (You can substitute similar herbs for any used in this recipe.) Use as needed—I just drink it from the bottle—it is very effective.
Washes are simply infusions or decoctions that are used directly on the skin. If you have hurt your skin, an abrasion or sunburn for example, any wash that contains a tannin herb such as oak or acacia or older pine needles and soothing herbs such as mallow or chamomile will facilitate healing immensely—prickly pear (a soothing mucilaginous herb) is immensely good for this.
If you have a skin infection or a wound that you want to keep from becoming infected, use a wash of the applicable herbs from this website. If you don’t know what kind of infection it is, use the antibacterial wash described below.
General Antibacterial Wash
2 ounces antibacterial herbs, such as artemisia (the absinthium species is very good), cryptolepis, or sida
2 ounces echinacea
2 ounces evergreen needles (any kind)
1 quart water
Combine the herbs with the water. Cover, bring to boil, and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Let cool and strain. Then wash the affected skin liberally with the decoction four times daily.
Steams are excellent for upper respiratory infections. They can be used as often as desired or needed. Wonderful steams can be made from most of the artemisias, any of the evergreens, any of the sages, and many other aromatic plants. You can also make them with essential oils.
The process involves putting a highly aromatic, antibacterial herb in water, boiling it, and breathing the steam.
A Steam for Upper Respiratory Infections
Though this steam recipe calls for dried herbs, it can be prepared with fresh herbs if desired.
2 ounces young eucalyptus leaves, dried
1 ounce sage leaf, dried
1 ounce juniper leaf or berry, dried
1 gallon water
Place herbs in water (in glass, stainless steel, or ceramic-coated pot) and bring to roiling boil. Remove from heat, hold head over steam, and cover head and steaming pot with large towel. Breathe steam deep into lungs. Bring herbs to boil and repeat as often as necessary. Replace herbs when their strong smell begins to noticeably diminish.
Essential oil steam: This steam method can also be undertaken with essential oils. Use 30 drops each of the essential oil of rosemary, sage, juniper, eucalyptus, and bergamot in 1 quart of water.
Wound wash: This recipe can also be prepared as a wash for infected or weeping wounds. Rather than boiling, bring the mixture to the edge of boiling, remove from heat, and let steep until lukewarm. Strain, use it to wash the wound thoroughly, then apply a wound powder.
Evaporative concentrates are remarkable medicines but are rarely used in herbal practice and are poorly understood. The most common evaporative concentrate in the United States is made from chaparral leaf and is used for treating mastitis in women. However, the primary reason to use evaporative concentrates—in my opinion—is that this is the one process I know of to create a topical corticosteroid cream as potent as those made by pharmaceutical companies.
An evaporative concentrate is made by making a very, very slow-cooking decoction. A slow cooker (or Crock-Pot) is necessary; I don’t know of another way to do it. You need a cooking pot where you can keep the heat at the slowest simmer possible, very slightly below boiling or very slightly over it.
To make a corticosteroid herbal cream, you need to begin with an anti-inflammatory herb. There are many of these and it is worth exploring different plants to find which ones work best for you. I tend to use the ones that contain a lot of salicylates, like aspen or willow, and are water soluble. When the decoction is finished, it will be very thick—the consistency of a hand cream. When used on the skin, for rashes, varicose veins, skin eruptions, and inflammations, it is as potent as pharmaceutical corticosteroids. The only drawback—not solvable—is that the concentrates are nearly black in color. It’s very visible on the skin. Difficult if it is your face you are treating.
I usually refrigerate these concentrates, but when I haven’t, even after months, they have never gone bad. The chemical concentration is apparently too high for bacteria to deal with. Needless to say, these concentrates are not for internal use.
Herbal Corticosteroid Evaporative Concentrate
32 ounces water
6 ounces powdered willow (or aspen) bark
Put the water in a slow cooker, and add the herb. Cover and turn the cooker on high. As the water warms, stir the mix well. When the water has come to a boil, reduce the heat to just under or just slightly over a simmer. Leave the cooker on that setting, covered, for 2 days.
Turn off the cooker, let the mix cool, and strain out the herb, squeezing the marc through a cloth to extract as much as possible. Clean the slow cooker and then put the liquid back in it. Turn on high and bring to a boil. Reduce immediately to just under or just slightly over a simmer. Keep it covered. Cook until the liquid is reduced to nearly nothing, essentially 1 to 2 ounces. This will take up to a week.
As the liquid begins to approach 1 to 2 ounces, watch it carefully. At this point it can lose the remaining water very quickly and it will burn once it does. Once the liquid is this low, the remainder will go very fast.It helps to stir it regularly at this point to get an idea of how much liquid is left. Once it has reduced enough, turn off the cooker, let it cool, and then place the concentrate in a jar. Label well. Not for internal use.
Percolations are just the same as drip-grind coffee. You are letting liquid drip slowly through the herb—which is held in filter paper—into a container.
Percolations are handy to know about in case you run short of a tincture and need some in a hurry. They take a few hours rather than a few weeks. They are also the best way to make a cold-process water extract, much better than letting the herb steep in cold water. The main strength of a percolation, however, is its potency. This is due to the nature of solvents.
In essence, a solvent is a pure liquid; it doesn’t have anything in it but itself. As a solvent leaches chemical constituents into itself, it begins filling up, or getting saturated as they say. Once it is saturated it can’t take any more into itself. A good way to visualize this is to see, in your imagination, the liquid on one side, the herb on the other. The herb is full, the liquid is empty. As the two combine, the constituents in the herb begin to flow into the liquid. However, once the amount of constituents in the liquid are in equilibrium with those in the herb—like a weight scale where equal weights are on each side of the scale—it is very difficult for the constituents to keep flowing into the liquid. A saturation point is being reached.
The way a percolator works, however, means that the liquid never becomes saturated, the liquid that is touching the herb is always pure. So, the extract becomes very strong. You will see how this works when I describe how the percolator works in practice.
