(This post is not meant to provide instructions for making herbal teas, oil, salves, etc. It is intended to be a brief description of a variety of herbal preparations.)
Tea, Infusions and Decoctions
Almost everybody is familiar with herbal tea, and teas are common to virtually every culture. Tea as a beverage and tea as a medicine are not always the same thing, though they can be!
An infusion is made when herbs are steeped (soaked) in hot water. A decoction is made by boiling, or simmering herbs in water.
In its most simple form, an infusion is made my putting a teaspoon to a Tablespoon of herbs into a mug or tea cup, pouring on hot water and letting it steep or sit for a while, often 5-15 minutes. Nowadays most people don’t want plant parts in their tea, so tea bags, tea balls and a variety of other strainers are used to strain out the plant material. Infusions made in this way make a healthy, tasty, warming beverage.
Simple infusions like this can be warming, provide vitamins and minerals to your body and are generally healthy things to drink. They are not necessarily strong medicine, however.
Medicinal teas require more careful and precise means of preparation. The most simple preparation is much like the above infusion. You would want to use more plant material. And you want to cover the tea with a tight fitting lid while it steeps, for at least 15 minutes. This keeps the steam in. If the steam escapes, some of the medicine escapes, especially with aromatic herbs like mint where some of the medicine is in the aromatic compounds. Generally, the longer it steeps the more goodies are extracted. Steeping time can also effect taste. The longer its steeped, the stronger it tastes, but stronger doesn’t necessarily mean better! Each herb and each person is different so you just have to experiment to see what you like.
You may also encounter herb infusion recipes which call for specific amounts of herbs to be used. One of the first recipes I learned while taking a correspondence course from Dominion Herbal College over 20 years ago was this Peppermint and Elderflower tea to help bust up cold & flu viruses. Its a bit of an “old school” remedy/infusion as it is very strong and the effects are quite dramatic:
1/2 ounce dried Elderflowers
1/2 ounce dried Peppermint
(pinch of cayenne if you really want extra kick!)
3 cups of water
So you put the herbs in a vessel large enough to hold three cups of water. I most commonly use a large glass measuring cup or a coffee bodum. A bodum really works well for this. Boil the water, turn off the heat and allow the boil to settle. Then pour the hot water onto the herbs. Cover tightly with a lid and let it steep for 15 minutes or so. If I am using a bodum, I will also wrap a clean dish towel around the top, especially the spout, to keep as much of the steam in as possible. With a measuring cup I put a plate on top and cover that with a dish cloth. After 15 minutes pour the strained, warm tea into a thermos. Then, you sip half a teacupful of this every half hour until you feel yourself sweat. Then take another two half teacupfuls at half hour intervals.
This is a strong tea to help “sweat out” an infectious illness. It takes some commitment to follow through with this remedy and certainly is not for everyone. You also need to stay warm under blankets, rest and only drink warm drinks; nothing cold. The idea is to lower the temperature in a fevered body by supporting the internal processes in your body which fight infections microorganisms and by “sweating it out”. And sweat you will!! I have used this herbal tea many times to sweat out a flu. It works! Overnight!! It is powerful, however, and if you have issues with high blood pressure, heart palpitations or anxiety, this might not be the flu cure for you.
I included this recipe to give a clear example of how medicinal teas are different than beverage teas. I sell 1oz bags of tea. As beverages, these bags can make 10-16 or more cups of tea. As a Peppermint-Elderflower flu busting medicinal tea, a 1oz bag is one person’s medicine for the night!
All of this info is included about herbal teas or infusions because people often ask, “What herb is good for X condition?” And they may expect that one cup of tea will do the trick; will cure what ails them. Herbal medicine doesn’t work like that. The chamomile tea you buy in tea bags at the grocery store may taste appealing to you, it may even make you feel relaxed and help you rest. If it does, that’s great! But it won’t do that for everyone! Its not a therapeutic dose and if you are dealing with long standing anxiety and stress, one cup of chamomile tea may not do much for you, though it might; everyone is different!
Cold infusions also make nice herb teas. Cold infusion simply means that cold or room temperature water is used to make the tea, rather than hot water. Certain herbs lend themselves well to cold infusions. Herbs high in mucilage (slimy substances) are better prepared as cold infusions. Also highly aromatic herbs, or herbs with volatile essential oils, are good candidates for cold infusions.
To make cold infusions you put herbs in a glass jar, fill it up with water, put a lid on and let it sit for 12-24 hours. Or overnight works, too. You can put loose herbs in and strain them out before drinking or you can wrap the herbs up in a cloth for steeping. Cold infusions are especially nice in the summertime when you want refreshing, cooling, nutritious drinks.
Sun Teas and Moon Teas
These teas are prepared much like the cold infusions described above, but as there name suggest, they are left to steep in the warmth of the sun or the light of the moon. Steeping tea in the warm sun in the summer applies a gentle heat to the process and so is much like a hot infusion, only the heat is milder. Moon infusions are said to impart a female or femme energy to your herbal teas.
