Preparation methods —
Herbs are prepared in many different ways all around the world.
Commonly in European herbal practice they can be taken internally as:
For the softer, aerial (above ground) part of plants like the flowers & leaves – make an infusion by steeping approximately 1 teaspoon of dried herb per cup in boiled water for about 5-10 minutes. Strain and drink. If you are using the fresh herb and depending on the water content and potency of the herb you might want to increase the amount. An approximate standard dose for taking medical herbs is to drink 3 cups per day. With all herbal teas you can get to know the plant and use your intuition and judgement to gauge strengths and doses.
For harder parts of the plants like bark, berries & roots you need to make a decoction which you do by simmering approximately 1 teaspoon herb per cup for 5-10 minutes. Strain and drink.
NB There are different approaches to infusing and decocting plants all round the world. Some traditions hold that boiling plants will damage them and they will lose their vital effect, some traditions boil all the plants, making deep decoctions. Some traditions steep plants for a long time, for many hours or overnight. So there is an invitation to try different methods and see what they feel like experientially as we get to know the plants. Above is current standard practice for European herbalism, but that tradition is a broken one which is being reconected to, and while it offers us frameworks, it also needs us to rebuild knowledge together through mindful experimentation.
Simples & Blends: Using one herb at a time is a practice sometimes known as ‘simples’. Herbs also blend really well together and work in synergy, which means their combined action has a particular potency. Some blends of European herbs are used commonly like Elderflower, Peppermint and Yarrow for feverish colds and flu. Getting to know herbs individually can be a good start and then blending them based on their medicinal/energetic properties or personal preference can be great exploration.
are herbs extracted into a liquid medium, which can be alcohol, vinegar or glycerin. Herbs are steeped in the liquid medium for approximately 4-6 weeks, the plant fibre is then strained out leaving a concentrated extract of herb. Alcohol tinctures last longest and can extract the most constituents, but if you don’t take alcohol then vinegar tinctures can be great and afford the medicine that vinegar also gives. Glycerin, a sweet vegetable sugar, makes good tinctures for kids. Folk tincture making can be pretty simple – fill a jar with herbs (like hawthorn or nettles), cover with vodka, brandy or rum etc, leve for 4 weeks and strain off. Tincture making though can be and often is an art, with different alcohol strengths drawing out different constituents of different plants. If you are making a myrrh tincture for example you will need 95% strength alcohol to draw out the resinous matter. Ethynol alcohol (96% strength) is what is used commercially for tincturing as opposed to home tincturing with alcohol at 40%. When you buy a tincture the label tells you about the strength in terms of content and extraction. The ratio you will see of 1:3 or 1:5 tells you it is 1 part herb to 3 parts medium, or 1 part herb to 5 parts medium. The percentage ie 25% or 45% tells you the medium is 25% or 45% alcohol, the rest is water. A standard therapeutic dose for tinctures in European herbal practice is to take 5ml, 3 times per day.
Fluid Extracts —
are very concentrated tinctures, usually 1:1 ratio strength.
Oxymels — from Latin oxymeli (“acid and honey”). A mixture of honey, water and vinegar heated to a syrup.
Suppositories — herbs melted into cocoa butter, hardened and then inserted into the anus.
Pessaries — herbs melted into cocoa butter, hardened and then inserted into the vagina.
Inhalation — herbs in steam, especially for lung and sinus congestions/infections. Can be placed in a bowl you lean over, your head covered with a towel, and breathe in.
And externally or topically as a:
Poultice — herbs crushed and applied directly to the skin reapplied regularly as needed.
Compress — a cloth soaked in an infusion of herbs (herbs that have been steeped in hot water) which is then applied to the skin regularly as needed.
Liniment — a mix of alcohol or witchhazel and herbs applied to the skin, usually for pain relief.
Oil — infused or macerated oil, is oil infused with herbs for use as a massage oil.You infuse or macerate herbs in what get called carrier oils (also known as base oils) which are oils pressed from nuts or seeds. These include sunflower, grapeseed, almond, apricot, sesame, olive and coconut. All theses base oils have their own medicinal and nutritive properties. Apricot is particularly good for sensitive skin, sesame seed is particularly good for dry and/or aging skin. They also have different ‘speeds’ on the skin, some glide faster while others have a slower deeper quality.
Making an infused oil, cold maceration
Fill a clean (preferably sterilised) jar with herbs and cover with a carrier oil. (If you are using fresh herbs that have a high water content you can wilt them for a little bit after picking them to let the water evaporate by spreading them out on a clean dry surface for a while. The less water there is in the oil the longer it will last before it goes off.) Let the oil infuse in a warm, even sunny, place for a couple of weeks. Strain oil from the herbs using a muslin cloth (and again through a coffee filter, if desired) to desired clarity, and store in a cool, dark place.
Making an infused oil, low heat extraction
Can take a few hours to 1-3 days. This is a relatively fast way to extract herbs in oil. Ideal for resinous herbs that are more oil/heat soluble, such as calendula. And is useful if you need an oil staight away and can’t wait for a slower maceration. But it can be too hot for some volatile, aromatic herbs, and if you’re not careful, you can fry your herbs and oxidize your oil.
The ideal temp for extracting herbs in oil is approximately 90-100 degrees fahrenheit, which can be difficult to get with standard kitchen equipment. You can make do with a low-temp crockpot or double boiler, shutting it off periodically so it doesn’t get too hot. Other methods include keeping a jar in a warm, sunny car, in a yogurt maker, or in a dehydrator.