To make a percolation, however, you will need a percolator—this is why so few people make them. It is a bit more complex than using a jar to make a tincture or a coffee cone to make coffee. Some people do make their own percolators (it can be done fairly simply), or you can buy one from a scientific glass supplier.
Most scientific percolators are several feet long and look somewhat like a giant glass ice cream cone, wider at the top (big enough to easily put your hand and arm into) and narrowing to a point at the bottom. There is a narrow opening at the bottom that flows into an integralglass tube with a control knob on it, a spigot essentially, that you turn to control the flow of liquid out of the percolator.
(You can make your own percolator by cutting the bottom off a glass water bottle—don’t use plastic—such as a mid-sized Perrier container. Sand the edges well. Until they are smooth. Keep the cap; you will need it.)
To use a percolator, you first determine what kind of percolation you are going to make, water or an alcohol and water mix. Make up the liquid mixture you are going to need and keep it close. Then take the dried herb and grind it as finely as possible. Percolation will not work with fresh herbs; they have to be dried. For a percolation to work well, the herb really does need to be as close to a powder as possible. You need as much plant surface area exposed to the liquid as possible. Once the herb is powdered, and before you start percolating, put the herb in a large bowl and add enough alcohol to the herb to moisten it—not wet, just moist. This will begin breaking down the cell walls of the plant and make the extraction more efficient.
Let the moist herb sit a couple of hours, but if you are impatient, at least 30 minutes. Then take some filter paper—I use the same coffee filters as are used for drip-grind coffee cones—and place it in the bottom of the percolator. It helps if the inside of the percolator is slightly dampened first so that the paper will adhere to the glass and fit snugly. Press the paper into place, being sure to not punch a hole in it with your fingers. Once that is done, carefully put the moistened herb in the cone, making sure you don’t get any between the filter paper and the glass. Press it lightly into place—you don’t want it compacted though, since liquid has to flow through it.
Depending on the amount of herb you use, the percolator can be filled nearly to the top with plant matter. When all the plant material is in the percolator, put a circular piece of filter paper on top of the herb and put something heavy on that to keep the paper, and the herb, from floating up—a small stone works well. (Not scientific, I know, but very aesthetic.)
Then, slowly, begin pouring the liquid into the percolator. Do it slowly so that you don’t stir up the powdered herb. The liquid will slowly percolate down into the plant matter, and air bubbles will come up. (You may not be able to get all the liquid into the percolator in one go. If so you will have to add the rest as the liquid level drops.) When the herb is fully saturated, put a container under the spigot and very slowly open the spigot. (Some people run a plastic hose from the spigot into a container—needless to say, the percolator has to be held in the air on a stand of some sort in order to work.) You want to get one drop per second coming out of the spigot, so adjust the spigot until you get just that rate of drip.
The reason this makes such a good tincture (or cold water infusion) is that only clean liquid is flowing over the herb. This means that the liquid is completely unsaturated; its extraction capacity remains very high. So as the liquid flows over the herb, it pulls chemical compounds out of the plant, then more clean liquid comes behind and pulls more out. It’s very elegant.
If you are using a homemade percolator, prepare it the same way, but when you are ready to percolate, very slightly open the bottle cap—just enough that a very slow drip comes out. Again, one drip per second is very effective.
Because alcohol extractions, i.e., tinctures, keep so well over time and because they are so easily dispensed, many herbalists prefer them over infusions. They are made by immersing a fresh plant in full-strength alcohol or a dried plant in an alcohol and water mixture.
I am a fan of using pure grain alcohol for tinctures. What that means in practice, however, is using an alcohol that is 190 proof, or 95 percent alcohol. (There is such a thing as 100 percent or 200-proof alcohol, but the only people who generally use it are scientists or large commercial enterprises; you will probably never see it.) Most people buy their 190-proof alcohol at their local liquor store; the most common brand in the United States is called Everclear.
Some states—some countries—will not allow their citizens to buy 190-proof alcohol (for their own good, of course). If you live in such a place, you will have to cross state (or country) lines and buy your alcohol from a more enlightened place or else make do with what they allow you to buy. In such places, most people use a 40 percent to 50 percent alcohol-content vodka; that is, 80 to 100 proof. Get the highest proof you can—you will see why this is important as we go on.
In the United States, the amount you pay for liquor, regardless of what you are buying, is directly proportional to its alcohol content. The actual cost of a gallon of 190-proof alcohol is about $1.00. The rest of the cost is federal and state taxes—which are then taxed again by sales tax when you buy the thing. So you may be tempted to buy a lower-proof vodka because it is cheaper. That is a bad idea. Your tinctures will be weak.
Fresh Plant Tinctures
Fresh herb tinctures, again, are made by putting the fresh herb in pure grain alcohol. These tinctures are nearly always made in a one-to-two ratio, which is written 1:2. (There are a few exceptions.) This ratio means you are using 1 part herb (dry weight measurement) to 2 parts liquid (liquid measurement). The amount of herb in such ratios is always indicated by the first number, the amount of liquid by the second number.
The Origin of “Proof”
As an aside: In the eighteenth century the English navy paid sailors partly in rum. The watering of drinks has always been a problem. So to test their rum before accepting it as pay, the sailors would soak gunpowder with it. If the gunpowder would still burn, the rum was “proved.” Hence 100 proof. The rum had to be a minimum of 57.5 percent alcohol for the gunpowder to burn, but that has been watered down to a simple rule of thumb: 50 percent alcohol = 100 proof.
So, for example, if you have 3 ounces (dry weight measure) of fresh echinacea flower heads, you would place them in a jar with 6 ounces (liquid measure) of 190-proof alcohol. I generally use well-sealed Mason or Ball jars, stored out of the sun and shaken daily. At the end of 2 weeks the herb is decanted and squeezed through a cloth until as dry as possible (an herb or wine press is good for this), and the resulting liquid is then stored in labeled, amber bottles.
