An Alioruna & Her Black Cat


A Beginners Learning Guide Herbal Preparation & Use

From Amandabhslater on Flickr via CC license
One of the most frequent questions one typically ponders when beginning to work with herbs - and the most common question I am asked when I'm out there doing a workshop or running a stand is, "What else can I do with herbs besides making tea?" Truth is, there are many ways to work with herbs. When you are finished reading this article, you'll have a new tool belt of ideas for your own herbal preparations and applications. Herbs are typically measured by the ounce or gram, depending on occupation and the country from where the herbs are being provided. In this article we are using ounces. Measuring from herb to herb will be different, which is why having a scale to weigh your herbs is very, very important. For example, the volume of dried comfrey root is going to be significantly less than the volume of dried mullein leaf. The root is much heavier and denser, where the mullein leaf is extremely light and fluffy. One pound of dried comfrey root can fit in a sandwich Ziploc bag. A pound of mullein leaf will occupy half of a large brown paper bag. That's a big difference! So always be careful to properly weigh your herbs for the correct (and safe) ratios when beginning.

Another thing to keep in mind is that not all herbs are created equal. The phytochemicals (constituents) in one herb might be signficantly more concentrated than that of another. And to take this a step further, the phytochemicals within even the same plant can often bear different levels of concentration in different parts of the same plant. For example, Petroselinum crispum, or parsley, might contain only about 22-30 ppm within the leaf, but may contain more than 36,000 ppm within the seeds.

Working with herbs is fairly easy so long as you do your homework well. The following are some other simple tips to help you on the way. Metal can often alter and/or destroy the healing constituents within your herbs, so stick with glass or some other non-metallic or teflon pan. Some herbs cannot be heated at all, and are best worked with at colder temperatures. If your recipe calls for fresh herbs, and you only have dry, be sure to half the amount. Dried herbs are dry because there is no water content, and therefore they are more concentrated. So if you need one ounce of fresh horehound herb, for example, then use 1/2 an ounce of the dried horehound. Store your herbs in a dry, dark place at room temperature - preferably in an air-tight glass container if you can. Label them by their binomial (scientific name), age, and anything else you'd like to add. Most herbs keep about a year when properly stored. Roots, bark, and other tough materials can last longer still. That pretty much covers most of the basics. Let's move on to basic preparations.

To cover the basics, let us start with a basic infusion (har har). An infusion, simply put, is a tea. Infusions are typically used for simple ails, such as for stomach complaints. Mint tea, for example is great for sluggish digestion, acid indigestion, cramping, stress, and headaches; a simple tea can help with this.

To make an infusion, use anywhere from 0.25 to 1.5 teaspoons worth of your herb, or herbal blend, to about 8 ounces of water. Boil your water, pour over your herbs in a mug, and brew for a few minutes. How long depends on how strong you want your brew; typically 5-15 minutes is pretty good.

A decoction is much like an infusion, most often for those herbs whose constituents are tougher to extract, such as roots, bark, berries, and seeds. Normally decoctions are made when one is sick. For example, a root tincture of yellow dock (Rumex crispus) to liven the liver and digestive system. Instead of drinking from a mug, you only take a swallow or two about 3-4 times a day. A decoction is much stronger than a simple brew of herbal tea (infusion). A decoction will be strong, the flavor will most likely be undesirable, but they pack a punch and can be extremely helpful to your discomfort.

To make a decoction, use approximately one ounce of herb to about a pint of water. Boil the water, place the herb or herbs in and lower your heat to a mild simmer. Cover and brew for about 20 minutes. Some brew for 30 minutes or longer - use your own discretion. Once brewing is finished, turn off your heat and allow it to cool enough to pour into a glass jar. I re-use a glass bottle from some tea I bought a while back, so that I can take a sip here or there as needed. Many use a mason jar. A decoction can store for about 3 days in the refrigerator; or about a day at room temperature.

A tincture is a highly concentrated liquid extraction of plant material through a solvent (also called a menstruum). The use of tinctures date back at least as early as 1550 B.C. in ancient Egypt. They are very effective. Most herbalists gain much experience making and using tinctures, and not surprisingly - tinctures are incredibly easy to make once you understand the fundamentals, and are extremely effective when used properly.