Place 4 oz dry herb or 6 oz of fresh wilted herb and 8 oz carrier oil or enough to cover, in crock-pot or in pan on stove top. Bring to 90-100 degrees or as low as possible. Let warm gently for 2-6 hours or overnight, stirring occasionally. You may opt to turn the heat on and off periodically if your temps are higher than 100 degrees. Use caution not to cook the herbs or smoke the oil. (A warm, sunny car can range from 100-200 degrees depending on the outdoor temps, sun exposure and where you place the oil (windshield, floor, shady spot).) Strain through clean muslin, squeezing out as much oil as you can (and again through a coffee filter, if desired) to desired clarity. Store in glass in a cool, dark place.
Ointment — herbally infused oils set with bees or soya wax to form a solid base.
Making a basic ointment
Mix 10 part infused oil to one part beeswax in a heatproof glass bowl. eg 300 mls oil to 30 grams of wax.(add more wax for a thicker ointment, even more for a lip balm consistency). Place the glass bowl into a pan of water bain-marie style and warm gently until all the wax has melted. Pour while still warm into sterilised jars. Add essential oil of choice while still warm if you wish. Label clearly with the ingredients and date. Ointments can be best stored in the fridge.
Cream — herbally infused oil emulsified with water and set with some kind of wax.
Making a basic cream
Ingredients: Oils:1/2 to 1 ounce grated or smashed beeswax , 6 oz ‘liquid’ oils (grapeseed oil, herb-infused olive or sesame oil…), 2.5 oz fats (coconut oil, cocoa butter, shea butter…) and waters: 5.5 oz distilled water, vanilla extract, rose water, herbal tinctures, flower essences…2.5 oz shelf stable aloe gel or juice, optional, 1-2+ drops of essential oil of choice per jar, optional.
In a double boiler (sometimes called a Bain Marie) over low heat, combine the oils. Heat just enough to melt. Once melted, pour into a glass jar or blender. Let cool to room temperature. The mixture should become thick, creamy, semisolid, and cream colored. While the oils are cooling, combine the “waters” in a pourable container. Let warm to room temp. When both mixtures have reached room temperature, use an immersion blender or regular blender to mix the cooled “oils.” Slowly drizzle the “waters” into the whirling oils. If necessary, stop blending occasionally to mix with a spoon or spatula until everything has combined. Pour or scoop into jars with clean caps, preferably sterilized to discourage mold and bacteria growth. Store in a cool, dry place. If the cream separates, just stir it with a spoon. Creams can be best stored in the fridge.
Essential oils —
Essential oils are highly concentrated oils extracted from the plants by steam distillation, pressing or through use of solvents. They are concentrated and very powerful, and in most cases shouldn’t be used undiluted on the skin (exceptions are Lavender essential oil and for some people Tea Tree) because many others can be irritant and even burn. There are varying schools of thought on dilution strengths, depending also on what you are treating, ie long term gentler support or acute illness at higher dose, and depending on the individual oils themselves. Check oil dilution suggestions in reference books or with experienced others.
Take good care when handling the oil bottles, with consciousness that some oils are thinner than others and come out of the bottles faster. It’s wise to take care when diluting oils (by adding them to a base oil or ointment) not to add too many drops by mistake. Once you have made a dilution of essential oils in base oil or ointment it is wise to do a skin test patch before you use it on your skin. Apply a very small amount of what you have mixed/ made to the fine skin in the crook of your elbow and wait to check that there is no adverse reaction.
Foot & Hand Bath — herbs or oils in hot water that hands and feet can be steeped in.
In many cultures herbs are also applied to the body through the scalp, taken as snuff, or chewed into pulp and held between the teeth and gums, or applied to a wound with the saliva as an active component. Herbs can be smoked, and herbs can also be applied by steaming (particularly vaginal steams), and/or smoking or beating the body.
An approximate standard dose for many dried or fresh medicinal herbs as tea is to drink 3 cups per day. A standard dose for many tinctures in European herbal practice is to take 5ml, 3 times per day. Dosage varies a lot depending on tradition of the practitioner, the person’s health situation, and the kind of herb it is, some can be taken in big doses and for long term use, others in very small doses or for a limited amount of time. If you have questions or concerns check with someone experienced.
Appropriate Dosage of Herbs for Kids —
An essential part of using herbs safely with children is giving them an appropriate dosage. Below are a couple of different ways that can be used to calculate safe dosages of herbs for kids.
Clark’s Rule This rule is based on the weight of the child and assumes an adult dosage for a 150 pound adult.To use Clark’s Rule take the weight of your child and divide it by 150. For example, if your child weighs 38 pounds you would divide 38 by 150 (38/150 = .253 or 1⁄4) so your child would take 1⁄4 of the adult dosage (White et al., 1998).
Young’s rule for figuring dosage is based on the child’s age.To use, add 12 to the child’s age and divide the child’s age by this number.Here is an example for a 6 year old child: 6+12 = 18, then 6/18 = .3 from which you can calculate the fraction of the adult dosage to use. In this case 1/3 of the adult dosage (Gladstar, 2001).
The Scratch Test If you are not sure that a herb will be safe for your child (or for any adult for that matter) or have never given them a plant before and want to be cautious you can perform a scratch test.Take a small amount of the herb, tea, or tincture and gently rub it on the inside of your child’s arm.Wait for 24 hours to see if there is any adverse reaction before using the herb.