Fresh plants naturally contain a certain percentage of water and alcohol is a very good extractor of water. (One of the main symptoms of a hangover comes from the alcohol extracting the water from your body—you get the same kind of headache from too much alcohol as you do from dehydration.) Alcohol will pull not only the medicinal constituents out of the plant but the plant’s water as well.
The water in the fresh plant dilutes the alcohol, how much depends on the kind of plant it is. Peppermint has a lot of water in it, 50 percent or more by weight. So what you get when you tincture fresh peppermint leaves is a tincture that is about 50 percent alcohol and 50 percent water. Myrrh gum has virtually no water in it, so you end up with a tincture that is 95 percent alcohol and 5 percent water—and all that water was already in the alcohol, assuming you began with 95 percent alcohol.
Fresh leafy plants may be chopped or left whole before placing them into the alcohol or pureed with the alcohol in a blender. Fresh roots should be ground with the alcohol in a blender into a pulpy mush. (I generally think it better to make root tinctures from dried roots, but there are a few exceptions; coral root is one.)
Dried Plant Tinctures
Plants, as they dry, lose their natural moisture content (the amount of water you combine with alcohol to make a tincture is the amount of water that the plant loses when it dries). Tables detailing the moisture content of many medicinal plants are available. When making atincture of a dried plant, you always add back the amount of water that was present in the plant when it was fresh. This enables the extraction of the water-soluble constituents to occur.
Dried plants are usually tinctured at a one-to-five ratio, which is written 1:5. (There are, as always, exceptions.) That means 1 part dried herb to 5 parts liquid. Fresh Echinacea angustifolia root, for example, contains 30 percent water by weight. If you have 10 ounces of powdered root (dry weight) you would then add to it 50 ounces of liquid (liquid measurement). This gives you your 1:5 ratio. The tricky part for many people comes in figuring out how much of that liquid should be water and how much alcohol. In this instance you are wanting your liquid to be 30 percent water (fresh echinacea root’s water content); that is, 30 percent of 50 ounces, which would be 15 ounces water. The rest of the liquid will be alcohol; that is, 35 ounces.
A formula for this particular plant tincture would look something like this:
Echinacea angustifolia: fresh root tincture 1:2; dried root tincture 1:5, 70 percent alcohol. Dosage: 30–60 drops as needed. In acute conditions: 30 drops minimum each hour.
Pressing Herbal Tinctures
When your tinctures are done, and you pour off the liquid, the marc will still have some, often a great deal of, liquid in it. The marc needs to be pressed to remove the remaining tincture. Most people do this by hand. The best thing to use is a good-quality cloth with a close weave to it—I use the same surgical cloths hospitals do; they hold up really well. An herb press facilitates this immensely, though a cider press, depending on the style, will work very well, too. You will get a lot more out of a press than when doing it by hand, but they do tend to be expensive.
With fresh plants you can generally get out about as much liquid as you put in; with dried material, especially roots, you get out as much as you can. Sometimes this isn’t much.
It is just assumed that you already know that all fresh plant tinctures at 1:2 will be using 95 percent alcohol. (Note: Everyone I know just assumes that the 95 percent alcohol they are using is 100 percent; no one I know takes that 5 percent into account in figuring this stuff out. Life is too short.)
Again, don’t use tap water if you can avoid it. Powder the herbs you are tincturing as finely as possible—many people in the United States use a Vitamix for this. It is a pretty indestructible mixer/grinder, especially if you get a commercial-grade unit. (The demo video shows them grinding 2×4s into sawdust.) I have had mine for 25 years and have replaced the blades only twice in spite of the heavy use I’ve subjected it to.
Unless the herbs become tremendously hard when dried (as red root does), it is best to store herbs as whole as possible until they are needed. This reduces the cell surface area that is exposed to air. Oxygen degrades plant matter fairly quickly.
Dry plant tinctures, like fresh, are left to macerate for 2 weeks, out of the light, before decanting.
Combination Tincture Formulas
In spite of our aversion in the United States toward the metric system, all scientific glassware in the United States is metric. Most herbalists use a graduated cylinder to measure the amount of tincture they are pouring out (available from any scientific glassware company). Most herbal bottles, of course, are in ounces, while the measuring cylinders are in milliliters. Roughly, 30 milliliters is equal to 1 ounce.
As an example, if you were going to make a combination tincture formula for the early onset of colds and flu, a good mix would be 10 milliliters each of echinacea, red root, and licorice tinctures mixed together. This would give you 1 fluid ounce total.
You can mix something like this in the graduated cylinder, as long as your hand is steady, then pour the mixture into a 1-ounce amber bottle with a dropper lid. Dosage would be one full dropper at least each hour during the onset of upper respiratory infections. This will usually prevent the onset of colds and flu if your immune system is relatively healthy.
How Long Will Tinctures Last?
Tinctures should be kept out of the sun—a dark, cool room is good. Keeping them in dark or amber-colored glass jars is even better—though if they are in the dark you can leave them in clear jars as many of us do with our larger quantities of tinctures. Tinctures will, in general, last many years. However, you should know about precipitation, a very neglected area of herbal medicine.
The constituents that you have extracted from the herbs are held in suspension in a liquid medium. Over time, some of these constituents will precipitate out and settle on the bottom of the tincture bottle. Some herbs such as Echinacea angustifolia root are heavy precipitators, while others, like elder flower, are such light precipitators that you will almost never see a precipitate in the bottle. Unfortunately, there has been little study on this, nor has a chart of herbal precipitation rates ever been prepared (as far as I know; intent searching has never turned one up). Technically, we need one that shows both the rate of precipitation and the amount of precipitation for each plant.
Some herbalists will add 1 to 2 ounces of glycerine to every 16 ounces of tincture (10 percent to 15 percent of the total liquid) to help slow down or eliminate precipitation. It does help retard the precipitation of tannins; I am not sure how well it works for other constituents or over time but you might try it and see how it works if precipitation becomes a concern for you.