Decoctions are also made with herbs and water. Rather than being steeped, decoctions are boiled or simmered. Typically, roots and barks and hard seeds are good candidates for decoctions. The toughness of these materials means that applying warm water for an extended period of time helps to maximize what we get out of the plants. Many traditional remedies call for long simmer times.
If you are just getting started, try not to worry too much about which herbs are better this way or that way, in a cold or hot infusion or decoction. For example, peppermint is a herb that is often given as an example of a herb best suited for a cold infusion due to its essential oil content. And yet I have much more experience with it as a hot infusion. The heat will extract the essential oils and will alter them slightly. But if you keep the tea covered while steeping, not much will escape in the steam. One method is not necessarily better or worse than another; each extracts different compounds from the plants. We can get very technical and precise about extraction and preparation methods. But for casual herb use, I like to keep it simple and encourage you to experiment and work with what feels intuitively right to you.
Figuring all of this out- what herb to use, how to brew tea, how much to use and when you can expect to feel results is something your herbalist can help you figure out. When teas and dried herbs are part of our herb box, you will be given specific instructions for preparation.
Herbs can also be soaked in vinegar to extract healthful compounds from plants. Unpasteurized Apple Cider Vinegar is most often used for this, but there are other options. Vinegar excels at extracting minerals from plants and making them readily available in your body. Vinegar extracts used to be more common. Now alcohol based tinctures are more common. Alcohol extracts more medicine from plants than vinegar and the resulting product has a longer shelf life than vinegar extracts. That is why they have become more common. But vinegar extracts still have many benefits!
Vinegar extracts can be made very simply at home by loosely filling a glass jar with herbs and then pouring raw Apple Cider Vinegar on top. Put plastic lid on top (metal will react with the vinegar), let it sit in a cool, dark place for 2-6 weeks. Strain.
Vinegar extracts can be used like tinctures. You can put a teaspoon or so in water or tea to take your medicine. You can take it straight, too, but the taste doesn’t really appeal to many and straight vinegar may irritate the digestive system. I also use herbal vinegar preparations in marinades, salad dressings and as a garnish for steamed veggies. Vinegar preparations have a shelf life of 1-2 years. You can keep them in the fridge, but I often have the vinegars I use most out on the counter where I can see them. Raw Apple Cider Vinegar has health benefits all on its own, you can read all about it here.
Tinctures are herbal extracts made with alcohol, vegetable glycerin or vinegar. I discussed vinegar extracts above. And, I cover glycerin tinctures in more detail here and here. I don’t make alcohol tinctures, but they are a good option for those who can tolerate alcohol. An internet search will provide you with many instructions for making alcohol based tinctures.
So, what are tinctures? They are concentrated liquid herbal extracts. They have a much longer shelf life than teas or vinegar extracts. Well made alcohol based tinctures have an indefinite shelf life. Glycerin tinctures last from 2-5 years. I do not store my glycerin tinctures in the fridge, but you can if that gives you peace of mind. Tinctures are typically packaged in small bottles with eye droppers and the medicine is taken in “drop doses”. That just means you put drops of the medicinal liquid (the tincture) in water, juice or tea. Some people take it straight.
There are a few tincture blends I make which I have available premade most of the time. These include Elderberry, Purple Aster, Baby Fuss Ease, and Rose Heart Tincture. From time to time I make specific tinctures for the Herb Box. In this case, a description of the tincture and instructions for use are included with the Box.
Generally, I tincture each herb up individually and store them individually. Then, if you come and see me for a consultation, I may recommend a blend of herbs in tincture form which are particular to your health needs and goals. Then, I will blend the individual tinctures together for you, according to your particular needs.
The advantage and appeal of tinctures is that the medicine is more concentrated and so you can take less of it. You don’t have to brew tea all the time and because they are packaged in small bottles you can take them with you- to work, on vacation, etc.
Syrups are herb extracts made with honey. I also have instructions here for how to make herb syrups. These are most often used for cough syrups. There are other methods to make herb honey’s as well. It is recommended to store honey based syrups in the fridge. If you don’t, they may ferment. But, the ratio of honey to water affects this also. A higher concentration of honey means its safer to store outside of the fridge. The details of how much honey, etc, is best saved for another post! Honey’s have a shelf life of about a year.
I have made syrups with maple syrup before. But I found they had a very short shelf life and so I have just stuck with honey.
So now you know what a herbal vinegar preparation is and you know what a herbal honey is. Put them together and you have an Oxymel! Well, sort of!
An oxymel is a herbal preparation which combines organic, unpasteurized Apple Cider Vinegar and Honey to extract the medicine from the plants.
Oxymels, once completed and strained, can be added to herbal teas for extra flavour, added minerals (vinegar excels at extracting minerals from plants), and medicinal properties. Oxymels can also be taken straight up as a “health shot”, added to water to make flavorful drinks or used as part of vinaigrette or marinade recipes. Oxymel have vibrant and appealing flavours and for the creative chef, have many culinary uses!