The three most common forms of solvents used are:
  • Alcohol. Vodka tends to be the most popularr using brandy (one of my personal favorites), whiskey, gin, rum, wine, mead (honey wine), and so forth. Most recommended is 100-proof alcohol (vodka, brandy, and gin) 0 they are the most effective. If you stray from the 100-proof, just be sure to stay away from the weird flavored alcohols. The additives will effect the quality of your tincture. The shelf life of tinctures made with alcohol are generally at their best in their first year. In good storage, they last longer. Some say they can last a lifetime. I've used tinctures older than 2 years and they were just as effective, but they were also stored properly. Use your own caution and discretion.
  • Vinegar. Many prefer raw apple cider vinegar over regular white vinegar. Most vinegar tinctures have a shelf life of about 6 months in proper storage. Some may last longer or less. Some refrigerate theirs for longer shelf life. 
  • Glycerin. Glycerin is a sweet, very thick, almost mucilaginous and clear liquid most often derived from plant fats and oils (though some also comes from animal fats - be sure to read your label). Glycerin is very nutritious, and especially soothing to irritations. Glycerins are most often used for children and the elderly since they contain no alcohol and are naturally sweet in flavor. Glycerin is a good alternative, but just remember that this menstruum does not dissolve the compounds as well as alcohol or vinegar. Either use the glycerin on its own, or add water in a ratio of 3:1, or 2:1 (2 or 3 parts of water to 1 part glycerin). Water can help extract some of the compounds of the herbs. The shelf life of glycerin tinctures isn't as long as vinegar or alcohol, but you can refrigerate it to extend the shelf life.

Most often, the ratio of an herbal tincture is either 2:1 (2 parts solvent: 1 part dried herb), or more often 3:1 (3 parts solvent : 1 part dried plant). Always know your herbs before making tinctures, so you are sure of their concentration. Additionally, if you are mixing your herbs, be aware of how much you add of each to maintain the ratios - not all herbs are created equal. Administering tincture is just as easy as the preparation of them. Either place a few drops under your tongue, or add a few drops to water, juice, or tea. This is recommended 1-3 times a day, depending on the herb or herbs you are administering, as well as the condition you are trying to heal.

To make a basic tincture, we'll start with 1 ounce of dried herb to one pint solvent (alcohol, vinegar, or glycerin). If you use fresh herbs, use 2 ounces of the herb. Place in a dark glass jar (a regular glass mason jar works well, just keep it somewhere darker). Pour the solvent over the herbs. NOTE: If you use fresh herbs, bruise them a little before pouring the solvent over them. Cover air-tight and let sit for about 4-6 weeks (2-3 weeks is ok if you need it, just be sure to shake the jar frequently - shaking once or twice a day is good practice anyway). When ready, strain well. Any leftover sediment can effect the quality of your tincture. Store it right back in the same jar if you'd like.

Another basic method for making tinctures is simple this: pour the desired amount of herb into a glass jar. Remember to bruise if they are fresh. Pour your solvent/menstruum over the herb so that they are completely covered with the solvent. Place air-tight lid on and let sit for a few weeks - consistently mixing. I don't recommend this if you are new to making tinctures as this sometimes produces a much stronger tincture. In the end, it all boils down to this one simple rule: Always know what you are working with.

Herbal Syrup
Herbal syrups are probably best known for their popularity with children - they usually taste good and soothe the spirits going down - like that "pink stuff" most of us drank as children, hehe. By definition, a syrup is a thick, viscous liquid that from a solution made up of sugar and water. This can literally come from sugar and water, or the thick, sugary liquid that originates from naturally sweet juices (such as from fruit, sap, and so on). Herbal syrups have many benefits, but most often are used to soothe a sore throat, dry or uncomfortable coughs, stomach complaints, fevers, and even the onset of illness to name a few. The sugars in the syrup help to preserve the final syrup and helps to make the herbal syrup taste better (particularly for those not uesd to herbal preparations). There are several advantages to learning how to make your own herbal syrup. The two most apparent are that you can more easily control the flavor of the syrup, and what herbs you'd like to add (and in what doses). There aren't any dyes or additives necessary for a good, homemade herbal syrup, and your options are limitless.

You may use any plant material you need: leaf, bark, root, flower, calyx, and so on. For the solvent (that is the syrup part), you may use honey, maple syrup, molasses, fruit concentrates (less common, but still good), birch syrup, agave syrup, and other tree saps or naturally derived juices. Some also use sugar and water, glycerin, corn syrup, and the like. I'm a bit more picky towards the former list, but if the latter is what's available to you, then go with it and don't beat yourself up over it. There are a few methods to making herbal syrups, and some vary based on the base your choose. You'll find that the more experience you have making syrups, the more unlimited your potential. Like cooking anything else, you'll find your own groove and portions. To get you started, here are two basic recipes:

Herbal syrup (made with sugar and water)

Regarding organic, local, and other consumer options
If there's one thing that drives me nuts, it's a pompous, holier-than-thou herbalist who puts themselves on a pedastal because they are using ultra-certified-organic-naturally-grown-uber-raw-locally-grown-best-quality-gourmet-syrup that ends up making you feel like you're doing something wrong. Indeed organic/raw/local materials is always the best way to go, especially for an end result with the best possible quality and efficacy. While I consider locally grown and non-GMO my most important preferences, I still work with what I can....and do not criticize others for their own choices. So if you do not have access to, say, locally harvested, organic/non-GMO high quality honey sold at $120 per 100 lbs., work with what you have access to and can afford. If you ask me, the most important part is knowing what you're working with, for better, mid-line, or worse - then you at least know what it is you are working with and waht to expect from them.