You will find that some herbs will produce an ever larger precipitate on the bottom of your storage bottles as time goes by. It is not possible to get that precipitate back into solution. Most herbalists simply shake the bottle prior to dispensing and suggest the user do the same before ingesting it. I do it this way and it seems to work fine, medicinally speaking.
There is, as yet, no data on whether the efficacy of a tincture is affected by precipitation. Certainly the ones that do not precipitate are good for decades if kept in a dark, cool location in well-sealed bottles.
Glycerine can also be used for making extracts; it has become a popular alternative for children’s tinctures and for people who don’t like alcohol.
Glycerine is technically a kind of alcohol, though most people don’t know it (and when told they don’t seem to think it evil). It is formed through the hydrolysis of oils or fats, usually animal or vegetable. It is a common by-product of the industrial production of soap. Glycerine is a relatively new substance (to people), discovered in 1789 and used medicinally only since the mid-1800s.
Glycerine is fairly viscous and very sweet; I’ve never had any undiluted glycerine go bad, even after years of being unrefrigerated. It is very stable, like alcohol, and possesses its own antimicrobial properties. It is not as efficient an extractive as water or alcohol; it won’t extract gums, resins, or volatile or fixed oils, so its range of use is limited.
If you do dilute the glycerine, as you will have to do in making an extract, it won’t hold up as well as an alcohol tincture. Most people add 10 percent to 15 percent alcohol to glycerites to ensure stability.
One of the very good things about glycerine is that it is moisturizing, demulcent, emollient, and soothing to the skin. I have found it to be exceptional for making extractions to be used for ear infections. Unlike alcohol, it won’t irritate the inside of the ear but will soothe it instead while still carrying antimicrobial constituents to the place they need to go.
Glycerine is only about 60 percent as extractive as water or alcohol; glycerites will be 40 percent less strong than those other extractions. Glycerites should be dosed at one and a half to two times the dosage for tinctures. If you would normally dose with ½ dropperful (15 drops) of tincture, you would, with a glycerite, give ¾ dropperful (22 drops) to 1 full dropper (30 drops).
MAKING GLYCERITES FROM DRIED HERBS
The ratio is the same as for alcohol tinctures, 1:5. The liquid, however, to better preserve the glycerine and to help the extraction be more effective, should contain at least 10 percent 190-proof alcohol, then 60 percent glycerine, and finally 30 percent water.
As an example: If you are starting with 5 ounces of powdered echinacea root, then you would need 25 ounces of liquid, of which 2.5 ounces would be alcohol, 15 ounces would be glycerine, and 7.5 ounces would be water.
It is more effective if you add the alcohol to the powdered herbs first and let it sit for 24 hours, then add the glycerine and water, mix well, and leave in a jar with the lid on for 2 weeks. Decant and store as with alcohol tinctures.
Ear Infection Glycerite
1 ounce berberine plant
1 ounce cryptolepis (or sida or alchornea)
1 ounce echinacea
1 ounce juniper (or other evergreen needles)
1 ounce usnea lichen
2.5 ounces grain alcohol
15 ounces glycerine
7.5 ounces water
Powder herbs well, place in jar, add alcohol, mix thoroughly, and let sit for 24 hours. Mix glycerine and water together, and add to powdered herbs in jar. Let macerate 2 weeks, then decant and strain. Store in amber jar. Use 1–3 drops in the ear up to six times daily for ear infections.
MAKING GLYCERITES FROM FRESH HERBS
This is made with the usual 1:2 ratio for fresh herbs. In this instance, however, use 15 percent pure alcohol and 85 percent glycerine. So if you have 5 ounces fresh herb, you would want 10 ounces of liquid, of which 1.5 ounces would be 95 percent alcohol and 8.5 ounces would be glycerine.
A Comment on Alcohol
There has been a tremendous resurgence of puritanitis in the United States and a few other parts of the globe (notably the United Kingdom) over the past 20 years or so. One object of attention of this spasming of the puritan reflex has been the evils of alcohol. Many on the right and on the left seem to think it is some sort of inherently evil substance that is going to destroy Western civilization or at least make God really, really mad.
Alcohol existed long before human beings emerged out of the ecological matrix of this planet. It is a highly natural substance, both inside and outside of our bodies.All living beings partake of it, including trees, bees, and elephants. (Not kidding.) All of them enjoy it. It facilitates the functioning of the body, enhances organ function in many respects, and reduces the incidence of many diseases. It is not an evil substance.
One of the continual queries about tinctures concerns the alcohol content. Many people are afraid to take tinctures because of the evil alcohol in them.
To be really specific: The amount of alcohol in tinctures is incredibly tiny. Less than you will get from eating a few pieces of bread (yes, bread does have alcohol in it, enough to produce a breathalyzer reading of 0.05 just by itself). If you are taking 20 drops of a 60 percent alcohol tincture every hour for an acute condition, you will get about 1/17 of an ounce of alcohol over the course of a day (less than 2 milliliters). If you are taking a general dose (20 drops three times daily) you will be getting about 1/30 of an ounce over a day. Again, this is less than you will get from eating two slices of bread.
If this truly is a problem for you, you can make infusions or use glycerites—though the glycerites really aren’t as effective and the water extractions won’t extract some of the more important alcohol-soluble constituents. Some people heat their tinctures to remove the alcohol; it doesn’t work very well and I suspect the heat alters the quality of the tincture. I don’t recommend it.
Honey can be used just like glycerine, following the same directions for making a glycerite. Make sure to use a good wildflower honey.
Nasal sprays are excellent for helping with the onset of upper respiratory or sinus infections. Simply take an herbal tincture and place up to 10 drops or so in a 1-ounce nasal spray bottle (available from pharmacies). Add pure water and spray up nostrils as often as needed.
Nasal Spray Formula for Sinus Infections
5 drops cryptolepis tincture
5 drops bidens tincture
5 drops juniper berry tincture
5 drops usnea tincture
Combine the tinctures in a 1-ounce nasal spray bottle, add enough pure water to make 1 ounce, replace cap, and spray into nostrils as often as desired. (You could substitute 2 drops each of the essential oils of eucalyptus, sage, rosemary, and juniper for the tinctures if you wish.)