Elixirs are very similar to oxymels except that elixirs use alcohol instead of vinegar. I don’t use alcohol so you won’t be getting any elixirs from me, but the name sure sounds good, doesn’t it?
Infused oils are made by soaking plant material in vegetable oils. This allows the medicinal, oil soluble molecular compounds in the plants to be extracted into the oils. Both dried and fresh plants can be used to make infused oils. Fresh plants contain moisture (water), however. If water is extracted into the oil the plant is soaking in, this can cause the oils to mould or go rancid more quickly. Extra steps need to be taken to ensure that there is no moisture in oils made with fresh plants. So, for beginners I recommend using dried plants.
The simplest way to make an infused oil is to fill up a jar with dried herbs and then pour oil overtop until the jar is filled to the top. Put a lid on tightly, and let it sit for 2-4 weeks. You can put this in a sunny window while it soaks and shake it every day or so. The sun and heat will help to draw out the medicinal compounds. There is a fancy word that herbalists use for soaking the herbs in the oil: macerating. This is the basic method I most typically use, with the exception that I measure everything by weight. This allows me to create a consistent product for sale.
Infused oils are most commonly made with liquid vegetable oils nowadays. Olive Oil is a common choice, so is liquid Coconut Oil or Sweet Almond Oil. Sunflower is another popular choice and the oil I prefer because Sunflower is a native plant species, the oil is lightweight on the skin (relatively non greasy) and high oleic acid versions of Sunflower Oil have a shelf life comparable to Olive Oil. It has also been common to infuse herbs in animal fats, though this is not so appealing to many people nowadays. In different cultures, a variety of animal fats are believed to have healing properties of their own.
Sometimes I put infused oils in the herb boxes. Often when I do, it is a blend of different infused oils and perhaps some added essential oils.
A salve is a bit like an infused oil. Except that the infused oils are blended with beeswax to make a solid product. This just makes it a bit easier to carry around as well as to apply. A solid salve is much less likely to spill in a bag or purse than a liquid oil. Salves are used as first aid ointments to treat cuts, scrapes and insect bites; to heal and prevent rashes; for topical pain relief; to aid the healing of injuries and more.
Any idea what these are? Hydrosols are aromatic, therapeutic plant waters. Sometimes they are simply called plant waters or flower waters. I label them “aromatherapy water” on my labels because now that essential oils are so popular, everyone has an idea of what “aromatherapy” is. Hydrosols, or plant waters, are made exactly the same way most essential oils are made. That is, by steaming or boiling plant material and then collecting the steam and essential oils. Hydrosols can be made by setting up a system at home with pots and lids and ice. You can find instructions for this online. You can also get distillers to make the process more efficient. I have a copper distiller. It looks like this.
Plant parts are put in the large round part at the bottom with water. Heat is applied and it all starts to boil. The steam rises and goes through the tubes or pipes. The small, cylinder shaped part cools the steam. Cold water is run through the cylinder. The steam runs through the tubes or pipes into the cylinder. When it hits the cold water, the steam turns back into water and then it runs out that hose at the bottom, through a filter and into a glass jar for collection. The water in the glass jar is aromatic and therapeutic. My distiller holds 10 litres. To make essential oils I would be better off with a 50 litre distiller or larger. And I would need specialized equipment attached to the copper pipes to draw off the essential oil. Many plant waters or hydrosols that are sold are by-products of the essential oil industry. So, when an essential oil company makes essential oils, they wind up with a lot of aromatic plant waters as a by-product. My small distiller does not separate the essential oils so the plant waters you get from me have the essential oils right in them. But you can’t really see them, except for Lavender.
Plant waters are not as concentrated as essential oils but they are much more concentrated than teas! You should not drink plant waters straight, but some of them can be added to water to make tasty drinks. One teaspoon to a glass of water is sufficient. Sweetgrass Hydrosol or plant water makes a delicious, refreshing drink. Words can’t describe what its like to drink Sweetgrass! It doesn’t taste the same as tea. Plant waters can also be used in cooking. For example, you could use Sweetgrass Water or Cedar Water as a portion of the water you use to cook rice. Sound good? It is!
The hydrosol I make the most of is Witchazel. I don’t drink this one as it is preserved with rubbing alcohol because distilled Witchazel has a short shelf life. Most plant waters have a shelf life of about 1 year and should be stored in the fridge when you are not using them regularly.
Aside from consuming them, plant waters can be sprayed. Spray them on you, spray them on the furniture, spray them in your room, spray them on your pillow! Spray them on your skin! Rose water makes a pleasant and mild facial tonic and I absolutely LOVE distilled Witchazel on my skin if I’ve been out in the sun and/or have gotten a sunburn. It is cooling and soothing and provides tremendous healing and relief to sunburns. Its an item I don’t want to be without. Sweetgrass and Cedar waters are nice sprays, too, if a smoking smudge is not a possibility for whatever reason.
Well, there you have it! Its a lot of info but I tried to be as straightforward as possible. Still have questions? Confused? Ask me! Leave a comment!