I don’t use these much, but they have a long history of use in many different cultures. One of their strengths is that vinegar itself is a highly medicinal substance; another is that they don’t go bad, no matter how long you keep them. Natural vinegars should be used; most people use an unpasteurized, organic apple cider vinegar. Make your tinctures at a 1:2 ratio if using fresh herbs, or 1:5 if using dried. You don’t need to add any water to vinegar tinctures.
Not many people make their own fluid extracts any more, though a few herbal companies sell them. Herb Pharm’s Eleutherococcus tincture is one of the better known. Essentially, 1 gram of fluid extract is supposedto be equivalent to 1 gram of the herb. They are very concentrated alcohol tinctures. In the nineteenth century they generally contained other substances such as vinegar or sugar. All trained pharmacists could make fluid extracts in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They would make them in their pharmacies, in the lab in back, and keep them on hand for when needed. Most companies that make fluid extracts these days use specialized equipment to do so.
Here are the directions for a fluid extract of ipecac, from an early U.S. pharmacopeia.
Moisten 16 Troy ounces ipecacuanha in fine powder with 6 fluid ounces alcohol; press it firmly into a conical percolator, and displace 3 pints of tincture, or until the ipecacuanha is exhausted. Distill the tincture over a water-bath until the residue is of a syrupy consistence. Mix with 1 fluid ounce acetic acid and 10 fluid ounces water; boil until reduced to ½ pint, and the resinous matter has separated. Filter when cold, and add water through the filter to make the filtrate up to ½ pint. Mix with ½ pint alcohol.
An alternate form of a fluid extract would be an evaporative concentrate. For example, make up a willow bark concentrate as described earlier but save the marc. Add to the marc 5 ounces of 190-proof alcohol and let it macerate as you reduce your decoction in the slow cooker. Once the decoction is reduced to 1 ounce of a very thick liquid, press out the alcohol from the marc and combine it with the concentrate. This will give you approximately 6 ounces of a fluid extract, essentially a 1:1 ratio. The dosage for internal use would be tiny, 1 to 3 drops. It is much stronger than a regular tincture.
This form of a fluid extract will work only with plants that have primarily water-soluble constituents. A percolator really is necessary for those that need alcohol extraction.
Here is Michael Moore’s recipe for a fluid extract using a percolator:
Briefly, take 8 ounces of Tabebuia (Pau D’Arco), grind it, make up an arbitrary amount of menstruum (let’s say four times as much, or 32 ounces). The tincture lists a 50% strength; make your fluidextract menstruum 20 percent higher in alcohol content (i.e. 70%). Mix 22.4 ounces of alcohol with 9.6 ounces of water to get a quart of 70 percent alcohol menstruum. Take the Tabebuia, moisten it, digest it for TWO days, pack a larger [percolator] cone with it, and drip (very slowly) a first batch of tincture that is only 75% of the volume as the original dried herb weighed. This means after you have dripped 6 fluid ounces, take it away, and continue dripping everything else into a second jar. As the rest of the menstruum finally starts to sink below the top of the herb column, start adding water into the cone. This second drip can be any amount you wish … a quart, two quarts, whatever. You will need to evaporate it all in a double boiler until it is reduced to 25% in volume of the herb weight … 2 ounces in this case. Add the vile remnant of the second percolation to the 6 ounces from the first percolation, and you now have 8 ounces of fluidextract, made from 8 ounces of Tabebuia Bark. A fluidextract is by definition 1:1 in strength.1
The easiest way to make a douche is to add ½ ounce of tincture to 1 pint of water. This is especially effective in the treatment of vaginal infections. Usnea is particularly valuable as a douche, as are the berberines. In general, douching twice a day for 3 days is sufficient.
You can also make a strong infusion or decoction and, when cooled, douche with that. Sida and cryptolepis would be good as either an infusion or a decoction.
Liniments are generally made with rubbing alcohol. Use a 1:2 ratio with fresh plants, 1:5 with dried. You don’t need to add any additional water. I use these for topical use, generally for arthritis and sore muscles. Cayenne is a very good liniment herb for both: 3 ounces powdered cayenne in 15 ounces rubbing alcohol, macerate for 2 weeks, decant, and press. I just pour a bit in my hand and rub the affected area as often as needed. Caution:Wash your hands afterward and never, ever, ever touchany mucous membranes before you do. Cuts are nearly as bad. And for sure, never, never go to the bathroom and then wipe yourself after using one of these unless you have washed your hands really, really well first. Just an FYI on that one.
Oil infusions are exceptionally useful for burns, sunburn, chapped and dry skin, skin infections; as ear drops; and for use on wounds as salves. With oil infusions the medicinal properties of the plant are transferred to an oil base rather than water or alcohol. A salve is just an oil infusion thickened by the addition of beeswax.
Oil Infusions with Dried Herbs
To make an oil infusion of dried herbs, grind the herbs you wish to use into as fine a powder as possible. Place the herbs in a glass baking dish, and pour enough oil on top of them to soak them well. Stir the powdered herbs to make sure they are well saturated with oil; add just enough extra oil to cover them by ¼ inch or so. I generally use olive oil because it is very stable; it doesn’t go rancid easily and is, itself, strongly antimicrobial.
Some people just leave the mix, covered, in a sunny location for a few weeks. That will work fine as long as they do get sun and are warmed well every day. I prefer using the oven. I cover the container, put it in the oven on low heat just before bed, and leave it overnight. Some herbalists prefer to cook the herbs for as many as 10 days at 100°F in a slow cooker. (Most of us are too impatient for that.) However you do it, when the mix is done, let it cool, then strain the oil out of the herbs by pressing through a strong cloth with a good weave.
Herbal Oil for Skin Infections
1 ounce dried artemisia leaf (any species)
1 ounce dried berberine plant (any species; root, bark, or leaf as the case may be)
1 ounce dried cryptolepis (or sida or bidens or alchornea leaf)
1 ounce dried echinacea root or seed
1 ounce dried evergreen needles (any species)
1 ounce dried usnea
1 quart olive oil
Grind all the herbs as finely as you can, then place them in a glass or ceramic pot—do not use metal. Pour in enough oil to saturate the herbs, stir the mix well, then add enough extra oil to cover the herbs by ¼ inch. Heat the mixture, covered, overnight in the oven with the setting on low (150° to 200°F) or on low in a slow cooker for 7 days. Let the mixture cool. Press the oily herb mixture through a cloth to extract the oil. Store the oil in a sealed glass container out of the sun. It does not need to be refrigerated.
Oil Infusions with Fresh Herbs
To make an oil infusion from fresh herbs, place the herbs in a clear glass jar and cover them with just enough oil to make sure no part of the plant is exposed to air. Let the jar sit in the sun for 2 weeks (or cook in a slow cooker for 5 days at low setting). Then press the herbs through a cloth. Let the decanted oil sit. After a day the water that is naturally present in fresh herbs will settle to the bottom; carefully pour off the oil and discard the water. Note: You may have to do this two or three times to get all the water out. If any water remains in the oil, it will spoil.
Some herbalists prefer to start the oil infusion by pouring just a bit of alcohol over the herb and letting it sit in the alcohol for 24 hours. This begins breaking down the cell walls of the plant, making the oil extraction stronger.
To make a salve all you do is take the oil you have made and add beeswax to it. Only beeswax should be used, not petroleum waxes. For a variety of reasons beeswax is better, among them: beeswax itself has antimicrobial properties.
So … after pressing out the oil from your cooled oil infusion, put it in a glass, ceramic, or stainless steel pot and slowly reheat it. It needs to be reheated just enough to melt the beeswax.
It usually takes somewhere around 2 ounces of beeswax per cup of infused oil to make a salve. It goes a lot faster if the beeswax is in the form of beads or is as finely chopped as you can get it.
When the beeswax is melted and stirred in, place a few drops from the pot on a small plate and let it cool. Touch it; if it is too soft add more wax, if too hard add a bit more oil. A perfect salve should stay hard for a few seconds as you press your fingertip on it and then suddenly soften from your body heat. If you do make up your salve and it is too soft, you can just reheat it slowly and add a bit more beeswax. If too hard, you can add a bit more oil.
I used to make my salves and put them into scores of tiny salve jars. Now, I just put them into a larger container such as a Ball or Mason jar, slowly reheat it if I need some to use, and then pour that into a smaller container to carry with me.
Contrary to popular belief, oil and water do mix. It’s called a lotion. You can make water infusions of herbs, then blend them with oil (and an emulsifier) to make a lotion for the skin. Many herbs that are good for the skin can be blended into these kinds of lotions. Some of the best information on this (not my thing really) can be found online.
Using Whole Herbs
Herbs don’t have to be made into tinctures or infusions; they can be taken directly in various forms: as powders, as food, as juice. They are very effective in these forms for a variety of ailments.
Some wounds do not respond well to a wet dressing like a salve. However, dried herbs placed directly on the wound are exceptional in such cases. Herbal combinations, when powdered well, will stop bleeding and facilitate rapid healing while preventing infection. After the wound has begun healing, you can switch to a salve or even honey directly on the wound.
(As an aside, I once accidently shot a 16d nail through the first joint of the index finger on my left hand—a complicated misfire by a compressed air nail gun. After I used a hammer to remove my finger from the board it was nailed to, I poured some cryptolepis tincture on the nail, then pulled it out of the finger. I used a wound powder, much like the one in this website, on the wound for 2 days, then switched to pure honey dressings for a week. It worked fine; full function restored.)
There is probably no more powerful way to treat wound infections than with powdered herbs. I have yet to find an infection that will not respond to one.
The herbs need to be powdered as fine as possible. I usually begin with a Vitamix, which will give me a semi-small grind, then switch to a nut or coffee grinder for further powdering. This will get the herbs about as fine as you can get them. A mortar and pestle will do very well, but they are time consuming.
After the herbs are powdered, they should be sifted through a fine-mesh sieve, so make sure you are getting only the finest powder possible. (Discard any pieces that refuse to reduce to a powder or save them for use in an oil infusion later.) Once it has been sieved, put the powder in a tightly sealed container and keep it in a freezer or in a cool location away from sunlight. Powdered herbs lose their potency fairly quickly unless protected. Replace the powder every 6 months, unless you are keeping it frozen, which will allow it to last several years.
When needed sprinkle the powder liberally on wet wounds. It will stop the bleeding, prevent infection, and stimulate cell wall binding. Infected, oozing, pus-filled wounds should be opened up, cleaned with an antibacterial herbal wash, then liberally sprinkled with the powder as often as needed. Once the wound is healing cleanly it should not be disturbed (i.e., by scrubbing or trying to open it up again)—just add more wound powder, or switch to honey, as needed.
A Good Wound Powder
1 ounce berberine plant (root or bark, as the case may be)
1 ounce cryptolepis root or sida, bidens, or alchornea leaf
1 ounce echinacea root or seed
1 ounce juniper leaf
1 ounce lomatium root
1 ounce usnea lichen
Powder all herbs as finely as possible, and strain through a sieve. Use as needed. This same formula can be sprinkled onto feet or into shoes and socks for athlete’s foot fungal infections. It may also be used on babies for diaper rash.
Herbal Powders for Internal Use
Herbs are often powdered and then pressed into tablets or put into capsules for internal use, generally by commercial companies. You can get a simple herbal capsule machine if you wish. Packing a lot of capsules by hand is tremendously tedious. These days, I usually just take the herbs internally in their powdered form. Many people don’t like to do it this way because of the flavor of the herbs—they are often bitter. (I just use juice or honey; I am very lazy.)
Although many herbs are available as capsules or tablets, for some conditions the herbs really do need to be taken as powders; they shouldn’t be encapsulated. This is especially true in cases of severe stomach ulceration. The herbs should be powdered, then mixed with liquid and consumed. This allows the herb to make contact with the entire affected area.
If the ulceration is in the duodenum, which lies just below the stomach, then capsules should be used. The capsules tend to sit at the bottom of the stomach and then drop through into the duodenum where they are needed. Duodenal ulcers are often accompanied by painful cramping or spasming. This can be alleviated by the addition of a few drops of peppermint essential oil to the herbal mixture before encapsulating it.
Herbal Regimen for an Ulcerated Stomach
4 ounces dried licorice root
4 ounces dried marsh mallow root
4 ounces dried comfrey root
2 ounces berberine plant tincture
1 quart wildflower honey
Powder licorice, marsh mallow, and comfrey roots (as finely as possible) and mix together in equal parts. Take 2 tablespoons, twice a day (morning and evening), mixed in any liquid (e.g., apple juice), for 30 days. For the next 60 days use just powdered licorice and marsh mallow roots (omitting the comfrey), again mixed in equal parts; take 1 tablespoon in the morning only. The herbs should not be in capsules in order to allow them to fully coat the stomach lining. (For duodenal ulcers, you would take them in capsules.)
At the same time, as you first begin the treatment with the powder, take 1 teaspoon of the berberine plant tincture three times daily for 15 days. And … take 1 tablespoon honey six times daily for 30 days.
Suppositories can be made from powdered herbs to treat things such as vaginal infections and hemorrhoids. I have recommended the use of echinacea suppositories for abnormal Pap smears for many years; they work very well. The powdered herbs are combined with enough liquid to make them hold together, be shaped properly, and be inserted.
Suppository for an Abnormal Pap Smear
Echinacea angustifolia root
Powder the echinacea root as finely as you can, then mix it with enough vegetable glycerine to bring it to the consistency of cookie dough. At this point it will still be a bit sticky, so mix it with enough flour (any kind—chlorella or spirulina can also be used) to bring it to the consistency of bread dough. Once you have, take a bit of the mix and press it into the shape of a suppository, about the size of your thumb. Repeat until you’ve used up all the mixture. Place the suppositories on a tray and put them in the freezer. They won’t freeze; they will remain pliable but manageable.
Each evening, after you are in bed, place one suppository up against the cervix. The next morning, use a douche made from a mix of equal parts usnea and calendula tinctures, ½ ounce in 1 pint water (otherwise the remains of the suppository will drip out throughout the day—messy). Repeat every day for 14 days.
Using Fresh Herbs
Some herbs are particularly potent if used fresh and taken internally. The most obvious form of this is food. Our ancestors ate several hundred plants over the course of the year, most of them wildcrafted. Our bodies are used to it and in many respects a number of our diseases come from the lack of wild plants in our diets. Nearly all plants can be eaten for food and their medicinal constituents then become a part of the regular diet. I won’t go into that in any depth here but do want to mention a few herbs that really are best if used fresh, primarily when juiced.
Medicinal Plant Juices
Ginger, of course, is only strongly effective if used fresh and the best way to do that is to juice the plant. The fresh leaf juices from bidens and Artemisia annua are also much more potent than using the plants in their dried form. And, of course, the fresh juice of Echinacea purpureais part of standard-practice medicine in Germany. Some of the other plants that possess particularly potent medicinal juices are cabbage and plantain.
Cabbage is particularly high in S-methylmethionine (SMM)—it used to be called vitamin U. (This substance is also strongly present in malted barley.) SMM is exceptionally effective in healing and protecting the GI tract from ulceration and inflammation. It is present in its most active form, and at the highest concentrations, in fresh cabbage juice. One of the best combinations for treating irritable bowel syndrom, Crohn’s disease, or ulceration in the GI tract is the juice from one piece of cabbage about the size of a carrot and six leaves of plantain. (I prefer to also add the juice of two carrots, one beet, and four stalks of celery.)
Although the juicing of fruits and vegetables has a long history, there are few people exploring the use of medicinal plant juices in any depth. It is a very open field with a lot of potential for development. Many of the plants are much stronger if their fresh juice is used.
You can juice the plants, then stabilize the juice with the addition of 20 percent alcohol by volume. That is, if you have 5 ounces of juice, you would add 1 ounce of pure grain alcohol to keep the juice from spoiling. The juice can then be dispensed much like a tincture, though in somewhat larger doses.
Essential oils are made by distilling volatile oils from plants. From 0.5 percent to 5 percent of a plant’s weight is composed of volatiles, or what we call essential oils. Most plants tend toward the lower end of that scale. To get an idea of how much plant it takes to make an essential oil: If a plant has 1 percent essential oil, it will take 100 ounces of the plant (a little over 6 pounds) to get 1 ounce of essential oil.
To make essential oils, distillation is necessary. In recent years a number of herbalists have begun to reclaim home distilling in order to make their own essential oils, but most of us just buy them already made.
Essential oils are used as medicine, mainly, in three ways: 1) placed directly on the skin, sometimes diluted, sometimes not; 2) inhaled (i.e., aromatherapy); and 3) in minute doses internally.
Essential oils move through the skin fairly easily. Lateral epicondylitis (a.k.a., tennis elbow) is a very painful and often debilitating inflammation of the nerve in the elbow, usually from repeated stress on the joint. Birch essential oil, rubbed on the area and about 5 inches around it, will usually reduce both the inflammation and the pain within 15 minutes. (It takes months for it to heal, but this does help immensely.)
Essential oils can be added to hot water and inhaled as steams or added to water and used as nasal sprays, for instance.
It is possible to take essential oils internally, but great caution should be exercised. Because so much plant matter is used to make an essential oil, these oils are incredibly potent. If you were foolish enough to take a whole ounce of essential oil by mouth—a very, very bad idea—you would be consuming 6 pounds of a medicinal plant in a form that would go into the bloodstream almost instantly. This is why essential oils are greatly diluted when put into formulations, used in diffusers, or taken internally in tiny, tiny doses (from one to five drops at a time). Generally, for internal use, I stick to things like peppermint oil, one drop at a time, for severe indigestion.
Measuring Herbal Medicines
It seems nearly everyone uses a different way to describe how much to take; some say milliliters (ml), some say drops, some say dropperful, some say teaspoon or tablespoon, so here is a conversion table for you. It may help.
A drop: A drop is not always a drop (see why there’s confusion?). A drop of water and a drop of alcohol are about the same, but a drop of glycerine is bigger—about five times bigger than a drop of water—because it is so viscous. Nevertheless, pretty much everyone treats a drop as a drop. Now, is that clear or what?
Dropperful: A 1-ounce glass tincture bottle has a standard glass dropper that fits in it and when the dropper is full of tincture, that is what I call a dropperful. It generally holds around 30 drops, so I consider a dropperful to be 30 drops, or 1.5 ml. Normally, a glass dropper will fill only halfway with one squeeze, so it takes two to get a full dropper.
A milliliter is, for water or alcohol, 20 drops or two-thirds of a dropper.
A teaspoon is 5 ml or 100 drops or three and one-third dropperfuls.
A tablespoon is ½ ounce, 15 ml, 3 teaspoons, 300 drops.
An ounce is in the neighborhood of 600 drops.
Treatment of Children
Children’s bodies are much smaller than adults’ and if you are using herbal medicines with them, you need to adjust the dosages. You can determine the dosages for children through one of three approaches:
Clark’s Rule: Divide the weight in pounds by 150 to give an approximate fraction of an adult’s dose. For a 75-pound child the dose would be 75 divided by 150, or half the adult dose. (This is the one I find most useful.)
Cowling’s Rule: The age of a child at his or her next birthday divided by 24. For a child coming 8 years of age, the dose would be 8 divided by 24, or one-third the adult dose.
Young’s Rule: The child’s age divided by (12 + age of child). For a 3-year-old it would be 3 divided by (12 + 3; that is, 15) for a dose of one-fifth the adult dose.
Childhood Ear Infections
Most childhood ear infections can be treated successfully with herbs. Tinctures, glycerites, honeys, teas, and herbal steams are all effective approaches.
Children are most susceptible to ear infections from antibiotic-resistant strains of Haemophilus influenzae,Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and Branhamella catarrhalis. These kinds of treatment plans have been found highly effective for treating them, individually or together.
Children’s Ear Oil
5 cloves garlic
4 ounces olive oil
20 drops eucalyptus essential oil
Chop garlic finely, place in small baking dish with olive oil, cook over low heat overnight, and strain, pressing cloves well. Add essential oil of eucalyptus to garlic oil and mix well. Place in amber bottle for storage. To use: Hold glass eyedropper under hot water for 1 minute, dry well (quickly), and suction up ear oil from bottle. Place 2 drops in both ears every half hour or as often as needed for 2 to 7 days.
Brigitte Mars’s Herbal Tea for Ear Infections
1 ounce elder flower (Sambucus spp.)
1 ounce licorice root
1 ounce Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis)
1 ounce peppermint leaf
1 ounce rose hips
1 quart water Wildflower honey (optional)
Roughly crush all herbs. Bring water to a near boil, then pour over the herbs and allow to steep until cooled enough to drink. Consume as hot as is comfortable for drinking. Sweeten with honey if desired. As much as is wanted can be consumed. The Mormon tea is a decongestant, the rose hips are slightly astringent and anti-inflammatory and high in vitamin C, the elder flowers are slightly sedative and reduce fevers, the licorice root is anti-inflammatory and tastes good and is antiviral and antibacterial, and the peppermint helps reduce fevers and decongests and is calming. Catnip can be added to help lower fever.
Ear Infection Tincture Combination
1 ounce echinacea tincture
1 ounce ginger tincture
1 ounce licorice tincture
1 ounce red root tincture
Mix together the tinctures. Give one full dropper (30 drops) of the mixture each hour per 150 pounds of body weight until symptoms cease. Best administered in juice. Dosage should be altered for the child’s weight. Eucalyptus and sage tinctures can also be used. You can also prepare this as a glycerite or a medicinal honey.
Children’s Diarrheal Diseases
Children are also susceptible to diarrheal infections from E. coli O157:H7 bacteria and antibiotic-resistant strains of Shigella dysentariae. When they get extremely ill with these bacteria, they may also experience high fever and diarrhea. The berberine plants are the best for this.
To Lower a Fever in a Child
The best herb for lowering seriously high fevers is coral root (Corallorhiza maculata), as either a tea or tincture. One teaspoon of the root steeped in 8 ounces hot water for 30 minutes and drunk or up to 30 drops tincture for a child of 60 pounds. Brigitte Mars’s herbal tea for ear infections, with the addition of catnip, is also exceptionally effective in lowering fevers. Finally, bathing with cool water will also work very well.
Treating Diarrhea in Children
The use of a tea and tincture combination together is usually effective.
Rosemary Gladstar’s Tea for Diarrhea
3 parts blackberry root
2 parts slippery elm bark
Mix the herbs together (for example, 3 ounces blackberry root and 2 ounces slippery elm bark). Simmer 1 teaspoon of the herb mixture in 1 cup water for 20 minutes. Strain and cool. Take 2 to 4 tablespoons every hour or as often as needed.
Tincture Combination for Diarrhea
1 ounce acacia tincture
1 ounce berberine plant tincture
1 ounce cryptolepis tincture
1 ounce evergreen needle tincture
Combine the tinctures, and shake well. Give 1 full dropper (30 drops) for every 150 pounds of body weight every 1 to 2 hours in water or orange juice until symptoms cease.
A Final Note
You, more than anyone else ever will, know how you are feeling in your body. Pay close attention to how you respond to any medicines you take. If you don’t feel right when you take an herbal medicine, stop taking it.